If you were to rank the most romantic restaurants in Auckland, Candela would surely be high on the list. The Karangahape Road restaurant and bar has all the trappings of a desirable date-night spot, with candle-lit tables, moody interiors and a warm, inviting atmosphere.
You could argue that the restaurant itself acts as a conduit for romance. After all, its owners, chef Matt Ross and manager Leola King, ended up dating soon after opening the restaurant in December 2020. Despite a pandemic forcing them to close for much of that time, Candela has built up a loyal following, establishing itself as one of K’ Road’s most popular dining destinations and one of the best Spanish restaurants in Auckland.
The restaurant was the brainchild of Ross, a Kiwi chef who has worked his way around kitchens in New Zealand, Melbourne, Spain and Israel. Before returning to New Zealand, Ross spent two years in Spain working as a private chef, spending most of his time in Barcelona. “What I loved about Spain is the whole late-night vibe,” Ross says. “It wasn’t just about the food, or the drinks, but the whole experience of going out. I thought that would work really well in Auckland.”
Through a mutual friend, he met King, and the two set about creating their own slice of Spain in the heart of K’ Road. Inheriting a venue with minimal natural light, they decided to lean into the intimacy of the space and create something reminiscent of Barcelona’s late-night tapas bars. “Emphasis on the lighting and textures was really important,” explains King. “We had to take into consideration the narrow space as well. So we wanted to keep the ceilings really high, keep it warm and utilise every aspect of the venue.”
Ross designed his dream kitchen, equipped with a one-of-a-kind charcoal oven, while King, an expert in wines, turned an old cupboard under the stairs into her dream wine cellar. The space is designed so that the bar is the centre of the venue, acting as the bridge when it transitions from dinner service to late-night bar. “The bar has added to the nightlife aspect of it. It means that we’ve got the space to offer a big selection of wines, cocktails and sherries,” says King.
The two spent last year’s lockdown dreaming up plans for a restaurant expansion, which they have now opened. Located in the back of the venue and featuring a sunny outdoor balcony, the new space, Barcita, functions in three different ways: for private dining and events; as a bar with a Barcelona-style snack menu; and as a late-night venue where revellers can enjoy drinks and live music until the early hours.
If there’s one thing the Spaniards know well, it’s dining out. Arguably their biggest culinary export, tapas, is built around the sharing of food with drinks. That conviviality is central to the service at Candela, spearheaded by King who manages front of house.
Starting out in hospitality at the age of 14, she quickly moved her way into a management role at Britomart’s Ebisu restaurant, where she learned much of the fundamentals of hospitality and developed a passion for wine. Moving to Melbourne, she further delved into the world of wine and saké, working at a number of top Japanese establishments, including Future Future. King credits her experience in the Japanese dining space for cultivating her approach to hospitality. “That style of hospitality is so deep and emotional in Japanese culture. It takes it further than just serving food and drinks, but creating an atmosphere that feels warm, inviting and where people feel like they’re looked after.
“That’s a big part of what I do and how we hire staff at Candela. When we recruit people, we look for that warm, inviting personality and that passion for service. Coming from fine dining and then this being a more casual space, we’ve tried to find the balance between fine dining and a more relaxed feel. The service for wine is very much fine-dining style, but you won’t find people wearing pressed white shirts and aprons. We are on K’ Road so we’ve got that funky aspect, too.”
When creating the wine list, King knew she wanted to put the focus on Spanish and Portuguese wines. “I wanted to open people’s eyes to the amazing wines that these places offer,” she says. “It was a bit of a risk because people were very unfamiliar with a lot of the varieties. So what I did was match some of the common grape varietals with a Spanish option.”
As for the food, Ross’s international credentials and love for Spanish cuisine are evident in every dish. “For me, Spanish food is not limiting. There are a lot of wines that can match Spanish food. There’s lots of spice and chillies. We also have a Peruvian influence as well.”
Ranging from small bites to larger dishes, the food at Candela is flavoursome, fiery and skillfully executed. Ross describes it as his own “twists” on Spanish classics. Familiar dishes such as patatas bravas, jamón ibérico and pork empanadas pay homage to their culinary roots, while cooking over charcoal has enabled Ross to inject a smoky punch into the restaurant’s show-stopping dishes, such as grilled octopus paired with saffron whipped potato and paprika crumb, and grilled cabbage with ajoblanco and chilli jam. Ross says cooking in New Zealand, compared with Europe, demands a more seasonal approach, leading him to consider each ingredient on the plate, while still striving for a level of authenticity.
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