For anyone who wants proof that Dunedin's not like other New Zealand cities, go no further than the main street. Few of our towns boast European-style main squares: this is certainly the only one that doubles down on the idea and has an Octagon at its heart.

Just about everything that happens in Dunedin happens in the Octagon: people celebrate New Year, the city's Christmas tree is lit there, it's home to markets throughout the year.

For that, thank Charles Henry Kettle. In the mid-1840s he was hired by the New Zealand Company to survey the land around the flats and hills at the head of Otago Harbour and lay out a plan for the streets of a town.

His outline included an octagonal area with a street named Moray Place running around the outside. Inside would be a number of sections with a smaller octagon in the middle, marked as a reserve.


If he had known how much controversy that small reserve would cause, perhaps he would have had second thoughts.

"No other part of Dunedin City has been the subject of so much prolonged public debate as the Octagon," wrote the city works director 145 years later.

From public outcries of disgust at its appearance and the need for change in the 19th century, to equally vehement outpourings of opposition to any alteration in the late 20th century, the space has always been a focus of attention in one way or another.

The reserve was sealed in law in 1854, only six years after organised European settlement began. The Anglicans had selected it as the site for their new church; there was a furore when the predominantly Presbyterian community discovered that, and the new Provincial Council suggested the Church of England might like to look elsewhere.

During the late 1980s, another row arose when the city council wanted to renovate the area and close roads. The public won; the new "old look" brought covered walkways, Edwardian-style streetlights and fittings giving an antique air, complementing the surrounding Victorian and Edwardian buildings but no roads were closed.

Dunedin residents and visitors were even bigger winners when the council opted to pave a plaza in the lower Octagon -- that area became home to street performances and markets; around it, outdoor dining blossomed, and the Octagon is now a major hub for the city's restaurant and cafe culture.

For 18 years one of the biggest names (if one of the shortest) in the precinct was Ra Bar.

Andre Shi bought the legendary cafe-bar in October 2013 with a vision of creating an upmarket culinary experience far removed from the booze, steak and chips culture that bedevils many inner-city areas.

In the heart of the business district, right next to the famous Regent Theatre and near the Octagon markets, Shi opted for a fresh approach: a fusion menu served in a designer interior.

He spent 18 months planning and building his dream with the help of local architects, designers, builders and food and beverage consultants. Much of the furniture was imported from international designers.

Ra was closed in mid-2015 and the completely rebuilt Vault 21 opened in November. The menu combines international street flavours with fresh local produce to create a mixture of shared plates and meals, crafted by executive head chef Greg Piner, who's worked in top hotels and restaurants including the international award-winning Blanket Bay Lodge at Queenstown. His food is complemented with a unique blend of roasted coffee, local craft beers and wines.

The 140-seat restaurant offers indoor, outdoor and private dining options -- even heated seats to help deal with Dunedin's winter temperatures.

In the same way as the council's controversial renovation of 30 years ago revived the rundown Octagon, Vault 21 is playing its part in breathing new life into Dunedin's restaurant and entertainment precinct.

After dark it transforms into a more casual atmosphere, often with live music.

When the sun goes down the Octagon comes alive. What had become a sleepy hollow has returned to Charles Henry Kettle's original vision of Dunedin's premier gathering-place.