Eating and drinking Wellington's best needs planning and good advice, writes Stephanie Holmes
When you're planning a weekend in Wellington, there are priorities to get sorted before you depart. Namely, where are you going to eat in a city full of delicious options? On a recent trip, a local expert planned a mouth-watering line-up of venues for me to visit - from fine-dining to cocktail drinking to high tea to hot chocolate. Here's how to fit it all in . . .
Friday, 5.30pm: Dinner at Hiakai
Hiakai, a modern, 30-seat, fine-dining restaurant, has been open for only two years but is already making history.
Monique Fiso's exceptional menu with its unique take on indigenous ingredients has been lauded by critics and won awards worldwide – last year Time Magazine placed the restaurant on its list of the world's 100 greatest places. Zealandia and Camp Glenorchy were the only other New Zealand attractions to feature.
The best seats in the house are at the chef's counter – four bar stools seated as close to the kitchen as you can get, without stepping foot inside. Here, chefs prepare, plate, and present the entire menu directly in front of diners, making for an interactive, engaging experience.
At the counter, dinner becomes theatre. The seats are under low lighting surrounded by dark wood-panelled walls, with the kitchen brightly lit in front. Constant movement from the chefs makes it feel like you're in the audience in the stalls, watching a perfectly-choreographed performance.
All diners get the same seven-course meal, with the menu changing only depending on the season (I experienced a Matariki menu; the latest is inspired by Patricia Grace's 1984 children's book, Watercress Tuna & the Children of Champion Street).
Fiso is a self-confessed perfectionist and every dish is presented impeccably, with the strictest precision.
The beverage match menu is as highly recommended. Choose from alcoholic (wine, beer and mixed drinks) or non-alcoholic (fermented sodas, juices, drinking shrubs). This is the only place I've ever dined where the booze-free option has just as much care and attention devoted to it as the wine-match.
Book well in advance – dinner is by reservation only, and fills up fast.
40 Wallace St, Mt Cook. hiakai.co.nz
Friday, 8.30pm: Drinks at Hot Sauce
Waistband feeling a little tight? Walk the 20-minutes or so back to the QT Wellington for a nightcap at the hotel's bar/restaurant, Hot Sauce. The food menu combines elements of Korean, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese cuisines, and the signature cocktails include a diverse range of ingredients, such as yuzu juice, rosemary-infused sake, five spice syrup, jalapeno, fennel, basil and cracked pepper. The perfect way to polish off the evening before heading to bed.
90 Cable St, Te Aro. hotsaucewellington.co.nz
Saturday, 10am: High Tea at Grace Patisserie
Skip breakfast at the hotel today, because you've got a BIG day of eating ahead of you. Take a stroll up Tory St to Grace Patisserie and enter the small, unassuming shop door to be met by an aroma of fresh coffee and warm pain au chocolat and pastry. The light, bright space is a warm contrast to those famed blustery Wellington days, and the menu selection is pretty enough to brighten your social media feed.
Taste a range of sweet and savoury treats with the High Tea menus, available Fridays to Sundays from 10am-3pm - book at least 24 hours ahead. My dainty two-tier platter featured a ham, cheese and cucumber sandwich, mini croissant with cream cheese and salmon, a cheese scone with olive butter, red-velvet macaron, lemon meringue tart and orange cake with cream. Yes, I ate it all. No, I didn't regret it.
6/100 Tory St, Te Aro. gracepatisserie.nz
Saturday, 11am: Graze your way down Hannah's Laneway
Head across to Leeds St for a wander down Hannah's Laneway. There's a distinct Melbourne-esque vibe here – not least because of the vibrant David Bowie mural that meets you on the way in. Stop in at Leeds St Bakery for bread, pies and more; pop your head into Fix and Fogg's hole in the wall to taste their range of artisan peanut butters (the "Everything Butter" will change your life); then take a seat at Wellington Chocolate Factory for the ultimate indulgent hot chocolate made from their very own bean-to-bar creations.
Between Leeds and Eva Sts.
Saturday, 2pm: Late lunch at 1154 Pastaria
Okay, look, you're probably not going to be that hungry at this point, but if you do have space to squeeze in a steaming bowl of handmade pasta, then 1154 is the place. On the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee streets, the floor-to-ceiling windows allow you to watch the world go by while you take the load off your weary feet. Order at the counter from the menu of nine different types of handmade pasta dishes, or one regularly changing special. The window bar seating is a great place for solo diners - but beware of the passing pedestrians, who will likely stop outside to drool over your lunch.
132 Cuba St, Te Aro. 1154.co.nz
Saturday, 7pm: Dinner at Daisy's
With plenty of time after lunch for a brisk walk followed by a cuppa tea and a lie down, you'll be ready to eat again by evening. You're probably not looking for a huge meal, so might I suggest a quick taxi ride over to Thorndon for some shared plates at the very lovely Daisy's on Tinakori Rd. This neighbourhood restaurant (formerly the Tinakori Bistro) is the kind of place you'd visit regularly if you were a local – friendly staff, casual atmosphere, great menu and BYO wine. The menu changes regularly, but if they're featured on your visit, please do choose the sweet potato and spiced coconut dumplings with fresh coriander – they have a dense, meaty texture and as comforting as a big hug after a long day.
328 Tinakori Rd, Thorndon. eatatdaisys.co.nz
Saturday, 9pm: Drinks on Ghuznee St
The fun doesn't have to end after dinner. In fact, in Wellington, it's just getting started – this is a city that packs a serious punch when it comes to hidden bars for a great night out. I found three within metres of each other on Ghuznee St, close to the Cuba St corner. Wander through an open, non-marked doorway and dim lobby lined with taxidermy birds to the large open space of Puffin. The interior is classy and cool - exposed brick walls, plush green velvet horseshoe-shaped banquettes, mirrored wall, brass and dark wood, with a covered patio with windows looking back into the bar. The focus is on natural and organic wines – the bartenders will ask you what kind of wine you feel like and find something they think will suit. 60 Ghuznee St, Te Aro. Puffinwinebar.com
Across the road and up an industrial stairway, you'll find the orange door of Ascot – another natural wine bar, also specialising in hot dogs (pork or vegan). An unusual combination, perhaps, but the name of the bar - and its meaty menu - are inspired by owner Cosmo Hawke's grandparents who used to sell hotdogs from a cart at Newtown's Ascot Theatre. 2/55 Ghuznee St, Te Aro. ascot.nz
Down one level, don't be fooled by the plain doorway with lion head door knocker – hiding behind is not a private apartment, but a portal to a stylish speakeasy absolutely humming with life. The bar staff look like they've stepped out of 1930's New York, and they will find a cocktail to suit your every desire. Sink into a sumptuous candle-lit booth, or sit on the terrace and watch the Wellington world go by down below. 1/55 Ghuznee St, Te Aro. instagram.com/nightflowerbar
Sunday, 11am: Brunch at Highwater Eatery
A late night in Wellington calls for a lazy morning in bed. Once you can drag yourself up, take a slow stroll to lower Cuba St for brunch and a Bloody Mary. Highwater Eatery has sustainability front of mind – their electricity is generated from 100 per cent renewable energy, and nearly all the menu is made in-house – local growers and suppliers are used for the rest. They reduce food waste where possible, then compost and recycle and use environmentally friendly cleaning products and bio-degradable takeaway packaging. In addition to all that, the food is excellent, and there is a range of seating options to suit everyone from lone diners to large groups. 54 Cuba St, Te Aro. highwatereatery.co.nz
Sunday, 3pm: Afternoon tea at Lashings
Room for one last treat? Lashings on Dixon St, at the bottom of Hannahs Laneway, is the place to go. The light-filled level one cafe is famous in the city for its small-batch baked goods, made by British expat Jackie Lee Morrison. Try the sourdough doughnuts (Sonuts) or the range of True Brownies, made from Baron Hasselhoff's single-origin chocolate produced in Wellington and packed with other famous local ingredients, including Fix & Fogg peanut butter and Jam It Fine Foods. What a sweet way to end the weekend before making your way home.
SIDE BAR: Wellington's best bars of note
Florent Souche, head sommelier and restaurant manager at QT Wellington's Hippopotamus, gives his tips for the wine bars, restaurants and wineries to check out in and around the region.
Noble Rot: If you're after a glass and nibble, Noble Rot is the place to be. They have a wine list to rival Hippopotamus' and a great selection of local fare to accompany it. 6 Swan Lane, noblerot.co.nz
Atlas: Atlas is the newest arrival to Wellington's wine scene, where they're building a wine list that will be a contender for the best in the city. Ask for Yong, the brilliant head sommelier, whom I trained during his time at Hippopotamus. 36 Customhouse Quay, atlas-wellington.co.nz
The Elder Pinot: A winery open only by appointment, The Elder's wine is most similar to Burgundy Grand Cru, the legendary birthplace of pinot noir. I help with picking here every harvest season – even my 5-year-old daughter gets in on the action.
950 White Rock Road,RD 2, Martinborough, theelderpinot.co.nz
Escarpment: Established by Larry McKenna, a pioneer of the Martinborough wine region, Escarpment encourages wine lovers to "venture to the edge" of wine appreciation. You'll have to venture only 5km from Martinborough village to the Cellar Door at Peppers Parehua to sample its very best.
New York St West, Martinborough, escarpment.co.nz
Stay at the QT Wellington, perfectly located to be within walking distance of many of the city's best bars and eateries. qthotels.com/wellington
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com
This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 10 November