I went to school in New Zealand in an era when ‘caffs’ served strong tea in aluminum pots and white-bread sandwiches with fillings of grated cheese and chopped onion, or cold spaghetti from a can. Servers were ladies in frilly aprons. These days you’ll recognize a Kiwi café by its gleaming Italian espresso machine and hip waitstaff dressed in black.
Café food is what we like to eat these days — in New York, London, even Paris. And Antipodean café culture sets the pace for the rest of the world. Ricotta Pancakes? Created at Bill’s in Australia, circa 1990. Avocado Toast? So passé in New Zealand, from whence it came.
Cafés are where you’ll see Kiwi culinary trends evolving. The line between café and restaurant is blurring – many small eateries are licensed and have menus that segue seamlessly from breakfast and brunch to lunch and dinner. Menus are short but cleverly conceived, ingredient driven, and created by people who wear their talent lightly. There’s a casual sophistication, relaxed ambiance, friendly, unpretentious service. It’s a refreshing scene — restaurant-quality food, without the ‘tude.
New Zealand is a small island nation and many of the chefs and self-taught cooks helming café kitchens have travelled overseas and returned with ideas inspired by cuisines of other countries. New Zealand’s climate ranges from sub-tropical in the far north to alpine down south, which means that while citrus fruit and avocados can be grown at one end of the country; apples, cherries and vineyards thrive at the other. High-quality ingredients, including seafood, pasture-raised meats, fresh dairy and produce from orchard and field, are available year-round. Craft brewing and winemaking are well-established industries. Add the influences of an inclusive, multicultural society and the natural Kiwi entrepreneurial spirit and it’s easy to see why culinary creativity, like the sunrise, starts here and spreads to the rest of the world.
In the North
German-born chef and baker Olaf Blanke has Auckland’s artisan bread market cornered, supplying rock star Kiwi chefs (Peter Gordon, Al Brown, Josh Emett et al) in addition to his own café in suburban Mount Eden. Handcrafted sourdoughs and wild yeast ferments are the stars of a menu that transitions from breakfast and brunch to lunch. Pulled lamb shoulder slathered with tzatziki filled a sandwich made from chewy cumin seed- and turmeric-inflected ciabatta. With a three-salad side (quinoa/roasted veg/fresh summer peas) and a hoppy brew called Semi Conductor, lunch at Olaf’s was a delicious introduction to the current café scene in New Zealand.
In the suburb of Parnell, hanging plants, murals, fishbowl lights and candy-coloured chairs set the scene at Winona Forever, a bustling café named (reportedly) for Johnny Depp’s tattoo. The vibe may be offbeat but the food is spot on. An acclaimed pastry chef is co-owner and the display of baked goods — towering layer cakes and gooey slices — is eye-popping. A short, interesting menu covers breakfast/brunch/lunch. I demolished an oversized salmon hash cake topped with a luminously orange poached egg, with a chunky tomato chutney and a side of lightly spicy Asian slaw. A glass of Marlborough sauvignon blanc eased the impact of the noise level — deafening when this hugely popular place is full.
Sunday morning brought a relaxing reprieve at L’Oeuf, a hip enclave in residential Mount Albert. The menu is classically French, with Japanese, Cambodian and Korean influences kicking things up a notch. Every dish crossing the pass from the open kitchen looked amazing. Portobello mushrooms piled on a raft of toast sported a perky rosemary mast. Black sticky rice pudding, drizzled with coconut cream and garnished with kiwifruit, lychees and edible blossoms – pretty as a painting. I ordered poached eggs, a simple dish in which every element – tangy sourdough toast, free-range egg, cultured butter, a tangle of just-picked salad leaves – was perfect. At the next table, a stack of spinach-flecked waffles topped by a Jenga-tower of bacon. Generous helpings, casually but beautifully plated, low-key but efficient service, happy customers — L’Oeuf is a place worth seeking out.
L’Oeuf was my second breakfast, after a barbecue bao, pork and chive dumplings, and a tub of warm tofu with pickled Szechuan vegetables at the Avondale Market in West Auckland. This sprawling tent city offers a quick lesson in Auckland demographics. A sea of people in saris, hijabs, Polynesian-prints and conical straw hats cheerfully haggle over everything from bitter melons and tempeh to taro roots and chrysanthemum leaves. New Zealand’s multicultural citizens like to grow, sell, buy and cook their own familiar foods. And Kiwi chefs have learned how to use them.
Tucked into a narrow space next to the historic Hotel DeBrett in the Auckland CBD, Giles’ Luncheonette has just a handful of tables that fill up quickly. Arriving just before lunch I missed the Gujarati-style Masala Eggs, said to be one of the most written about breakfasts in Auckland. But a brown bread ‘bruschetta’ with zingy sundried tomato pesto and a salad of wild rocket, feta and cherry tomatoes, from the lunch specials menu, was vibrantly fresh and tasty. And no charge for the sparkling water, including a refill.
The Coromandel Peninsula is a finger-shaped extension of the North Island, just two hours from Auckland but a world apart — defined by mountains clad in hobbitty forest, twisting roads and gorgeous scoops of beach. In some spots hot water bubbles out of the sand; in others, semi-precious gemstones are free for the taking. In the 1970s government land grants led to a number of hippy communes being established on the Peninsula. All but one have gone now but the back-to-the-land ethos is still strong. Fishermen, small-scale farmers and artisan food producers abound. Honey, wine, citrus, avocados, cheese, smoked fish and other handcrafted edibles are available at roadside stands and feature prominently on local menus.
Overlooking picturesque Kuaotunu Beach, Lukes’ Kitchen started life in a caravan. Owner Luke Reilly surfed by day and dished up food for locals by night. Today the surf-shack theme unites a cluster of indoor and outdoor spaces anchored by a wood-burning pizza oven. The dress code may be boardshorts and manbun but the food and drink are a cut above barefoot casual. Seafood chowder, full of fresh mussels and local fish, rich with New Zealand dairy, is superb. Pizzas are thin-crusted, blistery and topped with restraint. Salt and pepper calamari with a slick of aioli is as good this simple but oft abused appetizer gets. New Zealand wines are available by the glass and beers come from nearby Blue Fridge Brewery, another surfer start-up. A raspberry, chocolate and coconut muffin from the coffee counter was a lovely home-made treat.
Flock (as in birds) Kitchen & Bar is in Tairua, a pretty little town at the mouth of the Tairua River on the eastern coast of the Peninsula. Catch of the day, terakihi, a sweet, white-fleshed fish, featured in Asian dumplings with a sesame/soy dipping sauce, and in a pair of soft tacos. Scarlet slices of beet-cured salmon rested on a bed of just-picked herbs and salad greens. Accompanied by a fruity seasonal beer from Good George Brewing (two hours away in Hamilton) and a day of brilliant sunshine – perfect.
On the single road between Auckland and the Coromandel, it’s impossible to miss the bright red tractor parked outside Bugger Café. There are many ways to parse the Antipodean verb/noun/adjective/expletive and here you’ll learn them all with the aid of photos and aphorisms covering the walls. Novelty aside, excellent coffee and charming service staff are reason enough to stop in. Food is mostly home-made and fresh. A smoked fish pot pie, with chunks of kumara (New Zealand sweet potato) and a crusty grilled-cheese lid, delivered by a very tall young man in a turban, was scrumptious.
New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, was the birthplace of modern Kiwi café culture, emerging from the doldrums of the 60s and 70s to become centre of all things cool, including music, film, food and coffee. Although the weather is reliably awful, residents of Windy Wellington love their city, its enviable hillside perch, compact centre and indie vibe. They’re spoiled for choice when it comes to casual eateries, with reputedly more restaurants and bars per capita than New York City.
Salty Pidgin is one of the hottest tickets in town and a good example of the way in which restaurant and café models overlap. On weekends the doors open at 9:30 am with breakfast-y dishes such as yogurt and buttermilk pancakes or eggs on ciabatta with mushrooms and black pudding. During the week Salty Pidgin offers a sophisticated dinner menu, with an extensive wine list, including more than 30 wines available by the glass.
After an uphill hike to Brooklyn, a gentrified historic neighbourhood with commanding views of the harbour, a pint of Parrot Dog Pilsner, one of several local craft beers on tap, hit the spot. With half an hour to spare before my friend arrived, I settled into a sunny window seat with a magazine from a thoughtfully provided stack.
Dinner began with an elegant Viognier from the Hawkes Bay region and a bar snack of crispy cauliflower nuggets with harissa-spiked mayo. A boat-shaped pide filled with smoked fish, lemon, parsley, pumpkin seeds and chard-like greens followed, easily enough for two. A salad of beets in an orange vinaigrette with dabs of smoked ricotta — superlative. Service was attentive and efficient, not missing a beat despite the fact that by 8:00 pm every table and bar stool in the three-storey heritage building was occupied.
Chocolate Fish Café (named for a classic Kiwi chocolate bar) was the quirkiest café I visited in New Zealand. Occupying the officer’s mess and administrative buildings of a former naval base, Chocolate Fish is a ramshackle eatery that sprawls across a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces, including a screen porch and beanbag-strewn lawn with views of the rocky coastline. On a Saturday at noon — kids whizzing around on scooters, barbecues smoking — a long queue of customers snaked through the front door. Happily, the line moved quickly and within minutes I was enjoying a plate of grilled scallops resting in a puddle of pea and horseradish purée with batons of roasted kumara on the side. (I’d seen the scallop divers in the water on my way to the café). A salad of rocket, apple, fennel, edamame and pickled shallots with a tart yuzu dressing balanced the sweetness of the kumara and plump little scallops. A crisp pint of Emerson’s Pilsner to wash all down. My lunch date’s ‘Triple B’ burger, a towering construction of bun, beef patty, cheese, crispy bacon, arugula, sliced gherkin aioli and a 3B (bacon, bourbon, tomato) jam, was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. The oversized brown sugar meringues we bought ‘for later’ didn’t make it past the parking lot.
Way down in Dunedin, the South Island’s Scottish heritage city, Vogel St Kitchen is an urban oasis hidden in a handsome historic warehouse. Bare brick, giant windows, exposed pipes and other industrial bits create a laid-back atmosphere with a vintage vibe. Thin crust pizzas, craft beers, elegant wines, lovely baked goods and excellent coffee, plus friendly service, are just some of the reasons why Vogel St Kitchen has been dubbed ‘Dunedin’s coolest destination café.’ That it was started by a mother of three with no restaurant experience typifies the spirit of enterprise that fuels many Kiwi café start-ups.
Another great discovery in Dunedin is Beam Me Up Bagels, where chewy Montreal-style rings are baked in the back of the shop and given a local spin with ingredients from the surrounding Otago region. ‘Pigs in Space’ with Whitestone cheddar, cream cheese and bacon from Havoc Farm, ‘home of happy hogs’ — lip-smacking. ‘District 9’, with Stewart Island smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers and pickled onions — equally delicious.
Travelling in New Zealand, from the north of the North Island to the south of the South, I sampled a wide variety of Kiwi cafés, from slick urban eateries to casual country charmers. Whether helmed by professionals or self-taught cooks, the ethos was the same — respect for local ingredients and seasonality, globally inspired innovation and above all, a humble desire to give value for money and to feed people well in a convivial, appealing space. Isn’t that what we all want?