How hard is it to find a great breakfast, lunch and dinner around Aotearoa these days? Ewan McDonald criss-crosses the motu and asks locals what's on their plates.
Colour me biased but I'm convinced Kiwi chefs have never received due respect for their contributions to global cuisine. Name a Michelin star who'd have the insouciance to add beetroot and fried egg to create the Kiwiburger, the culinary appropriation of an indigenous vegetable into kumara chips or foreshadow the planetary search for alternative proteins by serving huhu bugs?
Up and down – not to mention across and sideways – the four corners of Aotearoa, 8740 cafes, pubs, bistros, bakeries, takeaways and restaurants employ 71,220 staff to fry, bake, roast and poach every day, according to industry statistics.
We asked locals and experts to tell us about the unique dishes in their towns and great spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Disclaimer: some of these dishes won't be on the menu when you rock up because chefs get bored and produce goes in and out of season.
The Kiwi culinary revolution is nowhere more evident than in our smaller centres, for decades homes to Chinese and Italian restaurants serving dishes unknown in Beijing or Bologna, and Cobb & Co.
New Zealand's best plates: Three courses over all four corners
In Northland, David Moss from You Tour NZ recommends stopping at Eutopia Cafe, Kaiwaka, for chocolate peanut butter balls then heading north to the Hokianga and Manea Footprints of Kupe cultural exposition, finishing with an Opo burger from Opononi Takeaways (no, they don't use real dolphin).
On the Coromandel Peninsula, locals rate the eggy bun (eggless for vegans) or five-grain porridge with preserved plums at Wharf Road in Coromandel town. Lunch stop is Port Road Project in Whangamata: the Scotts Epicurean team from Hamilton traversed the gorge 18 months ago and make food they like to eat themselves, with a hulking smoker-barbecue. We hear good things about the Moroccan flavours of zalouk and a sandwich with buttermilk-fried cauliflower. End the day at Tairua Beach Club, where Graeme Riki guides you through his Kitchen Experience. Expect fish.
Downtown Mt Maunganui begins the day with a stop at the General for Turkish eggs and a flat white; later on, send someone to Pizza Roma for ham and mushroom pizza (you await picnic table service at Pilot Bay) and wind down with stonegrill bento and house-made cocktails at Frosty & Fox Hawker House.
Naturally, Rotorua provides the aromas of Aotearoa: breakfast or brunch at the Terrace Kitchen's passionately crafted dishes. ( Terrace is currently closed for refurbishment until 2022, but the wait will be woth it) Tamaki Māori Village blends lunch with a cultural experience; after the whakatau (welcome), you'll roll out dough and assemble a handmade Puku Burger, deep-fried and infused with Māori flavours. Dinnertime, head to foodie favourite Atticus Finch on Eat Streat for its innovative, made-from-scratch sharing menu.
Skiers know there's more to Ōhakune than carrots and mountains. Top breakfast spot is Utopia Cafe with its library, log fire and deck with mountain views to accompany a toasted salmon bagel or panino with homemade hollandaise. Mountain Rocks is a popular go-to for lunch – pies. It's winter, so wrap the day at The Blind Finch Hamburgeria, an unpretentious hotspot that's created the OMG burger, Kamikaze burger and truffle fries.
Enough with the Eggs Bennie and Smashed Avocado. How about something more Euro-style? For a morning pitstop in New Plymouth, call into Billow Bakery for good coffee and excellent pastries, or newcomers Knead Artisan Donuts. Warning: They sell out most days. Perched over the Waiwhakaiho River Valley just five minutes out of the CBD is the new Quails Nest Eatery; also new on the city block is the State Bistro, paying homage to classic dishes.
City and country meet in Palmerston North and Manawatū. Begin with brunch at Cafe Royale then wander into Square Edge, the neighbouring studios, arts recycling and design centre. In the afternoon, drive to the foot of the Ruahine Ranges and the Apiti Tavern, where new owner and national barbecue champion Jon James does a great pulled smoked brisket burger. Craft brewery Brew Union is a local evening hotspot for house beers and a curated menu of hand-stretched thin-crust pizzas and house-pressed burgers.
Marlborough has many gourmet claims to fame but here's one we hadn't previously come across: breakfast at Toastie Picton, a takeaway specialising in gourmet toasted sandwiches. Its finalist in a national competition (no, we hadn't heard either) is Pete from Picton - smoked salmon, cream cheese, dill, pickles and parmesan. Lunch is dragged fresh from the Sounds at Mills Bay Mussels' eatery, then back to Blenheim for dinner at Scotch Wine Bar & Restaurant, neat tweaks of classic dishes such as salmon with fennel sauce, leek and root vegetables, and plenty of plant-based options.
Over the hill in Nelson, local businessman and whisky enthusiast Nick Widley's ultimate day starts with breakfast at Devilles, a classic indoor-outdoor brunch and lunch venue with large rustic breakfasts and some of the best coffee in town. Lunchtime will likely find him at Mama Cod, a funky gin bar (300 options), "eating fresh-shucked oysters and the best blue cod and chips for miles. Dinner would have to be at Hopgoods, an institution open since 2005."
The Sausage Press Deli Co owner, Miles Drewery, reckons it's hard to go past the smoked pork benny at Bloom Cafe in Motueka, or pan-fried halloumi with smoked chorizo at the Jellyfish Cafe & Restaurant in Māpua for breakfast. "For a special lunch, Forsters at Moutere Hills have treated me once or twice with their longboard lunch showcasing local artisan products. For dinner, a visit to Harry's Hawker House where their jalapeno poppers and popcorn chicken with gunpowder sauce are a real treat."
Kaikōura has a new take on breakfast classics at Sime's Kitchen. Lunch is a toss-up (and not in a bad way) between The Store at Kekerengu and Slam Club, "arguably NZ's tastiest gourmet toasted sammies." Picton may quibble but no arguments about dinner: Hāpuku Kitchen features a three-course set menu of ingredients from their property or local producers for up to 10 people each evening.
They do things a little differently on the West Coast, at places like Gibby's Cafe in Westport, where you'll step into a 1950s timewarp to choose homemade pies or whitebait patties; Prospectors Fish & Chips in Kumara Junction, for duck or pāua and vege burgers; and the Hokitika Sandwich Company, claimed to be the coolest sandwich joint in Aotearoa. Probably the best restaurant on the coast is – surprise? – the plant-based plates at Gatherer Wholefoods and Bar in Hokitika.
Steampunk Festival days or not, Ōamaru is a must-visit. Start with all-day breakfast at cross-cultural Tees St Cafe; it's a tough choice between huevos rancheros and cinnamon brioche french toast. Head to award-winning Riverstone Kitchen for a lunch crafted around their extensive vegetable gardens and orchards; wind down at waterfront Del Mar with fresh seafood, pizza and gelato.
There's more to Central Otago than pinot noir, but we'll come to that. Chef and health foodie Steph Peirce's Local & Friday Shop attracts people from miles around to stock up on seasonal foods. Naseby's Royal Hotel is heartland New Zealand food and friendliness; The Stoaker Room in Cromwell is a dining experience. Its Barrel Cuisine sees local foods steamed, baked grilled and smoked in french oak pinot noir barrel cookers.
Fiordland has its hotspots, too. Ryan Murray, chef and owner of Bao Now in Te Anau begins the day at the Sandfly Cafe, chowing down on the Hash Brown Stack with bacon, poached eggs and hollandaise and a flat white. Lunch is a choice between Feathered Feast, Doe Licious Venison Dumplings, or a Spicy Tuna Sushi Bowl – "great keto options with Cauliflower Rice". Dinner choice is Fat Duck's Te Mana Lamb Shoulder with Creamy Mash, finished off with a nightcap at the Black Dog.
Invercargill has recently revamped its CBD and welcomes Industry cafe, nestled in a large and beautiful space with a simple, fresh, local menu. Lunchtime: Miss Cocoa in the historic Mandeville Railway Hotel building next to the aviation museum. Where else can you watch vintage Tiger Moths take off over (literally) coffee and a Southland cheese roll? In the evening, Louie's is a small, unassuming restaurant on the main street making use of curated flavours, foraged garnishes, locally sourced ingredients and artful presentations.
As noted more than once recently, the upside of the Great Unpleasantness of the past 18 months has been the opportunity to hit the road, and the rails, and the fiords, and discover new or very old places around the motu. Many of those have been covered in the paragraphs above so I get to cover off the posh places in the big cities.
One rule that's got me this far through life relatively unscathed is that breakfast is not a time to make major decisions or life changes. There are a number of other opportunities to consider healthy options during the day.
So the Auckland go-to breakfast is the funky Fed Deli because it does what it says on the can, and it's buzzy, and the staff always pretend they know you, and it doesn't really matter whether you're starting the day or finishing the night. As for the next round, Bridgie – my frequent companion of restaurant reviewing days – is firmly of the belief that nothing good ever came of a lunch that lasted less than two hours or bottles. That means Ponsonby: window-shopping, people-watching and unwinding across whatever you fancy, and the best place to do all of those is the Blue Breeze Inn. Think freshly-shucked oysters with Sichuan and chilli vinegar, black truffle and pork dumplings, or the signature bang bang spicy chicken. Dinner? We've been spoiled with so many outstanding chefs opening new rooms lately – Peter Gordon, Michael Meredith, Ed Verner head the list – but we can't and won't go past Ben Bayly's Ahi in Commercial Bay. From "snacks" like tahr tartare, courses like barbecued quail with kiwifruit kasundi, artichokes and crispy cabbage to the "Sweet As" dessert menu, this is Aotearoa on a plate.
Hawke's Bay's chefs have a completely unfair advantage over most of the country. You barely have to drive five minutes from their pantries to find the most stunning produce – be it vegetables, herbs, meats, grains, kaimoana. In the likeable harbourside refurbishment of Ahuriri in Napier, I have been known to kickstart with friendly and unpretentious FG Smith's breakfast sandwich of slow-cooked brisket, cheese, fried egg and sriracha. Or something lighter: coconut macadamia granola with roasted pear. Because it's the Bay, it has to be a vineyard lunch, and it has to be whatever Casey McDonald (no relation) feels like dishing up at Craggy Range. Dinner is another no-brainer: Jeremy Rameka's Pacifica. Michelin quality, Pacific style is one description: I prefer cuisine "based on emotion and bravery rather than convention". The five-course degustations (seafood, meat/game or vegetarian) change daily depending on what ingredients are available and how chef is feeling.
Fortunately, whatever the heavens throw at Wellington, Floridita's survives. The duchess of Cuba Mall has, rather like Carmen, had a little bit of work done to her looks since the last great shake but the menu remains timeless Euro-bistro: smoked mackerel, potato and herb hash with a poached egg. Breakfast sorted. Lunch is a choice between waterside brother and sister cafes: Maranui in Lyall Bay's surf club, Seashore in Petone's historic rowing club and dancehall. Both are kitsch, both are fun (carnival horses, pinball machines), both serve cafe classics with vegetarian and vegan-friendly options. The evening used to belong to Courtenay Place: no more. Wellington's heartbeat is Hannahs Laneway, once down-at-heel, now noir-chic. At Shepherd, Shepherd Elliot's spare menu of ethical, seasonal produce is divided into "begin", "middle", "accessories" and "end". Think shiitake glazed eel, horseradish sour cream, radish, beans, lime and fresh herbs; whisky and honey parfait, grilled stonefruit, black tea honey and cinnamon crumb.
Talking of heartstarters ... Feel free to correct me but I believe Christchurch is our city with a restaurant menu specialising in breakfast cocktails. That's Miro, in one of the few heritage buildings standing in the CBD, all high ceilings and immense windows overlooking the Avon. I've admitted I like a traditional brekkie so the Breakfast Martini, with Scapegrace gin, Cardrona Rose Rabbit liqueur, lemon juice and marmalade qualifies. I wish other cities had a foodie fiesta like the Riverside Market – looking at you, Auckland – so that's my lunch spot. Could be Turkish, could be Argentine, could be honest Kiwi pies but. .. there's a special dinner on the menu so I'm calling into the exquisite Indo Tempeh for dumplings or noodles. That dinner is at Inati, where guests sit at the chef's table while chef-owner Simon Levy and his brigade prepare sharing plates like Boeuf-nuts – a salty-sweet doughnut filled with braised beef cheek - and Donkey Carrot, slow-cooked carrot with pear, taleggio and praline, served on personally designed plates with curated wines.
Queenstown: avoid the chains, avoid the over-hyped burgers. Warm up at Bespoke Kitchen with a trad bennie or go healthy with their stupendous seasonal smoothie bowls. The vineyard restaurant picks itself too: Amisfield and Vaughan Maybee's rightly famous Trust the Chef menu of dishes based on fresh produce available on the day. As someone whose work means solo dining, I enjoy Public Kitchen, an unpretentious bistro where strangers enjoy "good and honest Kiwi fare" and conversation at communal tables. Cider-roasted pork belly with caramalised pears. Moroccan lamb and chickpea curry. Just sayin'.
Took me a while to get to Dunedin but now that I've discovered merino underwear I've warmed to the place and no-fuss breakfasts at raffish Morning Magpie or Hungry Hobos, both also finalists in the Great NZ Toastie Competition. Muttonbird is a seaside lunch at tītī (look it up) in St Clair, which works with local farmers, fishermen and suppliers to source fresh produce and prepares dishes to suit, with a laudable emphasis on reducing food waste.
We've come to my last supper, and I wouldn't mind if it was: Moiety is a gorgeous restaurant and wine bar which serves a five-course dinner of small plates like beetroot with mandarin, curd, walnut and onion and popcorn with parsnip and honey. The menu wraps with a short message, "Please have a willingness to try new things you might not ordinarily prefer. Honestly, if it didn't taste good it wouldn't be on the menu."
Up and down the country, chefs are striving to do just that. We've barely scratched the surface of what's out there to discover. Go and look for them.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com