Public demand has inspired the relaunch of a Napier dining institution.
Words Jes Magill
When the Paxinos family emigrated to Napier, New Zealand from the island of Ithaca in Greece nearly a century ago, they knew the townsfolk wouldn’t go for Greek food. So, in 1928 they opened the National Café with a commitment to serving the best fish, steak, prawn cocktails and chips they possibly could. Two generations of the Paxinos family (now Paxie), did exactly that for 88 years and their public loved them for it. Fast-forward to today, and the relaunched Greek National Café is finally serving the food of its heritage, making it New Zealand’s oldest family-run restaurant.
Cousins Lance Paxie and Debbie Hooper, third generation restaurateurs, have made the ultimate tribute to their fathers Bill and Alec who ran the café for 50 years.
And to think the Greek National Café might never have opened. When Bill and Alec called time on the café in 2016 (sadly Bill passed away in 2017), they didn’t want their children taking over the business – “too much hard work,” they said. Debbie bought the building from her father, intending to rent it out.
But the public had other ideas – loyal fans couldn’t comprehend their National Café closing and kept up a pressured campaign.
It was then that Debbie and Lance, both born with the hospo gene, realised they could create something special.
Having helped in the café when he was 10, Lance is now its hospitality manager. Debbie, a former teacher, grew up in the restaurant too.
“Early on I learned how to use ingredients to create the best flavour – I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting dishes.” Cooking Greek food was new to chef Glen Verner, so while Debbie was the gatekeeper of taste, it has been a real team effort. “Glen’s played a massive role in bringing the flavours and taste to scale,” says Lance. Debbie’s husband, Kim, a former global engineer for a large food business, designed the kitchen and is also the café’s “problem solver”.
Meze dishes set the scene for a flavourful journey. Heading into the mains, the hero is a slow-cooked Lamb Kleftiko, marinated in oregano and garlic and served with crispy lemon potatoes and horta (greens). Forefathers haven’t been forgotten with loving adaptations Alec’s Porterhouse Wakanui Blue and Buddy’s Fish & Chips.
When a deputation of relatives who had grown up on Ithaca dined at the café, proclaiming the food “tastes just like back home,” it was the ultimate affirmation for this new generation.
Greek National Café; 112 Emerson Street, Napier; 06 833 6069; nationalcafe.co.nz