With Love, From Mea (Culpa)

meaculpa whiskygirl

Auckland’s hospo bar institution and legend, Mea Culpa, has recently changed hands. I went to chat with the new owners about what the future might hold for one of Auckland’s most loved late night bars.

We used to say if on a bad day you ended up at Mea Culpa and on a good day you started there, then everything was going to be okay. Mea Culpa (Mea to her friends) is the cosy bar just shy of the Ponsonby and Franklin Road corner. Here I’ve celebrated victories and commiserated on heartbreaks; my own and others at the end of this narrow bar. My preference is always the far end, close to the whisky shelf and where former owner Tim would happily spend a bit of conversation. Not just Tim, but Calem, Craig, Cam, Hannah, and Kate… and so it goes. A long list of Auckland’s shining stars of hospitality have tread the narrow path of the Mea backbar.

But as all things do, they change and the era that saw Mea Culpa win numerous industry awards from those who love and claim her has passed to new, industrious hands. I popped in to have a chat to Jason and his (new) motley crew of drinkslingers.

I arrive while Jason is unpacking a few whisky bottles to the top shelf and so we’re off to a good start and while it’s a lovely distraction, it’s not really whisky that I want to talk about. I’m interested in the future of a bar that has been known and loved by Auckland hospitality folk for more than a decade.

In fact, Jason (or Montreal as he’s occasionally known) has been drinking at Mea for over ten years, alongside many of Auckland’s finest bartenders and hospitality personalities. It’s just that kind of bar that features approachable conversation, a great selection of beverages and good quality chat. Why wouldn’t you want to buy it?

Montreal is emphatic that the incumbent quality of Mea Culpa won’t be lost. ‘This is somewhere you go to have a great drink and you’ll have a great chat and meet someone else along the way. The ideal scenario is that all 15 seats get to meet each other over the course of an evening. This is a place where you meet people,’ he says.

Whisky Sour... with pinot noir soaked cherry.
Whisky Sour… with pinot noir soaked cherry.

So far it sounds like the Mea that I’ve always known and loved. A place that oozes with genuine warmth, where bartenders are always happy to see you and engage in some friendly conversation but never at the cost of the quality of the cocktail or drink in front of you. It’s the perfect place to drink sans company, because the personality behind the bar will ensure you make friends, should you so desire.

It’s clear the intention is to maintain this friendly balance between neighbourhood local and bar nerd haven. In nearly the same breath as describing the lock’and’key cabinet that is soon to arrive for housing the real bar-geek memorabilia, Jason is sharing his philosophy of conversation and community, ensuring people meet one another in friendly and casual ways. It’s a philosophy that business partners Ben and Darren agree with. As we speak, Darren is tending bar, bringing that philosophy to life with a couple of American tourists and highlighting other local hotspots.

There’s something delightful about the openness with which Jason and Darren share the love of hospitality that has drawn them  out of regular 9-5 gigs (Mea joins the family of Revelry, just a little more south on Ponsonby Rd). Both Gav and Jonny from Revelry will now share duties at Mea, which makes it a family affair, beside a second full-timer, Jeremy. The pedigree is high, with more than 25 combined years in some of the world’s best bars from the United Kingdom, Melbourne and further afield behind the bar.

Revelry has embraced a global cocktail bar trend towards great storytelling – this will continue at Mea Culpa, including bringing variations from that global experience to Auckland. And why not? Mea Culpa is exactly that bar – where conversation is a story starter and stories feed the crowd all night long. I’m excited to see cocktail bars in Auckland following international trends of investment in stories, ingredients and presentation – it can only be better and better for the industry and therefore the punter long-term. Bring on pine tinctures and recycled organics.*Point of order: Mea Culpa’s robust reuse-recycle programme will remain intact.

And I’m excited, as always to discover rich new talent behind the bar. Darren and Jonny are currently competing in Diageo World Class; another indication of the seriousness with which they take their profession. Rightly so – Mea Culpa has won Outstanding Bar at the Lewisham Awards (voted by industry) twice in the last three years.

Food will be enlivened and refreshed – the advantage of having a big sister kitchen up the road, and the cocktail menu will change out regularly in a ‘pay homage then twist’ routine of cocktail classics. The team promise to deliver their fair share and some of bartending geekery, scouring old cocktail books for recipes worthy of rejuvenation and the best local, delicious ingredients that can be found. Current favourites include the Sherry Negroni or Darren’s World Class entry ‘the Wilde Rover’.

If Mea Culpa has been a hospo bar for the last ten years, then certainly being part of the Revelry family can’t hurt. Revelry boasts an impressive internal training programme including in-house competitions that ensure the team are on the sharp edge of ingredient preparation, invention, innovation and presentation, which in the case of Mea Culpa works out well. The pinot-noir soaked cherries adorning the Whisky Sour this week are to die for… and easily foraged from your local Nosh market. Hipster keyword = check. Delicious drink-enhancing ingredient = check.

It’s always a pleasure to talk to an owner who loves what they do and sharing it with people. It’s obvious that Mea Culpa has passed into the hands of passionate people. It’s also obvious that under their guidance, Mea will continue to be the place bartenders and hospo crew call home late nights and after hours. And for the regular punter, there’s this assurance.. never forget the bars with the most bartending nerdery are the ones most excited to take you on a journey and teach you everything you know. In a strange twist of affairs, the places that may seem the most intimidating almost always house the most welcoming of staff.

I recommend visiting at least one a week for the next month to experience the joy of the classic it, twist it menu variation but most importantly to make new friends with Darren, Jeremy and Jonny. Jason says he may even make a special appearance from time to time, alongside some other very special guests. Which makes the moment really – because what is Mea if not the very place that guests become family and so it goes.

I’m personally excited for the new lease of life behind an institution and that Mea Culpa (my fault, literally) rests in the hands of people who are professional and passionate. I visited mid-week and returned for the weekend ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ celebrations. I smashed the ‘Five Brothers’ Manhattan variation (using Rittenhouse Rye) which I loved for its perfect balance. It’s a drink that Gav brought with him from Orchid, in Aberdeen. I look forward to the new team learning my name and pushing the boundaries of creativity and imagination.

But mostly? I look forward to breathing easy and knowing this Ponsonby Road institution and home away from home, is only going to become more special in the near future.

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