Auckland Restaurant Review: The Nightcar Is The New Bar Where You Can Sit, Sip & Stay Until Late

By Jesse Mulligan
The Nightcar bar and restaurant on Queen St has gone for a modern look. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Modern Chinese

Address: 44 Queen St, central city

Phone: 022 384 0068

Drinks: Fully licensed

Reservations: Accepted

From the menu: Oysters (6) $40; duck “spring roll” $18; shredded chicken $18; cucumber salad $12; braised beef $16; barbecue pork $20; pork belly noodles $20

Score: 16/20

Score: 0-7

Towards the end of our evening at The Nightcar, a group of well-dressed office types on the lash spilled through the front door.

“Good evening, can I help?” the maitre d’ smiled.

“Um … nooo,” said the group’s spokeswoman, looking around. “It’s not really what we’re looking for, sorry.”

They left, and I wondered what it was that put them off. At 9pm on a Tuesday in lower Queen Street, anybody still out should be saying a prayer of thanks that this place even exists. It’s an exciting, international, ultra-designer room to arrive into, helped on the evening we were there by a cranking jazz band. Yes, I know even the best jazz can sound like somebody dropping a bunch of instruments down a staircase but it’s a vibe, man. It makes you feel like, against the odds, you’ve found the party.

Not what they were looking for? Were they looking for Burger King?

“The dystopic train show Snowpiercer is a reference point, as is Delilah, a Los Angeles-famous restaurant of which owner here Daren Zhou is apparently a fan.” Photo / Babiche Martens
“The dystopic train show Snowpiercer is a reference point, as is Delilah, a Los Angeles-famous restaurant of which owner here Daren Zhou is apparently a fan.” Photo / Babiche Martens

The Nightcar was busy-ish this Tuesday and you’re advised to book, particularly if you’re visiting over the weekend. If you aren’t organised enough to do that you’ll probably find space at the bar or a leaner, but at the latter you’ll be eating food from a table that sits around nipple height (for your reference I’m 187cm, with nipples about two-thirds of the way up) while also missing out on the comfort and style of the booths, which I think are a key part of the experience.

Spending a lot of your money will be a key part of the experience too, particularly if you order one of the cocktails, which are priced $25 and up. But they are delicious, carefully made and gorgeous to look at, so if you’re only doing one drink this should be it.

I myself was only doing four drinks, including an ill-fated diversion into the aperitif menu where I quickly got lost and, in desperation, ordered a barrel-aged Spanish vermouth: a syrupy, Chinese medicine-esque tincture poured over ice and served on a tray next to two green olives skewered by a martini pick. I should have just had a riesling.

The dried tofu. Photo / Babiche Martens
The dried tofu. Photo / Babiche Martens

They have really gone for a modern look — the dystopic train show Snowpiercer is a reference point, as is Delilah, a Los Angeles-famous restaurant of which owner here Daren Zhou is apparently a fan — and the fit-out is 95 per cent there (a ceiling-mounted LED display bearing the flashing message “LED Display” was the only piece of decor that broke the spell). The lighting is perhaps a little brighter than you might expect too, but when everything looks this good, why not?

Staff move quickly around the room doing their thing but when tableside give you their full attention, and only a couple of times did I feel like our guy wanted us to leave so he could start closing up (as a customer you sort of get the hint when ordering more drinks and food is continually your idea).

And if you thought that a nightclub launched by a film-maker might treat food as an afterthought, you’d be wrong. Both Zhou and his chef have roots in northeastern China and The Nightcar’s menu is a charismatic showcase of that region. I struggled a little bit with what and how much to order but eventually did things two at a time — alternating between the cold menu, the hot menu and a sort of noodle menu. We did about five rounds of this, ending up full and broke, but a normal person could get away with three dishes and call it a light dinner.

The fried dumplings. Photo / Babiche Martens
The fried dumplings. Photo / Babiche Martens

What did I love? The dumplings, shaped like flat cigars and featuring spinach-infused pastry wrapped around prawns in coriander sauce and drizzled in spicy mayo alongside a thick vinegary soy; the dried tofu, two words that wouldn’t excite many people but is a clever sort of pancake made from wide rice noodles and a thin outer layer of egg, cut into segments with some magical bean paste providing extra flavour; cold shredded chicken, served on top of noodles and delivered with an instruction to mix it all up along with the sesame, chilli oil and black vinegar before eating.

These are all from what they call the “flour” menu but I could equally have chosen great cold dishes — a classic Chinese cucumber salad with loads of chopped garlic, or beef braised for 24 hours then chilled and sliced fine with a streak of chilli soy.

Photo / Babiche Martens
Photo / Babiche Martens

That cold stuff is a reminder that great banquets involve variation — in flavour, of course, but also in texture and temperature. The hot dishes we tried were just warm, really, but it didn’t matter — from half a dozen oysters to start, through to a tray of steamed, saucy snapper to end there was barely anything to complain about.

This new late-night bar is so cool that for most people, food won’t be the main event. Isn’t it great that they’ve created a menu good enough that it could be?

From dining out editor Jesse Mulligan.

The below-ground Queen St secret where skewers and vibes are served. You’ll be glad you came to this yakitori bar as soon as you descend the stairs.

Newly renovated Farina is the happiest Italian spot in Ponsonby. With an expanded and refreshed interior, Farina is buzzy and beautiful.

Okome is a petite neighbourhood Japanese spot with plenty to love. At the Eden Terrace restaurant you’ll find sublime sushi, yakitori and much more.

The North Shore has a little gem, and it’s an alfresco pasta spot. It is a food truck, with hand-made gnocchi and excellent individual tiramisu portions.

New Epsom restaurant doubles as ‘somewhere James Bond might drink if he was priced out of Herne Bay’. It’s the right kind of neighbourhood spot — suburban but sophisticated, classy but casual.

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: