Some restaurants serve a fixed-price dinner, but the majority are à la carte. Remember that "entrée" in Kiwi English is the equivalent of an appetizer. Increasingly, restaurants are offering smaller, tapas-style plates for sharing. It's wise to make a reservation and inquire if the restaurant has a liquor license or is "BYOB" or "BYO" (Bring Your Own Bottle)—a few places have both. This only pertains to wine, not bottles of beer or liquor. Be prepared to pay a corkage fee, which can be up to NZ$10.
Many restaurants add a 15% surcharge on public holidays. Employers are required by law to pay staff a higher wage during holidays. This amount will be itemized separately on your bill.
New Zealand's Cuisine magazine has a special annual issue devoted to restaurants throughout the country; check their website if you'd like to get a copy before your trip. There are also a few helpful New Zealand dining websites worth a look. Through some, you can make online reservations. These include Dine Out and Zomato, two national databases with customer reviews.
Cuisine Magazine. www.cuisine.co.nz.
Dine Out. www.dineout.co.nz.
Burgers and Bacon
Burgers are a staple for a quick bite. However, you'll find there's a whole lot more than two all-beef patties and a bun—two of the most popular fillings are beetroot and a fried egg. Cheese on burgers (and sandwiches) is often grated bits sprinkled atop. Another Kiwi snack staple, meat pies, is sold just about everywhere. The classic steak-and-mince fillings are getting gussied up these days with cheese or mushrooms. And who could forget good ol' fish-and-chips in this former British colony? Appropriately called "greasies," this mainstay is often made of shark but called lemon fish or flake. You might notice bowls by the cash registers of take-out shops containing packets of tartar sauce or tomato sauce (catsup). These are usually not free for the taking; they cost about 50¢ each.
Be aware that "bacon" might consist of a thick blubbery slice of ham or a processed fatty, pink, spongy substance. If you love your bacon streaky and crisp, politely inquire what kind of bacon they serve before ordering a BLT.
When in New Zealand, taste the lamb. No matter where you go in the country, it's sure to be on the menu along with locally farmed beef. Cervena, or farm-raised venison, is another local delicacy available all over New Zealand.
Lemon & Paeroa, otherwise known as L&P, is New Zealand's most famous soft drink. Keep in mind that if you order a lemonade you will be served a carbonated lemon-flavored drink. If you've a sweet tooth, nibble a chocolate fish, a chocolate-covered fish-shape marshmallow. This treat has become so popular in New Zealand that it's now synonymous with success. You'll often hear someone say, "you deserve a chocolate fish!" in place of "job well done!" And if you're traveling in the heat of the summer, don't leave town until you've tried a hokey pokey ice cream, another New Zealand mainstay. If you want to try a truly unique bit of New Zealand grub, and we do mean grub, taste the larvae of the huhu beetle. (Okay, this isn’t readily available, probably only at the annual Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, on the South Island West Coast.)
Don't miss a Māori hāngi. This culinary experience is most likely to be available in conjunction with a cultural show, or marae visit. The traditional preparation involves steaming meat, seafood, and vegetables, for several hours, in a large underground pit. Also be sure to try the locally grown kūmara, or sweet potato. Some Kiwi folk view muttonbird (the cute name for young sooty shearwaters, harvested from their burrows on little islands around Stewart Island) as a special treat, but others balk at its peculiar smell and strong flavor. It is an acquired taste, but if you're an adventurous eater it's definitely one to try.
Of course, seafood is a specialty, and much of the fish is not exported so this is your chance to try it. The tastiest fish around is snapper in the North, and blue cod (not a true cod relative) in the South. Grouper (often listed by its Māori name of hāpuku), terakihi, and marine-farmed salmon are also menu toppers, as is whitebait, the juvenile of several fish species, in the whitebait-fishing season of spring. As for shellfish: try the Bluff oysters (in season March–August), Greenshell mussels (also known as green-lipped or New Zealand green mussels), scallops, crayfish (spiny lobster), and local clamlike shellfish, pipi and tuatua.
In New Zealand restaurants, many vegetables have two names, used interchangeably. Eggplants are often called aubergines, zucchini are also known as courgettes. The vegetable North Americans know as a bell pepper is a capsicum here. The tropical fruit papaya is known by its British name, pawpaw.
Hotel restaurants serve breakfast roughly between 7 and 10; cafés and restaurants often serve breakfast/brunch to 11 am, or even an "all-day breakfast." Lunch usually starts about noon and is over by 3. Dinners are usually served from 6 pm, but the most popular dining time is around 7 to 8. Restaurants in cities and resort areas will serve dinner well into the night, but some places in small towns or rural areas still shut their doors at around 8.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants and cafés. There are a few exceptions to this rule, so check first. In some areas, American Express and Diners Club cards are accepted far less frequently than MasterCard and Visa.
Reservations and Dress
We only mention reservations specifically when they're essential or when they are not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (a week or more) and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy. We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Attire countrywide is casual; unless you're planning to dine at the finest and more conservative of places, men won't need to bring a jacket and tie. At the same time, the most common dinner attire is usually a notch above jeans and T-shirts.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
New Zealand is well known for its white wines, particularly Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. The country has also gained a reputation for red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. The main wine-producing areas are Hawke's Bay, Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara (north Canterbury), and Central Otago. Restaurants almost without exception serve New Zealand products on their wine list.
When ordering a beer, you'll get either a handle (mug), a one-liter jug (pitcher) with glasses, or a "stubby" (small bottle). If you’ve asked for one of these (a bottle), you might need to request a glass if you don’t want to glug straight from the bottle (depending how casual the bar is). Two large mainstream breweries, DB and Lion, produce their own products along with smaller, well-known brands that initially started as independent breweries, such as Macs, Monteiths, and Speights. They also dispense international brands Steinlager, Stella Artois, Heinekin, and more. The big trend in recent years, however, has been to boutique microbreweries and craft beers. Innovation, international awards, and ever-changing brews are the features of brands where even the brewery names are interesting, for example, Tuatara, Garage Project, Epic and 8, Wired Brewing. Each brand has its own fan base and the good pubs will have at least a couple of ever-changing taps serving up these tasty brews. Most restaurants and liquor stores also sell beers from Australia, Europe, and other parts of the world. Some of the beer in New Zealand is stronger than the 4% alcohol per volume brew that is the norm in the United States. Many go up to 7% or 8% alcohol per volume, so check that number before downing your usual number of drinks.
Popular for its wacky marketing as well as the flavor is 42 Below vodka, which incorporates local flavors: feijoa, manuka honey, passion fruit, and kiwifruit. Most inner-city bars will have it on the menu if you want to try before you buy a bottle; and having won a slew of gold and silver medals at international wine and spirit competitions around the world, it makes a cool duty-free gift to bring to vodka connoisseurs back home. When it comes to gin, the Kiwi Lighthouse is an award winner and South is also tasty and comes in a gorgeous bottle.
Use your judgment about ordering "off the drinks menu." If you're in a small country pub, don't try to order an umbrella cocktail. By insisting on a margarita from an establishment that doesn't have the mix, the recipe, or the right glass, you're not gaining anything except a lousy margarita and a reputation as an obnoxious customer.
Beer and wine can be purchased in supermarkets, specialized shops, and even little corner suburban shops—seven days a week. People under 18 are not permitted by law to purchase alcohol, and shops, bars, and restaurants strictly enforce this. If you look younger than you are, carry photo identification to prove your age.