Fiddle at the Griddle
The Hi Diddle Griddle was once considered Auckland’s “plushest nightclub”. Opened in 1952, it introduced an alternative for cosmopolitan adults: a restaurant with live music. The owner was a man-about-town called Jim Jennings who had an obscure background: some thought he was an American expatriate, a South Pacific beachcomber who had ‘washed ashore’ after the war. Billy Farnell was certain he was from Tauranga. But he knew how to set up a room with class. Situated at 507 (‘food from heaven’) Karangahape Road, hospitality pioneer Otto Groen could be seen cooking in the window; chicken-in-a-basket made a change from colonial goose. On the dimly lit walls inside were black velvet murals of Polynesian maidens and a mythical Pacific, painted by Kristen Zambucka.
The Hi Diddle Griddle had no dance floor and a tiny stage that showcased small combos led by Lew Campbell, Crombie Murdoch and Nancy Harrie. It would open late, and close even later – sometimes 4.00am – and visiting musicians such as Nat King Cole might drop in. Late in the 1950s, Paul Lestre – a reed player and violinist from the East End of London – began a residency that led to the 1959 album A Night at the Hi Diddle Griddle, with pianist Lyall Laurent, bassist Bob Ofsoski and the city’s leading jazz guitarist, Ray Gunter. The Hi Diddle Griddle inspired many other venues offering food garnished with music.
A couple of items from A Night at the Hi Diddle Griddle were featured in today’s episode of the Blue Smoke radio series, which has been running each weekday on Radio NZ National at 10.30am. For a few days more, the episode can be heard at the Radio New Zealand website. One song from the Lestre album, George Shearing’s ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ is on YouTube.