The pasta is great, but it’s the home baking that has cemented the reputation of Queenstown’s Pasta Café as the best free feed in town.
True, it is probably the only free feed, but while many more well known and sophisticated venues have struggled to survive in the resort, the Pasta Café has this year notched about 20 years of feeding locals.
It started out as a weekly dose of carbohydrates for hungry ski workers, many of whom were arriving in town to find no snow, no work and no pay.
Every Friday night for six weeks a large group of church volunteers would cook up big pans of steaming hot pasta, bake trays of treats, provide live music and cheerful company to all comers.
* Room review: The Dairy, Queenstown’s eccentric new hotel with bottomless happy hour
* Café run by teenagers serves life lessons and great food
* Queenstown’s Pasta Cafe will fill 300 hungry stomachs a night for free
When ski season was under way busloads of ski workers would be dropped off on their way down the mountain, migrant workers, backpackers and curious locals joined them.
Pastor (or is that Pasta?) Ian Guy said at its peak the Wakatipu Presbyterian Church volunteers were serving up to 400 meals a night.
“Some of those people were doing it pretty tough. We thought it was a way we could help make it easier and offer a little bit of old-fashioned home cooking and hospitality.”
It went beyond the food.
There was the one-woman welcoming committee of Joan Cooke who provided free hugs to all.
“The young ones loved it,” Guy said. “Some of the young guys would line up to get their hug before they went home.”
There was also a stunning collection of international flags representing the cosmopolitan mix of visitors.
In August 2017, as their home of Barcelona was being bombed by terrorists, a group of workers came together at the café where they were emotional but pleased to spot the Catalonia flag among the collection.
“They were really upset, and they asked me to pray for their city. One of them still lives in our community and still comes to the café with his family.”
Like most businesses, the cafe has been forced to change and adapt in recent years.
First there was a move from central Queenstown to the suburb of Frankton, largely because of the health and safety issue of carrying large, heavy pots of pasta up a staircase, but also narrow due to a changing audience.
Nighttime skiing had started and many of the regular customers were still working on the mountain at night, but families were finding their way to the café.
The arrival of Covid-19 accelerated that as many migrant workers were forced to leave the country, and families were finding it harder to make ends meet.
“There’s often one or two families that just can’t afford to take their families to a restaurant, but they can do this. Even McDonald’s is expensive for a family,” Guy said.
There were also a couple of homeless men who popped in.
“There’s one chap who sleeps in his car, and he’s been with us for a long time. He came in last week and got a feed and so did his dogs as it turned out.”
Traditionally funded by the church with occasional gifts via a Givealittle page, the café has been supported recently by the food-rescue charity Kiwi Harvest and was provided with funding by the newly established Te Hau Toka Southern Lakes Wellbeing Group this year.
That has enabled volunteers to serve more than 25,000 meals to nearly as many people in the last 20 years.
“Some deliberately come looking for something spiritual, but most people just come for the company, and music and food,” Guy said.
Retiree Henry Wong has been a regular for years.
“I like to mix with people. It’s very easy going, and I can sit anywhere.
“I just ask people ‘can I sit down and join in?’ and they always say yes.”
Zara Kingsbury-Hale, and her Department of Conservation worker husband Owen Hale have been visiting the café since their oldest son Robbie, now 9, was a baby.
“We like pasta. We like to meet with all our friends,” Robbie said.
Younger brother Callum, 6, was in for the sweat treats.
They meet up with a regular group of friends and enjoy a free night out in a safe environment. There’s a toy box and coloring and plenty of room to run around.
It is a part of Queenstown that people don’t often see, Hale said.
“There’s always that focus on tourism and business and the commercial side of things. This shows there’s still that heart here.”
Adrian and Gemma Hoddinott, visited with Eli, 8, and Sammie, 6, for the first time on Friday night.
Usually they were night skiing on Friday, but after dreadful weather closed the mountain, they took the opportunity to pop in for a feed.
“It’s pretty iconic,” Adrian said.
“I think it’s easy to think of Queenstown is a commercial beast, and it is. This just shows that Queenstown is a really awesome community as well.”
And then there is the home baking.
Creamed cinnamon oysters on some nights, chocolate brownies, lolly cake and brandy snaps were included last week.
If that is not enough to keep the locals returning – the price point is perfect. Because, as they say – a penne saved is a penne earned.