DUNEDIN’S HISTORIC DINING ROOM

Once considered the finest dining room interior in the Southern Hemisphere, Tudor Hall in Dunedin’s Savoy Restaurant features dark English oak paneling and a magnificent English oak and Oamaru stone fireplace surrounded by lead lights and stained glass windows.

After almost a century, the Savoy continues to enrich Dunedin life.

Savoy Mirror (restauranthub.co.nz)

ENGLISH STYLE

Farming lad, Philip Barling emigrated from England to New Zealand where he found casual work around the North Island before moving to the thriving city of Dunedin to manage the Vacuum Oil Company. About 1910 he began a tearooms and two years later decided to develop a major English style restaurant to be called the Savoy. With its oak panelling, brass chandeliers, paintings and open fires, this soon became Dunedin’s top restaurant. Its Somerset Lounge, Warwick Room, and Tudor Hall indicated his love for things British. There were impressive restaurant decors similar to Dunedin’s Savoy in other New Zealand cities, especially in Auckland and Wellington, but these have long gone making the Savoy even more important as a survivor of the expensively fitted out eateries from the first three decades of the 20th century.

A DAY OUT

As part of rapid urban developments in the 1850s and 1860s, particularly in Auckland and Dunedin, restaurants, dining rooms and cafes sprang up catering to both the working class and the more affluent citizens of these cities. The dining rooms in particular were focal points for female shoppers to meet and enjoy each other’s company at a time when women went to town in the finest clothes to impress those around them and to also show they were successfully making a new life in the young colony. These women were attracted to eateries with fine interiors which endorsed their social climbing ambitions. I was surprised to discover while researching this blog that there were even vegetarian cafes offering healthy food! Dunedin also boasted a number of Chinese restaurants to cater to its sizeable number of Chinese citizens who set up businesses there after the Otago gold rushes. In fact, since the late 1890s, Dunedin citizens have had a choice of interesting eateries to choose from. They weren’t restricted to tough meat with peas and potatoes that was standard fare in most of the eating establishments across the country at the time.

LANDMARK BUILDING

The Savoy Restaurant building was constructed in 1914 and has a striking ornamental façade featuring round headed windows with prominent keystones and a lantern dome on an ornamental drum over the corner section. The building was carefully proportioned to suit a corner site and is just one of the many historic buildings that are now an important selling point for Dunedin in travel circles. The original owner of the building was Daniel Haynes, partner of the former drapery firm DIC Limited. During my teens, the DIC which was next to the Savoy building was one of the main attractions in the city, especially the music department which had a number of listening booths and was a great place to meet other teens and to listen to music and chat. It was a pickup place for older teens too.

Savoy Building (heritage.org.nz)

Dawsons Jewellers, with its walnut showcases and oak display tables, echoing the splendid fittings in the restaurant on the floor above, originally occupied the ground floor corner of the building which is still occupied by a Jeweller’s shop.

IDEAL LOCATION

This fine building was the perfect location for a glorious restaurant so Philip Barling opened the Savoy Grill Room on the top floor then added the Warwick Room.  In 1923, he extended the eating area by opening the Tudor Hall, followed by the Clarence Room. The plush Elizabethan décor included imported light fittings and reproduced antique design furniture. Despite fires in the restaurant between 1967 and 1970 the interior has remained virtually the same but it does not attract the large number of guests which it had during the 1920s and 1930s when a bite to eat at the Savoy was the highlight of a trip to town for many Dunedinites.

Savoy Interior Today (etrusco.co.nz)

PERSONAL MEMORIES

As a young boy growing up in Dunedin, I still have fond memories of my sister and me going with our grandmother, when she visited Dunedin, to the Savoy for a ‘high tea’. We felt in the lap of luxury sitting on padded chairs on thick pile patterned carpet surrounded by magnificent mirrors on polished wooden panelled walls. The lighting was supplied by clusters of lamps placed on the columns dotting the interior. The waiters glided around the tables gently placing plates of goodies in front of us. I remember how quiet the place was. There was no loud chatter. The music was subdued and even the table conversations were conducted quietly. It was all about class and sophistication. As a teenager, I had a few dinners at the Savoy with friends and even though we wanted a more exciting environment, we still appreciated the upmarket atmosphere only the Savoy could provide. At that time, the Savoy was popular for wedding receptions, school balls and corporate dinners. When I returned from a number of years overseas, I was asked to be guest speaker at a corporate dinner to talk about my time with the BBC. The Savoy hadn’t changed and it was great to again enjoy the special atmosphere I had first experienced as a small boy with my grandmother and sister.

In the late 1970s, the Savoy was in a dilapidated state due to lack of patronage. There was a fear that the ‘grand old lady” of Dunedin’s eateries was going to disappear. Fortunately, Stewart Clark, a local businessman, saw the potential and purchased it.  He spent money on a sympathetic refurbishment and the Savoy re-opened as the Etrusco Italian Restaurant.

To me the glorious Elizabethan decor is an attraction in itself.

It would be great if the current owners return to selling “high teas” as tea rooms are again becoming trendy in places like Paris, London and even in American cities. It would definitely be a unique tea room and one I’m sure that would appeal to the growing number of tourists to the southern city looking to experience the colonial history Dunedin is noted for.

Ceidrik Heward

Ceidrik Heward is an Amazon TOP SELLING AUTHOR and has lived and worked in 7 countries working as a TV cameraman, director and film tutor. For the past 17 years he has focused on writing and has been published in magazines and newspapers in Europe, USA, Asia and the Middle East.
His interests include photography, psychology and metaphysics. He loves to read and always has at least 3 books on the go. He has written 22 manuals/books and has just completed his 4th short novel. Ceidrik believes sharing information and stories is the best way to stimulate the imagination and enrich our lives.

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