Alma Mater

More please: an eatery designed by Jack McKinney has much to offer.

Alma Mater

More please: an eatery designed by Jack McKinney has much to offer.

Alma is the culmination of many things – a passion for the cuisine of southern Spain and its Moorish influences, of enduring creative and professional relationships, and of making a heritage building relevant in the contemporary hospitality scene of Britomart, Tāmaki Makaurau. 

That the restaurant opened in the disarray of a pandemic is brave but, after three years in gestation, further delays weren’t a palatable option. And for anyone more than ready to feel transported to someplace else, Alma does that with bold design moves by Jack McKinney and Andalusian-inspired cuisine by head chef Jo Pearson.  

McKinney has a long-standing collaborative relationship with Pearson and Jackie Grant, formerly of Hip Group. He designed Amano for them – a landmark eatery a block along from Alma. (Grant sold Hip Group in April; Pearson, Grant and Natasha Parkinson now own Alma.)

“It’s a great space but we didn’t want to mimic Amano, we wanted to be totally different,” says McKinney, who has achieved that within the confines and quirks of a heritage building by introducing strident colour and pattern. 

“The risk was with how it was all going to come together, to be serene and not madcap,” says McKinney. “Raw terracotta is a defining materiality and the Moorish, tiled surfaces felt right – a reinterpretation from afar, a bit of a fantasy of Spanish elements.”

For Pearson, the design brings together elements of the tapas bars of southern Spain that she fell for in her early twenties. “I love Spanish and Moroccan food and when I went to Spain at 23, the south got to me – the generosity of it. The food is about being sociable and there’s an emphasis on provenance. It’s fun that they take food quite seriously.” 

The fire needed to be centre-stage. As well as being key to Pearson’s food – “You can’t get any simpler than cooking over fire and the challenges it comes with,” she says – it needed to represent the importance of the old hearth in a homestead.

Pearson describes the kitchen, which she designed in conjunction with McKinney and Parkinson, as one she’d have in her home. “It’s open and engaging so there’s a lot of conversation with customers. It’s a relaxing and easy-going space to work in.”

The dining room places emphasis on furniture and the tactile elements with which customers engage. The handmade tiles by Fornace Brioni are imprecise, rendering their crafted nature. Blurring the boundaries in this glassy space is a banquette that’s based on a park bench – it’s another element in this cheerful destination that introduces a sense of fun.

The long, narrow restaurant pinches in the middle where the design had to accommodate an old safe (there’s one of every level of the heritage building) and is now a walk-in chiller. While the heritage building threw up its challenges and resulted in a few design iterations, Pearson believes Alma is better for its inherent complications. “Jack has such a great understanding of what we want to achieve and it’s an organic process. We gave him free rein to have fun with it. We wanted to nod to Andalusia without being kitschy, to nod to Spain without being too Spanish.”

As McKinney so accurately sums up: “It turned out pretty sweet.”

Alma
130 Quay St, Britomart, Tāmaki Makaurau
alma.nz

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