Christchurch's Foundation Café may be, in fact, a library cafe. But the food, atmosphere and history you'll find there exceed the expectations that term conjures.
When you hear the words “library café”, it’s likely that you’re not particularly inspired. Often it can feel like cafés within libraries are added almost as an afterthought - they’re an incidental part of a bigger thing, with passable coffee and a utilitarian menu. Yet on the ground floor of Christchurch’s Tūranga library, Foundation Café rebuffs this with aplomb; its colourful atmosphere and rousing menu certainly do enough to prove itself as a legitimate contender among CBD eateries, even without leaning on the library.
Much of the library’s architecture was inspired by the stargazing of the navigators who first set foot on New Zealand, and that sense of (literal) space continues through to the open and roomy layout of Foundation. The design also leans on the warm colours of wood - a reference to the similarly warm colours of the port hills - while local art hangs on the wall. Nestled amid the magazine section, the organic flow from the library to the café means that a comfortable sense of community lingers.
Even before you have the chance to look at a menu, the cabinet food has a striking variety from the café essentials of (very, very good) scones and sandwiches, to the more indulgent treats of friands and almond croissants. “Everything’s made from scratch on site, including the breads and pastries,” the enthusiastic maître d'-of-sorts reminded us (with the single exception of the croissants, which were from delicious local spot, German Master Baker).
The menu itself appeals to both brunch-goers and more casual diners, with a “small plates” menu featuring a hummus platter, or fried cauliflower florets, among the usual suspects of fries and calamari.
Our breakfast plate, and roast mushrooms - from the regular brunch menu - were beautifully presented. The breakfast plate had great textural variety with the crunch of the granola contrasting with the soft fruits and onion jam - exactly what you want. The roast mushrooms in particular stood out though; considering that “creamy mushrooms” are a part of most brunch menus, the added extras in this one, like “porcini dust”, were appreciated elements that can really punched the dish up a level. The chefs also managed to balance that fine line between the creaminess of the mushroom sauce and the taste of balsamic - in many cafes and eateries you'll be hit with a tart punch of balsamic far too hard - but here they really nailed it.
From local roastery Prima, the coffee is strong and smooth. The barista station has even forgone milk bottles - they have literal milk taps - a testament to their commitment to churning out top quality flat whites.
The library it itself is named Tūranga (the maori name for the modern-day Gisborne region). It stands in the north-east corner of Whitirea (Cathedral Square), as Gisbourne stands in the north-east of New Zealand. Paikea, a legendary ancestor of Ngāi Tahu (the principal Māori iwi (tribe) of the South Island of New Zealand), lived in a house named Whitirea, which stood in the original Tūranga - modern-day Gisborne, so the name serves as a kind of cyclic homage to Ngāi Tahu ancestry.
This idea of paying homage to the iwi’s origins clearly comes through in the name Foundation, which also draws on the role of a library and café as being foundational centers of learning, eating and community. There is also, of course, the connotation that Christchurch looks to its foundations as it continues to rebuild - the original Central Library was closed after the 2011 earthquakes, and Tūranga - its replacement - overlooks the iconic Cathedral as it undergoes renovation.
A warm spot with a tangible sense of community, Foundation is also fully licensed and an equally ideal spot for an alcoholic beverage as it is a coffee - something you won’t find in every library.
It feels a little unfair to talk about Foundation simply in terms of Tūranga; the library is as much attached to it, as it is attached to the library.
60 Cathedral Square
Christchurch Central City