The Thistle Inn is the oldest pub and restaurant in New Zealand that’s still operating out of its original location. It was first built in 1840, but had to be restored after a fire in 1866.
Despite its old age, general manager Richard Walshe assures me upon arrival that The Thistle Inn isn’t haunted. It is, however, the setting of Leves Amores, a short story by Katherine Mansfield about a saucy encounter with another woman.
The Victorian-era restaurant is definitely not the first place you’d expect to host a virtual reality dining experience in New Zealand, but that’s part of the beauty of it: In the middle of this historical building that’s adorned with antique framed photos and leather-bound books, the past and future collide.
Beside a framed original copy of Leves Amores sits a VR headset, a modern storytelling device that Katherine Mansfield would have no idea what to do with.
Walshe cooked up the idea about a year ago, when he experienced a VR exhibition in Amsterdam that showed him what it was like to a live in a war-torn country.
He says the virtual experience had a big impact on him, to the point where he came back to New Zealand pondering how he could incorporate the technology into a dining experience.
After more than six months of planning and filming, the VR dining experience has been rolled out for this year’s Wellington On a Plate. Patrons who book in for lunch or dinner for $65 a head can see the journey of how a Garage Project brew of choice and a meal came to end up on their plate.
I’ve tried out a few VR experiences in my time, but I wasn’t entirely sure how wise it was to incorporate food into the mix. I was having visions of myself trying to guide a fork full of food to my mouth and missing completely thanks to the massive goggles on my head.
Rest assured, you don’t actually wear the VR headset when eating the food. Instead, you wear it twice: once prior to receiving your brew of choice, and again just before your meal.
However, what I wasn’t prepared for is the fact that it’s a full sensory experience. While I was absorbed in the video of Garage Project concocting its brews in its factory, the smell of hops filled my nostrils, while heat washed over my face.
Was that just my imagination being active after a day of craft beer bar hopping in the capital?
I didn’t have time to mull it over, as all of a sudden, a solid object had flown out of nowhere and landed in my lap. It was a beer can.
What you can’t see behind the scenes until you take the VR headset off is that the staff are busily working to ensure the experience feels real, and this includes smelling pots and various props.
In the video for the meal, as you watch the fisherman head out on his boat to catch some tuna, I was left spluttering and laughing after I got sprayed with some ‘wind’ (a fan) and salty water (a spray bottle). I even felt some sand being sprinkled over me to get the full beach experience.
When the chef was cooking up the fish in the kitchen, I could smell the miso sauce and my mouth was watering.
While the VR technology is immersive, it’s this attention to detail that creates a tactile, realistic experience – and it’s been accomplished using some Kiwi ingenuity and a couple of low-tech items.
Needless to say, when I removed the headset and saw my lunch, I was very appreciative of the chain of local businesses and people that had all played a part in getting this food onto the table in front of me.
The fast food culture we are surrounded by often makes meals seem effortlessly and readily available in the time it takes to swipe your Eftpos card, but VR dining slows this experience right down, showing every touch point along the way.
Walshe says it’s important people learn more about the back story behind their food, as it educates people on how this product has reached them.
“I don’t think people appreciate the work that goes into it and all the different elements,” he says. “This gives a small insight into the process and the effort put in.”
The video also has a few surprise references to the Thistle Inn’s colourful history. The famous lady I mentioned earlier may make an appearance, as does a well known local Maori chief.
If all goes well with Wellington On a Plate, Walshe already has a few ideas up his sleeve for new meal ideas.
The VR experience is available for groups of up to four (anymore and it becomes difficult to spray salt water and get a fan on them all), with a lot of the sessions already sold out. You can find tickets here.