Kiwis spend more than $9 billion eating out each year. That is igniting a boom in new restaurants and dining precincts — and a cut-throat battle for your dining dollar.

Last year, hungry Kiwis spent almost $9 billion on dining out, mainly handed over at cafes and restaurants, takeaway outlets and bars.

Since 2011, spending on eating out has rocketed by nearly $2.5b. And it is expected to continue to rise at a rate of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to the Restaurant Association of New Zealand.

In recent years, the trend has been for quality eateries to group together in fashionable dining precincts. And Aucklanders are already spoiled for choice.

Ravenous punters regularly pack out the likes of Britomart, the Viaduct, Wynyard Quarter and Federal St - and trendy food precincts outside the city centre, such as Ponsonby Central, have become eating hot-spots.

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However, not just the City of Sails reports an increased appetite for dining out.

Three New Zealand regions now have annual sales for eating out in excess of $1b a year: Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Further afield, regions such as the Bay of Plenty and the Waikato are also reporting a spend increasing by more than 11 per cent annually.

Now, the cut-throat battle for the Auckland dining dollar is about to get even more fierce.

The Herald on Sunday can reveal foodies have a new $9.1 million dining lane to look forward to at Sylvia Park, the country's biggest shopping centre.

Called The Grove, the lane will open in December and feature a signature dining pavilion and six new restaurants, as well as a new town square and extensive landscaping.

Notably, the Britomart Hospitality Group has signed as tenants at the mall, which attracts more than 12.6 million visitors a year.

The group will be bringing known brands Mexico and Better Burger to Sylvia Park.

This is the property company's first foray into shopping centres and signals how modern consumer tastes are changing.

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Karl Retief, general manager of retail portfolio for the owners of Sylvia Park, Kiwi Property Group, is confident The Grove will quickly become a popular destination to rival the likes of Ponsonby Central, Wynyard Quarter and other urban precincts.

"Unlike other major cities, Auckland lacks strong dining and entertainment precincts outside of the city so The Grove is set to lead the way," he says.

"In addition to a great dining expansion, our plans showcase a world-class public space where the community will be able to go to relax, unwind after a busy day or be entertained with family and friends."

Nick McCaw from the Britomart Hospitality Group reveals the company has invested more than $1m to put Mexico and Better Burger into The Grove.

"It is a big commitment for us," he says.

"It is fantastic for an independent and Kiwi-owned fast food outlet like Better Burgers to be involved when they could have put an international conglomerate in there."

An artist's impression of the new Grove at Sylvia Park.
An artist's impression of the new Grove at Sylvia Park.
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he new mega-precinct planned for Sylvia Park is a reflection of how significantly modern society and consumer tastes have changed in the past decade.

Increasingly New Zealanders are regularly eating out during the week - day and night - either casually or informally, making it no longer simply a treat for weekends and special occasions.

This is partly due to food being on trend in the widest possible sense.

Food imagery is shared on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. And the focus on food on TV in programmes such as My Kitchen Rules and MasterChef is also helping drive this food obsession.

Food has always been an integral part of social interaction for business, family, and friends. But we are now seeing the cafe become the new meeting room and the restaurant the new formal lounge.

Consumers want relevant food they can identify with. As we become more globally connected and well-travelled, the demand has grown for having what we had over there, over here.

Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois believes The Grove at Sylvia Park will raise the bar even further.

"The food business is ruthless and there is huge competition for the Kiwi dining dollar," she says.

"The average lifespan of a hospitality business in New Zealand is just three years, so anyone getting into this industry has to be continually and consistently on the top of their game or they will quickly be in trouble."

Because our population is increasing and visitor numbers are up, Bidois says, the demand for quality food and a quality dining experienceare only going to continue to grow.

She points out the total number of employees in the hospitality industry now exceeds 113,000 - growing at an annual rate of 4 per cent.

More than 62,000 people are employed in restaurants and cafes in New Zealand.

"In the past five or six years Kiwis have been dining out a lot more than they used to and local cafes and restaurants have now become meeting places and are part of our social fabric," she says.

"The Grove will be another development that will set a new level of quality for dining out for shoppers, and that others will probably feel compelled to match."

Nick McCaw, left, CEO Better Bruger, and Rod Ballenden, General Manager Better Burger, with their new premises about to open in Britomart. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Nick McCaw, left, CEO Better Bruger, and Rod Ballenden, General Manager Better Burger, with their new premises about to open in Britomart. Photo / Jason Oxenham
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imon Gault is former executive chef of the Nourish Group, a collection of multi-award-winning restaurant brands.

The Nourish stable includes Euro Bar & Restaurant, Fish and Jervois Steakhouse in Auckland, Bistro Lago in Taupo, Jervois Steak House in Queenstown and Shed 5, Pravda and The Crab Shack in Wellington and Auckland.

Gault is opening a new restaurant at Auckland's Viaduct in June. He believes the trend for eateries to band together in the same location is only going to continue.

"Some restaurant owners might think a well-known chef opening near them will take away all their business, but that is not true," he says.

"When you have neighbours offering quality food, it creates real traction for the area, as happened at the Viaduct.

"It is not the little guy who needs to worry, it is the bad operators - because nowadays people just won't accept low-quality food when they are eating out."

Gault believes the introduction of a lower drink-driving limit in recent years has also fuelled the trend for Kiwis to combine entertainment options and dining at the one centre.

"When I started out people would travel quite a long way to eat at my restaurant Bell House at Howick Village," he says.

"But the tough new drink-drive laws mean they now only want to go a short distance.

"It makes sense to offer them a selection of good restaurants in the one location if they are also going there to maybe do some shopping and take in a movie or go to a concert.

"The competition is fierce and it is only going to get tougher but that means it is the customer who will be the winner."

Food critics agree eating out has become a new Kiwi obsession and expectations about the quality of the whole experience have been raised accordingly.

Veteran food writer Lauraine Jacobs believes the days are numbered for shopping malls and entertainment centres hosting "mom and pop" food operators.

"In the past food courts tended to attract small, individual operators and would offer pretty basic fare," she says. "The move at Sylvia Park sounds like a clever one as it will hold people longer at the shopping centre.

"I doubt a move like this will mean the end of the traditional neighbourhood restaurant but people's expectations about food are changing.

"If anything, it is people's home cooking skills that will be the loser as there are now so many options to eat out well at an affordable price."

But not everyone thinks facilities such as The Grove at Sylvia Park will be a guaranteed winner.

"It is certainly the case that, with a few conspicuous exceptions, all the good dining in Auckland is to be found within a few kilometres of the CBD, but that may be because that is where the demand is," Herald on Sunday restaurant reviewer Peter Calder says. "Out in the suburbs, the numbers just don't add up.

"It comes down to what you mean by "good dining", I suppose. These people are promising 'high-quality, modern cuisine' and, in the same sentence, they mention Mexico and Better Burger."

Calder points out the restaurant business in Auckland is extremely competitive and good ventures die every week. "I find it hard to imagine that a dining precinct at Sylvia Park will be taking the risk of trying to deliver high-quality modern cuisine, but if it is, I'll eat my words with relish."

Telly cooking show diet leads to better food for all

Gusto head Chef, Sean Connolly, teaches the Skycity Breakers how to make Carbonara. Photo / Michael Craig
Gusto head Chef, Sean Connolly, teaches the Skycity Breakers how to make Carbonara. Photo / Michael Craig

A non-stop diet of food programmes on TV is partly fuelling the Kiwi growing obsession with eating out, says celebrity chef Sean Connolly.

In recent years programmes such as MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules and Hell's Kitchen - fronted by foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay - have proved to be ratings winners.

Connolly - who is chef and owner of SkyCity's The Grill - says as well as serving up entertainment, these shows are changing people's perceptions about food.

"MasterChef in particular has really bridged the gap between fast food and fine dining and has brought people's knowledge about food to the forefront," he says.

"This is encouraging people to eat out more often and they now expect more bang for their buck in terms of quality. If you eat out once a week then you are pretty much on your way to becoming an expert.

"If people are dining out 50 times a year they know exactly what they want."

Connolly believes the popularity of TV cooking shows is also improving the quality of food on offer.

"People now have higher expectations about what they want from a dining experience," he says.

"It has meant everyone from neighbourhood restaurants to fine dining places have had to up their game, which is good news for the customers because we in the business constantly have to do better and better. It is not a bad thing. We all deserve to eat good food."