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Restaurants and food outlets

by Perrin Rowland

New Zealand’s 19th-century European settlers often depended on hotels for meals, and the 1860s Otago gold rush led to a proliferation of restaurants and dining rooms. For many years, restrictive liquor licensing laws made it difficult for restaurants to serve alcohol. In the 2000s the number of restaurants and cafés soared, and espresso machines were everywhere.

Early restaurants

Essential service

When settling a new country, a hospitality industry is often one of the first created. In 19th-century New Zealand itinerant workers and other new immigrants had little access to kitchens or families to cook for them. They depended on hotels that provided daily ‘ordinaries’ (set meals at set times for a set price), as well as the alcohol that lubricated the grim reality of New Zealand’s early frontier settlements.

Restaurant growth

In Auckland, the urban infrastructure necessary for growing and maintaining a modern restaurant scene was established by the 1850s. Permanent hotels, cafés and restaurants were built with large kitchens housing commercial stoves. However, nothing could inject growth into a restaurant industry like the discovery of gold. In 1860 Dunedin had five hotels; gold was found in Otago in 1861, and by 1864 there were 87 hotels. Dozens of dining rooms, restaurants and cafés sprang up to cater to a variety of purses. The first Chinese restaurants also opened in Dunedin during the gold rush.

French connection

Restaurant owners vied with one another for custom by advertising in local newspapers. In the 1860s the Riordan brothers of Dunedin took out large advertisements for their City Buffet restaurant, boasting of fine meals ‘with every delicacy’ from a chef advertised as ‘an experienced Parisian artiste’.1

Varied options

Many more restaurants opened in the 1870s. Hotels had in-house restaurants, while stand-alone establishments included dining rooms, luncheon rooms, chop houses, American-style oyster saloons (which served oysters and other seafood) and cafés, which were then more upmarket restaurants often consisting of several floors. Some establishments provided separate dining rooms for women, and men’s clubs had dining facilities for members.

Something for the ladies

Charles Canning opened the St Mungo Café in Auckland’s central business district in 1871. His advertisements paid special attention to women, claiming: ‘To the Ladies of Auckland and Suburbs he would also beg to intimate that he has been enabled to set apart A COMPLETE SUITE OF ROOMS for their accommodation.’2 Readers knew this included rest-room facilities, which would have been welcome in the days before public toilets were available.

The 1880s depression dampened the hotel and restaurant trade, but it recovered by the mid-1890s. By the start of the 20th century urban New Zealanders, particularly those in the main centres, enjoyed a range of dining options.

Drinking and dining

During the 19th century alcohol was available in many restaurants, though the primary focus was on food. From 1881 liquor licences could only be obtained if accommodation was provided, and while some restaurants did advertise rooms, this was not universal.

Some restaurateurs provided their patrons with illegal alcohol – fish-and-chip shops, which arose in the early 20th century, were well known for this practice, as were oyster saloons and Chinese restaurants. Alternatively, waiters purchased alcohol for patrons from nearby wholesalers.

Other proprietors, content to concentrate on food, did not serve alcohol, and some advertised their alcohol-free credentials. From the late 19th century coffee palaces and lounges drew crowds who wanted to socialise without alcohol. Coffee and food were also available from street-side coffee stalls.

    • Otago Daily Times, 24 August 1863, p. 6. Back
    • Daily Southern Cross, 31 August 1871, p. 1. Back

Liquor licensing and dining out

Liquor licence restrictions

The Sale of Liquor Act 1917 required licence holders to stop serving alcohol at 6 p.m., though hotel restaurants could serve alcohol with food until 8 p.m. Licences carried a number of conditions, such as a required number of bathrooms, bedrooms and fire escapes. This meant that only hotels (and their bars) could easily satisfy liquor licence requirements – by definition restaurants were not considered appropriate for licensing.

Effect on restaurants

Further restrictions on liquor licences did not result in the closure of restaurants. Proprietors were long accustomed to operating without liquor licences. In fact, the 1917 act probably resulted in a broader array of dining options.

Since the 1880s a series of licensing and temperance (anti-alcohol) reforms had streamlined the hotel bar experience, stripping it of entertainments such as barmaids, gambling, dancing, music and food – even seats – so that the only thing to do in most hotel bars was drink, usually rapidly.

Restaurants, however, were concerned with more than just drinking – the restaurant experience included food, décor and service. Neither the industry nor diners were interested in swapping these elements for alcohol. Thus, many New Zealand cities witnessed an increase in the number of restaurants available: Auckland had 109 restaurants in 1920, and by 1926 there were 207 to choose from within the central business district.

Large-scale dining

Cinema restaurants were huge, reflecting the popularity of movie-going. A 500-seat tearoom and large dance floor opened at Auckland’s Civic Theatre in 1929. The tearoom employed 57 people.


From the 1920s restaurants began to merge with other forms of leisure activities. Cinemas opened restaurants, and nightclubs also hosted late dinners, served at small tables that lined the dance floor. Restaurant-goers who wanted to drink alcohol brought their own (known as ‘BYO’ – bring your own). At the Dixieland in Point Chevalier, Auckland, diners knew that if they left a bottle of alcohol on the table, a waitress would rent them ‘spot glasses’. BYO became a New Zealand tradition.

Pushing the boundaries

Point Chevalier’s Dixieland was a restaurant and resort by day but by night transformed into a raucous cabaret frequented by fashionable people. Patrons were charged an admission fee in an attempt to get around licensing laws. The fee was supposed to transform Dixieland into a private party venue but it didn’t stop police from raiding the establishment in 1926. Proprietor Frederick Rayner’s private party argument did not convince the judge during the subsequent court case and he was fined after being convicted of liquor licensing offences.

Food fashions

Restaurateurs tailored the restaurant experience to embrace various food fashions and fads. Social reformers and people who did not drink alcohol still enjoyed a nice meal with non-alcoholic drinks at coffee palaces and tearooms. Health enthusiasts patronised vegetarian and health-food restaurants, such as Sanitarium’s vegetarian cafés, the first of which opened in the early 1900s. Some tearooms embraced ‘healthy’ menus of raw fruit suppers and ‘purity ices’ – ice cream blended with fruit flavours.

The fashion of ‘dainty’ food placed an emphasis on smaller, more delicate dishes accompanied by tea or coffee. In the 1920s and 1930s department-store tearooms specialised in dainty food, quality décor and good service.

Hotel restaurants offered more substantial fare, including roast meats dressed with sauces, chicken and fish dishes, boiled and baked vegetables and rich desserts.

Pie carts

By the 1920s pie carts had replaced coffee stalls as a prime spot for a cheap evening meal outdoors. Along with fish-and-chip shops and working men’s restaurants, pie carts fed those disinclined or unable to enter more upmarket dining establishments.

Restaurants during the Second World War

Impact of war

The outbreak of the Second World War did not have an immediate effect on restaurants. Casual lunchtime trade in tearooms, grill rooms and hotels remained brisk and was sustained by women customers, who had entered the workforce to replace the men serving in the armed forces.

Change of plans

The steady depletion of men, as they left New Zealand to serve in the armed forces, curtailed the number of dining opportunities for New Zealanders at home. One woman remembered her sister answering the door to find her dinner date in uniform ready to report to Fort Dorset instead of taking her out.

However, restaurants were soon affected by wartime restrictions. Food rationing was a particular challenge. During the war eggs, sugar, tea, butter and certain meats, all staple ingredients or menu items, were rationed. Chefs were resourceful though and adapted menus to cope with rationing. Labour shortages were another wartime problem and some restaurants closed due to lack of staff.

American troops

Between 1942 and 1944 around 100,000 American troops were stationed in New Zealand, mainly in Auckland and Wellington. American soldiers brought a sense of glamour to the New Zealand restaurant scene. They wooed women with flowers, sweets, liquor and meals out on the town at Regent, Blake’s, the Silver Grill, the City Grill and the Cocoanut Grove (all in Auckland), or Garland’s and the Green Parrot (Wellington).

Bacon and … toast

Wartime egg rationing was a major problem for certain restaurant menu items. In 1942 some Wellington restaurants listed bacon and egg (rather than eggs) and even just bacon on toast.

Steaks, beer and contemporary music were found at the El Rey nightclub in Auckland, a favourite of American naval chief Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Other popular Auckland nightclubs included the Orange, Druid’s Hall, Masonic Hall and Crystal Palace. As long as patrons behaved appropriately, police turned a blind eye to liquor licensing infractions.

White damask tablecloths and silver service were available at department-store tearooms as well as at the Ritz (Auckland) and the Grand Hotel (Wellington).

American legacy

While many of these hotspots were Wellington and Auckland mainstays, Americans did introduce plenty of new fashions, such as a taste for casual dining at hamburger bars, milk bars and cafés. These often adopted American names such as the Florida, California or Sunshine.

Cafés and restaurants had regularly served hamburgers, coffee and doughnuts in New Zealand well before the troops arrived, but the Americans’ popularity did trigger an interest in this style of dining, especially among the young.

Teenagers and family restaurants

Teenagers and eating out

With growing economic security in the post-war years, the family budget often permitted teenagers to keep any money they earned to spend as they liked. Teens hung out in local restaurants to eat hot dogs, play jukeboxes and drink American-style milkshakes away from parental authority. Popular spots were the Kiwi Café and Maori Community Centre in Auckland and the Sorrento club in Wellington. Dozens of other cafés, milk bars and dance clubs opened where teenagers could be among their own, away from the outside world and their families.

Family restaurants

Families were another growing market for restaurants. By the 1970s, one in four married women worked outside the home. With limited time together, the opportunity for a family to eat out in a restaurant became a celebrated occasion.

Mass production

The Hungry Horse menu was American in style, offering omelettes, steaks, salads and open sandwiches. The food and prices were popular with the dining public, and staff cooked and presented food on a large scale. Fifty garnished plates were laid out ready to pile with food at any one time and vast quantities of coleslaw ingredients were mixed with mayonnaise in plastic rubbish bags.

Bob Sell was one of the first restaurateurs to offer casual, cheaper, family-oriented food complete with children’s menus in the early 1970s. Inspired by San Francisco restaurants, his Hungry Horse restaurant in Auckland was fun and colourful, decorated with saddles, halters and paintings of horses.

New Zealand Breweries built upon this design with their chain of Cobb & Co restaurants (named after a 19th-century coach company), which were decorated with wine-red carpet, dark wood and equestrian equipment. Cobb & Co branches opened quickly around New Zealand. They were often the first licensed restaurant in the outer suburban and rural areas that encouraged families to dine together.

Franchise restaurants

American franchise restaurants were quick to capitalise on the success of family dining. Kentucky Fried Chicken (1971), Pizza Hut (1974) and McDonald’s (1976) opened branches as ‘family restaurants’ that traded on cleanliness, convenience and quick service. They were ‘child-friendly’, hosting children’s parties and providing indoor playgrounds. Food was consistent and scientifically hygienic, and they fascinated the New Zealand public. However, once the novelty wore off, the food became commonplace and these restaurants were rebranded as fast-food chains.

New Zealand-owned fast-food chains such as Georgie Pie (first opened in 1977) competed with the American brands, but ultimately unsuccessfully. The Georgie Pie chain expanded rapidly in the early 1990s but ran at a loss. The stores were progressively closed from 1996 – some were turned into McDonald’s outlets.

Re-licensing of New Zealand restaurants

Restaurant growth

Post-war social and economic conditions – a strong economy and a high standard of living – fostered more restaurants and restaurant patrons. New Zealanders were encouraged to spend their significant disposable income on the ‘good life’, which included going to restaurants.

The number of restaurants in Auckland city quadrupled between 1946 and 1965. The New Zealand Women’s Weekly magazine counted 420 restaurants in Auckland in 1959. New restaurants regularly opened, especially along Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, described as early as 1954 as Auckland’s restaurant district.

City rivalry

Auckland and Wellington were New Zealand’s main restaurant centres in the 1950s and newspaper editors liked to describe a situation of rivalry. In 1956 Truth claimed that ‘Wellingtonians have long cast envious eyes at Auckland’s growing chain of restaurants and gayer night spots.’1

New restaurants

One of the earliest of the post-war restaurants was the Hi Diddle Griddle in Auckland. It wasn’t cheap, but it quickly became the place to see and be seen, and inspired a host of other restaurants with later hours, elegant decor and eclectic menus.

The Gourmet (owned by the Griddle’s former manager Otto Groen) opened in Auckland in 1954 and catered exclusively for an upper-class clientele. It was like a private club where regulars knew one another. It was one of the first restaurants in New Zealand to offer chilled salad bars, an open charcoal broiler and a tank of live crayfish.

Theatre and dining

Wellington’s Downstage Theatre started life in 1964 as the Downstage Theatre Café. The fledgling theatre company took over the premises of a failed restaurant in Courtenay Place and made full use of the kitchen facilities. The gala opening night production of Edward Albee’s The zoo story was preceded by a dinner comprising meat and fish cooked by Helen Seresin, wife of one of the founders, Harry Seresin; crêpes suzettes by television chef Graham Kerr; Penfolds and McWilliams wines; and New Zealand cheeses.


Traditionally, cafés in New Zealand had been more like restaurants, but from the 1950s new cafés (particularly in Wellington) began to emulate their European counterparts. Many were run by European immigrants. They stayed open later, offered coffee and desserts and were frequented by intellectuals, musicians and artists.

Notable Wellington cafés included the Coffee Gallery, Suzy’s and Monde Marie. Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge, opened in 1967 and presided over by transgendered identity Carmen Rupe, provided space for those after a more risqué experience.

Chinese restaurants

While Chinese restaurants had been around since the 19th century, Chinese food became much more popular with New Zealanders in the 1950s and 1960s. Greys Avenue was Auckland’s Chinatown because of the number of Chinese restaurants there.


The diners at the sophisticated new post-war restaurants wanted to drink alcohol with their meals. Mixing and drinking cocktails was becoming popular, and the Gourmet offered its clientele the ability to drink with their dinner. Each night, waiters placed glasses filled with ice at each place so that diners could fill them with their own liquor.

Other restaurants had similar tactics. Orsini’s in Wellington regularly stocked a private cellar for many of their customers. In Christchurch, the Milando plugged open wine bottles with candles if they got wind of a police raid. Many restaurants quietly encouraged a BYO (bring your own) policy.

Embarrassing and disruptive police raids, fines for sly-grogging and the growing belief that diners had a right to drink with dinner encouraged restaurateurs to campaign to change the licensing law. An amendment to the Licensing Act in 1960 allowed the Licensing Control Commission (LCC) to issue 10 restaurant liquor licences. The following year (before any licences had been issued) the limit was removed.

Restaurants had to meet onerous criteria which limited the number and success of applicants. By March 1962 12 licences had been issued. Though this slow start hardly revolutionised dining in New Zealand, it officially recognised restaurants as a growing part of New Zealand’s large and lucrative hospitality industry. It also indicated that New Zealanders were keen to take dining out, and restaurants, much more seriously.

    • Truth, 17 July 1956, p. 39. Back

New dining experiences


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.

    • Michael Guy and Nicola Legat, Eating out: a guide to New Zealand restaurants. Auckland: Lindon, 1981, p. 57. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Perrin Rowland, 'Restaurants and food outlets', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Perrin Rowland, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013