A world-famous fish and chip shop may be just down the road but lately it's been Apatu Aqua in Cooper's Beach that's been winning all the awards. There aren't many things I'd drive four hours for but their natural smoked eel is on the list. Alessandro's is the best pizza I've eaten in New Zealand (a three Michelin-star Italian chef I know agrees with me), but you have to head down a Havelock North alleyway to find it.
North Canterbury is a great foodie destination and the restaurant at Black Estate is just the right combination of comfort and cutting edge. Find a table with a view of the vines and enjoy chef Grant Soeburg's BBQ Wash Creek lamb, sourced from an organic farm less than five minutes away.
Casey's Diner at Craggy Range is a new family-friendly eatery in one of Hawke's Bay's most stunning locations, named for its jagged mountain skyline. Casey's signature Royale is the burger to end all arguments. A little further down the line, C'est Cheese in Featherston is staffed by cheesemongers who prefer to think of themselves as "matchmakers".
Try to nab a donut next time you're in Marlborough – Trinidadian-Canadian Marcia Chang-Hong is a local secret, but you can track down her sublime jam- and cream-filled creations via facebook. And though the mind-bending flavours of Duck Island icecream are now in Ponsonby too, I'm convinced it tastes better from its original store in Hamilton East.
There's something beautiful about the way they serve food at the capital's [Eleven Fifty-Four]1154 Pasteria, a counter service-only pasta restaurant on a glassy corner of Cuba St. E is also for Emerson's, the flagship taproom of local Dunedin brewer Richard Emerson. He's a craft beer pioneer who also loves trains – listen for the whistle as you walk into the bathrooms.
The Coromandel drive can be a nightmare but you can break it up with a stop at The Falls, a casual and friendly outdoor eatery just off the main track on Karangahake Gorge. You can't really call Fleur's Place in Moeraki a secret but, a piece of fish will still taste better there than anywhere else in the country.
Hamilton is rightly proud of Good George, a craft beer renowned for its freshness – for the freshest taste of all drink it from the flagship taproom in a renovated church in Frankton. I can't wait to get back to Gatherings in Christchurch, where an incredibly talented chef encourages you to build your own table feast from the stunning centrepiece and side dishes he provides.
There are other reasons for a foodie to stop in Hamilton, including plenty of good coffee – Hazel Hayes on the main drag is a great choice. Wellington has two great H's – grab a customised cocktail at Hawthorn or go prime minister-spotting at Hillside, a truly great restaurant serving modern, seasonal dishes from a tiny building in Thorndon. The set menu is the best plan if you have the time and the budget.
A glance at Inati's menu will tell you straight away this place is different. The menu is organised under the headings Earth, Land and Sea and though that takes a moment to get your head around, once you've ordered you'll find yourself enjoying just about the best restaurant meal you can find in Christchurch.
Dunedin has taken a little longer to catch up with the rest of the country's restaurant scene but there is good food if you look hard enough. That includes several good Japanese eateries – Jitzu is the option to go for, now open in two locations just off the Octagon and at the south end of town.
Speaking of Japanese, Kinji in Christchurch is worth finding if just for their incredible selection of sashimi and nigiri: fresh, cold fish expertly cut to melt in the mouth. Down the line, Dunedin finally has world-class vegan food (well, the students always had baked beans) at Kind Grocer, a plant-based deli on Vogel St.
The food at Larder in Wellington's Miramar has no right to taste as good as it does – chef Jacob Brown presides over a cafe lunch menu that would work in any evening bistro. If the lamb's brains aren't for you try one of his baked creations, like the raspberry tartlet with elderflower marshmallow and almond. And don't leave Wellington or the letter L without picking up a salted caramel cookie from Leeds Street bakery.
Mahoe Cheese is an essential stop for us when heading north. You can peek into their working cheese factory and taste some award winning Dutch-style favourites before continuing on your journey. Meat and Liquor might not win any awards for their name but they are a world-class steakery in New Plymouth – an essential destination for beef nerds whose questions about pasture, ageing and grain feed will all be answered with pleasure.
One of my favourite places to drink wine, Wellington's Noble Rot is the dream creation of an obsessed sommelier. If you're lucky you'll be served by Maciej Zimny himself, a man devoted to sourcing the world's best wines and choosing the right one to pour into your glass at this exact moment. Plan a drink here before dinner.
Origin Earth Cheese is one of my most beloved producers in Hawke's Bay, found either at the farmers' market or at their "cellar door" next to Te Mata Winery. The cheeses are made from fresh, unhomogenised milk and you can taste the difference. Speaking of markets, the Otago Farmers Market at Dunedin Railway Station is a real experience: chew through a banh mi as you browse dozens of stalls heaped with seasonal produce.
Last I heard the Pyramid Valley winery cellar door was set to re-open, but it's a bit off the trail so do call ahead to make sure someone is there to let you in. It'll be worth the detour – in my opinion they make some of the finest pinot noir and chardonnay in New Zealand. Meanwhile, it can be hard to find an after-dinner drink in Havelock North but Piku's alleyway bar is the perfect spot for a Negroni (and a Japanese snack if you're still hungry).
Great restaurants inside hotels sometimes feel more like an overseas thing, but QT Wellington's Hippopotamus and Hot Sauce break the mould. Post-Covid, Hippopotamus is operating as a takeaway wine cellar but will no doubt be back to full strength soon, while Hot Sauce serves brilliant Asian fusion food and is always among the medals in the annual Welly on a Plate burger contest.
Two of my favourite R's are in Wellington – the fantastically simple Ramen Shop in Newtown and Te Aro's Rita, which is as good as restaurants get in New Zealand (and is right up there internationally, too). When in Queenstown give your body a break from restaurant eating for a day or two and get some provisions at the Remarkables Market, a charming and well-stocked farmers' market running every Saturday from spring to autumn.
Tucked into an alleyway, Shepherd is the flagship restaurant of Shepherd Elliot, an essential Wellington personality whose progressive and sustainable approach to food is all the more enjoyable because it tastes so good as well. In Arrowtown Slow Cuts is the home of beautiful meat cooked low and slow by the incredible team behind La Rumbla tapas bar.
Neither a cellar door nor a brewery, Hawke's Bay's Three Wise Birds Garden Bar is a great chance to taste the third type of ferment - cider - fresh from the tap, in the heart of pip-fruit country. There is plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, plus a great food menu to nosh on while you make your way through your tasting paddle.
A great totem for Christchurch's hospo rebuild, the stylishly modern cafe Unknown Chapter provides slick service and top food along with great coffee in an unexpectedly foodie part of town (there's a fantastic international food court just across the road).
Veggie Guy Bobbie isn't the only reason to visit Christchurch's new Riverside Market but he is the only reason beginning with the letter V. Grab some of the fresh local produce or linger at one of the many other great dining options nearby (they all buy their veges from him too). This upmarket dining hall has been expertly curated – you could buy every meal here for a week and not run into a single dud.
I preferred the traditional Post Office Square Farmers' Market to Kerikeri's more recent market in the Old Packhouse. But the new one has one great thing going for it – some of the best American-style barbecue I've tasted in New Zealand. Ask someone to point you toward Wingless Angel, then order a mix of meats (but make sure they include some brisket). If you're ever on a night out in Hamilton, walk past the strip of student pubs and head to Wonderhorse, a cocktail bar that would stand toe to toe with anything you'll find on Ponsonby Rd.
XCHC is a seriously cool collaborative space that does great coffee and simple, tasty food. Suburban and progressive with a load of x-factor, this is the face of post-quake Christchurch and a perfect caffeine stop for visitors on the way from the city to Sumner and beyond.
Slightly outside the brief but worth looking out for on restaurant menus across New Zealand is Yellow Brick Road, a new approach to seafood, operated by former Wellington celeb chef Martin Bosley. At 4.30pm each day he texts the day's catch to chef's around the country, who text back their order which arrives in time for service the next day – always fresh, always sustainable, and often a fish species or variety of shellfish you won't have come across before.
The OGs of Greek-style cheeses in New Zealand, Zany Zeus stock their traditional style feta and haloumi in every gourmet food store that matters, but also operate a store in Lower Hutt that every cheese lover should pilgrimage to at least once in their life. And if you're on the Taupo-Napier road look out for Zeelandt craft brewery just before you hit Esk Valley – it's open business hours, with some flexibility.
For more New Zealand travel ideas, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew