Twenty-five years of Viva, 25 years of great eating in this beautiful city. Auckland’s restaurants have always been a big part of Viva’s weekly mix, and this anniversary week is a chance to take stock of the city’s era-defining dining.
5 Restaurants That Changed The City
From some of Aotearoa’s
Chef Sid Sahrawat made his name at The Grove but struck out on his own with Sidart, housed in an unlikely shopping arcade in Three Lamps. The food looked incredible — art on a plate, we called it — and tasted incredible too, but it took a bit of time for Aucklanders to catch on. For a time it was the number one rated restaurant on Tripadvisor (international visitors got it straight away) but you could visit on a Wednesday and be the only couple there. Sid never gave up, pioneering new concepts like a Tuesday test kitchen to bring new people into the restaurant without ever compromising his vision. It paid off, and soon the place was so full he could afford to realise his original plan, doing away with a la carte and serving a succession of life-changing small dishes instead. Today, Sidart is in the capable hands of chef Lesley Chandra. 283 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby.
Even diehard liberals found themselves seduced by opening night at Masu, where the drawcard was then-Prime Minister John Key pouring a giant bottle of sake for anybody who wanted it. It was the biggest restaurant launch anyone could remember and the quality of the restaurant matched the occasion — word quickly got around that Nic Watt’s miso black cod was our own worthy version of Nobu’s most famous dish. Masu was a tribute to Japan, the country Nic loved, and Auckland had never had a restaurant offering so many different versions of Japanese cuisine at such a high level. It helped that the room was beautiful, and the service flawless. 90 Federal St, central city.
The renaissance of Karangahape Rd dining began with Coco’s, a restaurant launched by popular hospo sisters Damaris and Renee Coulter. Their personalities infused every aspect of the restaurant, from the busy, vivacious staff to the generous European-inspired cuisine. Despite the international influences this felt like the definitive Auckland restaurant — a place you could take an out-of-towner and proudly say “this is us”. Rather than shying away from the famous street’s less sparkling aspects, Coco’s spilled out on to the footpath, embracing its community with open arms. This was the most exciting place in the city when it opened, and showed other restaurateurs what authenticity looked like. 374 Karangahape Rd, central city.
Al Brown (most famous for fine dining institution Logan Brown at the time) launched Depot with the idea that a restaurant could be both casual and excellent. Auckland agreed, and suddenly we had something else new: a restaurant you had to queue to get into. It was the hottest room in town and, also revolutionary at the time, you couldn’t book. This worked well for the restaurant — no waiting around with empty tables for the next sitting to arrive — and while it took a bit of getting used to for us customers, we eventually got used to the idea that we could be a bit more flexible with our plans, if the reward was a humming city restaurant with this brand-new concept — sliders! 86 Federal St, central city.
“Visiting Cocoro for the first time made me weep,” The Grove’s Michael Dearth told me when this exciting Japanese dining room opened. That’s no small praise from a man who ran Auckland’s best restaurant at the time, and who could spot a waiter hiccup from 20 yards. It was Cocoro’s pursuit of perfection that had moved him, and it remains the place to go when you want to experience a flawless symphony of service, food and wine. It’s still one of our only top restaurants on a suburban street, and the feeling of opening the front door and stepping into another world is unrivalled. Plenty of restaurants do a seafood platter, but Cocoro’s looks like it belongs in a Tokyo art museum. Of course it’s all New Zealand fish — but it’s never tasted as good as this. 56a Brown St, Ponsonby.
5 Great Restaurants We Lost Along The Way
They were once major favourites, with lavish dining rooms and distinctive dishes.
There had never been another room like it, nor I suspect will there ever be. The leather-upholstered booths were divided by string curtains, creating intimacy while niftily delineating the space. The food was always the best you could get in town and though it was expensive (probably not by today’s standards but eye-watering at the time); if you needed to impress somebody who’d seen it all, this was the place to go. Read why owner Tony Stewart closed the restaurant after 13 years, here.
THE FRENCH CAFE
Now in its beautiful new incarnation Sid at The French Cafe, the original Simon Wright-led kitchen was a restaurant so famous that everybody outside Auckland knew about it too. “The French” set new standards for degustation dining, high-level service and wine matching. For years it was the special-occasion restaurant, but you had to book weeks in advance to have any chance of getting a table.
I never quite clicked with this one personally but you can’t argue with longevity. Headed by the incomparable Tony Astle, the restaurant did things its own way, and refused to change or compromise as the rest of Auckland moved on. You entered via buzzer. Eftpos wasn’t accepted. Prices didn’t include GST. The menu was long, featuring classics, “new” dishes and a good selection of offal, as I recall. The Auckland scene needs restaurants with personality and Antoine’s certainly had that.
The missing apostrophe was the only imperfection in Michael Meredith’s Dominion Rd restaurant, where the food was like nothing else you could find in the city. Another graduate of The Grove, Michael’s greatest gift was his imagination, as evidenced by his signature dish: a “hamburger” featuring beetroot-pink macaron buns and a duck liver parfait inside. You have 100 places to choose from when you go out to dinner these days but back in the 2000s it was really just a handful, with Merediths the top prize. Like a lot of our fine-dining joints, I suspect it was undone by the casual revolution but chef Michael is still around, with an exciting project in Federal St due to open next month.
O’CONNELL ST. BISTRO
“The only thing wrong with this place,” the broadcaster Paul Holmes once told the owner, “is I can’t fit my Bentley down O’Connell St!” Like Holmes, this restaurant was legendary. It felt like a beloved neighbourhood bistro that just happened to be in the CBD — back when the CBD was the most happening part of the city. It was all good, but the best dish was the steak tartare — still a rarity in the early days, and part of a menu special enough that lawyers, stockbrokers and even, once, the drummer from Duran Duran would go out of their way to eat here. OSB was wiped out by a fire in 2016 but successfully relaunched, just in time for another disaster: Covid-19. After almost 25 years, owners Chris and Amanda finally shuttered in 2021, with their fabled wine cellar now safely stored at an undisclosed location.
5 Great Restaurants We’re Still Missing
These are the culinary experiences that could enrich Auckland even further.
A HIA KAI
Only Monique Fiso can do Monique Fiso, and there isn’t enough of her to go around. Her Wellington restaurant, inspired and informed by traditional Māori cuisine (and her years of international experience), is almost impossible to get into. When will we get something like it in Auckland? If SkyCity offered her a restaurant, would she accept? In the meantime there are promising signs at Ada, where chef Kia Kanuta is bringing some Māoritanga to a previously Italian-heavy menu.
A HIGH-END THAI
I loved Woodpecker Hill, a humming Parnell restaurant that combined another restaurant rarity — US-style barbecue brisket — with the sort of explosive Thai flavours you can otherwise only get at Avondale market or a couple of hole-in-the-wall takeaways. I’d love for us to have the Thai equivalent of Cassia, and I’m sure there’s a young Thai-trained chef out there who might one day make the leap.
A GREAT PASIFIKA RESTAURANT
Cheating a bit here, as I happen to know Michael Meredith will soon open Metita, inspired by his upbringing in Samoa. And we’re also excited about Tala in the old Pasture site, featuring Meredith’s former protege Henry Onesemo at the hearth. Restaurants like these are overdue — Robert Oliver’s Me’a Kai cookbook opened up this incredible cuisine to the rest of the world more than a decade ago, but if you didn’t want to cook it yourself or buy it out of a caravan, Pasifika cuisine has been hard to find in the city. Fresh fish, coconut cream and tropical fruit — they’re the sorts of things this part of the world should be famous for, and as we search to define what “New Zealand food” is, this will be a key part of the puzzle.
MORE AFRICAN RESTAURANTS
New Zealanders of African heritage still don’t have many places to choose from. I love the Ethiopian and Sudanese food at Yala on Dominion Rd and hear great things about Gojo in New Lynn, but we still have room for more — more restaurants, more countries represented and more opportunity for non-Africans to learn about the beautiful cuisine and culture of this growing population.
A GREAT GASTROPUB
One of my favourite meals ever was at The Greyhound on Clapham Junction — technically a pub, but with a restaurant and wine team that acted like they were running a Michelin-starred bistro. They do this sort of thing so well in London but it falters here — perhaps because we don’t have the same pub culture. Well, perhaps we should create one. How good is it tying one on, on a Sunday afternoon? I’d love one of our best chefs to devote his or her energy to this — somewhere you can watch the Warriors, have a pint and order fancy kai. We can dream!
And the people making it.
Auckland’s Top 50 Restaurants For 2022. Judged by Viva’s dining out editor Jesse Mulligan and food influencer Albert Cho.
The Best Spots For First Dates, Long Lunches & Special Occasions. Viva’s restaurant judges have awarded some special accolades to standout eateries.
The Year Of Extreme Eating: From $25 Cabbage To The $185 Burger. From quail claws to okra, how we ate in 2022 (and five things we’d like to forget).
Is There Such A Thing As Sustainable Seafood? Fishing is a delicate business, but local chefs are hooking onto an exquisite balance.
What’s The Deal With Auckland’s Vegan Scene? From restaurant pioneers to alternative protein entrepreneurs, plants are on the up.
It’s Viva’s 25th birthday! This week, we’re celebrating with a mighty survey of the past two and a half decades, from looking back on our most memorable — and joyfully irreverent — fashion shoots, to charting Aotearoa’s architectural coming of age, highlighting beauty trends from the archives, and exploring what we cooked and why we cooked it.