Story: Restaurants and food outlets

Page 6. New dining experiences

All images & media in this story


Despite the advent of licensed restaurants, most restaurant-goers continued to bring their own alcohol when dining out. The popularity of BYO (bring your own) was such that Parliament amended the Sale of Liquor Act in 1976 to allow for BYO licences.

Along with new approaches to food and restaurant experiences, BYO restaurants revitalised dining out in New Zealand. Many new restaurants opened in the wake of BYO licences. They tended to be small, relaxed establishments, often run by untrained food enthusiasts willing to experiment with menus, and were quite different in atmosphere and décor to the more conservative licensed restaurants. Released from strict licensing conditions, these BYO restaurants were unafraid to try new things and reinterpret the restaurant experience.

Nouvelle cuisine

Originating in France and a defining feature of the New Zealand restaurant scene in the 1980s, nouvelle cuisine (literally new cuisine) challenged ideas about the look and taste of restaurant food. Gone were heavy sauces in favour of flavoured vinegars, jus (light sauces made from natural food juices) and generally lighter fare.

Most importantly, nouvelle cuisine emphasised the role of the chef in restaurants, allowing food to become a form of expression from the kitchen. Done well, nouvelle cuisine allowed creative and skilled chefs to combine classic French techniques with local ingredients. Taken too far, it could become an odd assortment of ingredients and an unsatisfactory dining experience.

Ham, apricots and cream?

Nouvelle cuisine could pleasantly surprise diners with dishes such as ‘the smoked river eels with a sauce verde’ at Pierre’s in Wellington or the thin pizzas with spinach, blue cheese and snails at Antoine’s in Auckland. At the other extreme, nouvelle cuisine became a farce of ‘sliced ham with apricots, junipers and cream’.1

Pacific rim

One of the biggest culinary awakenings in New Zealand was the Pacific rim style of cooking. It typically combined classical French cooking techniques with fresh local produce, pan-Mediterranean and Asian ingredients. The best New Zealand form of Pacific rim cuisine emerged from the Sugar Club, which opened in Wellington in 1986. Dishes such as sugar-cured fish salad with wasabi and miso dressing wowed diners’ palates. The Sugar Club’s fusion style was transported to the United Kingdom when the owners opened a restaurant of the same name in London in 1995 to great acclaim.

Ethnic restaurants

From the 1980s the long-standing Chinese restaurants were joined by a host of other ethnic restaurants, including Indian, Vietnamese and Japanese establishments. Italian restaurants had opened in the 1970s but grew in number in the 1980s and 1990s. By the 2000s the foods of most countries were available in New Zealand restaurants.


Traditional Māori food and seasonings began to appear on restaurant menus in the 1990s, alongside the Pacific-rim approach to food. For instance, kai moana (seafood) was seasoned with native plant condiments made from piko piko, horopito and kawakawa.


In the 1980s a new breed of café opened which concentrated on coffee, not food. Customers ordered at the counter, some to drink in-house and others to take coffee away. Cafés sprawled out onto footpaths, with outdoor seating and umbrellas.

Each city has its own ‘first’ or real’ modern café story. David Humphrey of Stewart’s in Dunedin roasted and ground his own coffee beans and served espresso coffee in 1975. In Auckland, John’s Diner (1981–83) sold cappuccinos and inspired a new generation of cafes. Wellington’s Midnight Espresso (opened in 1989 and still running in 2012) served good, strong coffee and vegetarian-oriented food. Christchurch coffee lovers patronised Americanos and Café Espresso in the early 1990s. By the early 2000s espresso coffee was easier to find than a cell phone signal in rural parts of New Zealand.

Licensing changes

The Sale of Liquor Act 1989 radically simplified liquor licensing. A host of licence types were replaced by four licences – the on-licence applied to restaurants, which no longer needed to meet complicated and expensive requirements to sell alcohol with meals. Some restaurants remained BYO. The number of licensed and BYO restaurants increased in the wake of this change – from 493 in 1988 to 1,653 in 1998.

Regional restaurants

Beyond the main centres, restaurants opened in the regions associated with wine-making, such as Marlborough, Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay. Some vineyards opened on-site restaurants, while certain towns, such as Havelock North in Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough in Wairarapa, carved out new reputations as centres of fine dining.

Eating out in the 2000s

Restaurant and café numbers boomed in the early 21st century. There were 4,322 in 2000 and 6,633 in 2011. Takeaway outlets increased from 3,266 in 2000 to 4,184 in 2011. These sectors employed over 70,000 people in 2011.

  1. Michael Guy and Nicola Legat, Eating out: a guide to New Zealand restaurants. Auckland: Lindon, 1981, p. 57. Back
How to cite this page:

Perrin Rowland, 'Restaurants and food outlets - New dining experiences', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Perrin Rowland, published 5 Sep 2013