Once again its time to celebrate the quality and diversity of the Wellington region’s culinary scene, not at the amuse bouche and sommelier end of the spectrum, but among those caravans, cafés, takeaways and tea rooms that offer exceptional bite for your buck.
When we sat down to draft a list of candidates for 2014’s Cheap Eats list, we were struck by the number of exciting new players. Once we’d expanded to cover the Wairarapa and Kapiti Coast, and included some that were unlucky to miss out last year, we decided it would be best to have an entirely fresh, new list.
A year is too short to pick up on meaningful dining trends, but we noticed a few things as we were travelling the region. American street and soul food, including Tex-Mex, Cajun and southern barbecue, is becoming more established. Now that it’s no longer a novelty, diners are demanding more quality and variety, and the market is responding. Wellington’s also finally getting some cuisines that have long been fashionable overseas, such as ramen and Ethiopian food. The global trends towards food trucks, pop-ups and market stalls are gaining momentum here too, though they tend to be more sophisticated and calculated ventures rather than a natural outgrowth of Kiwi eating culture. But what else would you expect from the culinary capital?
How we chose
The definition of ‘cheap’ varies with context, and of course depends upon who’s paying, but we decided that around $10 for a light meal and $15–18 for mains should do it, and at the top end we expected something special for the price.
We omitted chains, since we wanted to emphasise the unique and the local, but included some with a couple of locations that might expand into chains later. We wanted everything from sit-down dinners to kiosks and carts, and we also aimed for geographic spread. This year, we spread the net to include the wider region, covering the known dining hotspots plus a few out-of-the way gems.
In trimming the list to 20, we used research and crowd-sourcing, enlisting local knowledge to help unearth rough diamonds as well as the old favourites. Some very good places were unlucky to miss out: in particular, Pranah and French Cancan, because the former was still closed for the holidays when I visited, and the latter was in the process of moving to the CBD. Finally, it came down to personal preference and a desire for variety, resulting in a list of 20 affordable, high-quality and characterful dining places.
Golding’s Free Dive
14 Leeds Street, Te Aro
One of the well-known strengths of Golding’s is that it’s a place to enjoy Pomodoro’s impeccable pizzas while savouring fine beers and admiring even finer beards. But the small snack menu offers cheaper delights, such as Reuben sandwiches and ham and mozzarella melts, and there are often pop-ups offering a global sampling of street food, from hot dogs and Texas chilli to ramen.
120 Victoria Street, Te Aro
‘Best roti in town’ is a hotly contested title, but I believe we have a winner here: perfectly crisp on the outside; soft and light within. That’s to be expected given that Roti Chenai specialises in the south Indian/Tamil variety of Malaysian cuisine: rendang, varuval, murtabak and dosai. My favourite speciality is the renowned streetside dish kothu barrota, where roti and tomatoes are chopped up and stir-fried with vegetables or mince.
39A Courtenay Place, Te Aro
I was recently astonished to find that some people regularly dine at KC while sober. As a late-night Courtenay Place stomach-liner, it’s known as a reliable alternative to the usual kebab and burger joints, but this bare-bones takeaway offers quick, decent meals from around Asia. In particular, their pork dishes are highly regarded, and worth putting up with the fluorescent lights and brusque service.
22 Brandon Street, Wellington Central
There’s no shortage of sushi joints in the Lambton zone, from lacklustre food-court chains to shiny modernist temples. But this little place tucked away in Brandon Street feels a little more homely, despite its simple fit-out. The sushi is also mostly simple, as in their authentic salmon nigiri, though they also offer playful bites such as beef and potato curry croquettes with faces drawn on in sauce.
136 Cuba Street, Te Aro
Through several decades and three locations, it has always been the 1990s at Espressoholic. I mean that in a good way, as the varied clientele of students, suburban couples on the town and Cuba Street burn-outs makes people-watching as good as ever. The counter serves a familiar selection of cakes and lasagne slabs, and even though the nachos are not the most authentic, they’ll always taste of home to me.
Kumutoto Plaza, 33 Customhouse Quay, Wellington Central
QBT stands for ‘quesadilla, burritos and tacos’, and they very much do what they say on the tin. On any fine day you’ll find a long but happy queue outside this hole-in-the-wall, as it’s the favourite place of many downtown Wellingtonians for quality waterfront takeaways. It’s hard to argue with Mexican lunches for $10, especially when they’re as fresh, quick and spicy as this.
144A Lambton Quay, Wellington Central
Don’t let the sleek interior fool you: Sir Breadwins is a long-standing institution on Lambton Quay, and a renovation a few years ago didn’t dissuade its loyal customers or diminish its reputation for good-value lunches on the run. All the tea-room staples are here, from sausage rolls to lamingtons, but its focus is on choose-your-own-ingredients sandwiches at prices that belie their satisfying quality.
240 Cuba Street, Te Aro
Combining the food truck trend with a corner bar, the Laundry quickly fitted right into the Cuba Street scene. There’s local beer on tap inside, and a caravan in the courtyard cooking up burgers, tacos, toasties and other down-home treats. There’s nothing too posh about the burgers, just good juicy meat (and vege options) done perfectly and starting at $8, though add bacon and blue cheese sauce if you’re feeling fancy.
Raumati Social Club
34 Poplar Avenue, Raumati South
Set in a little hollow just one row of dunes back from the beach, the former Lembas café remains a hub for a community that wants something better than the Coastlands chains. The decor could be straight out of Te Aro or Newtown, but there’s a definite family-centred Kapiti vibe. The food is classic café fare, including a huge beef burger with beetroot, Cheddar and pickles.
250 Wakefield Street, Te Aro
At first I thought the name was cashing in on Sweet Mother’s Kitchen, and to some extent it’s similar, only with fewer hipsters and more families – and with efficient, friendly service. It’s a now-familiar mix of tacos and sliders, po’boys and hash browns, with a slightly more sophisticated evening menu. Don’t miss the milkshakes, which with flavours such as Oreo and double chocolate fudge brownie aren’t exactly aiming at the paleo crowd.
56 Kingsford Smith Street, Rongotai
Just a block back from the water, the environment changes from the dunes and breakers of Lyall Bay to light-industrial sheds. It’s worth the trip to find Centennial, which takes its name and inspiration from its location on the former site of the Centennial Exhibition. It’s very family-friendly, especially if your family includes dogs, and highlights for thrifty diners include cheeseburgers for $10 and superb mince on toast with grated Parmesan for $11.50.
119 Manners Street, Te Aro
Red Hill serves the most deliciously rich and spicy Chinese food I’ve had in Wellington, including meltingly tender beef brisket and superb dumplings. The eatery is BYO but also serves cocktails with intriguing names such as The Three Sovereigns and Calming Fist. What really sets it apart, however, is the fact that on some nights the dining room becomes one giant karaoke booth. Cheap and cheerful doesn’t come more cheerful than that.
Chomp ’n’ Chips
103 Randwick Road, Moera
There’s been a fish and chip shop on this site since 1927, but it’s now as modern as a chippie can get. As well as flawlessly fresh fish in batter or seasoned crumbs, and lovely chunky fries, they offer gluten-free batters (with separate fryers, of course). It’s quite a stretch to say that Moera is becoming the new Jackson Street, but with Zany Zeus and Chomp ’n’ Chops it’s becoming a place to watch.
128 Main Street, Greytown
Most eating places in Greytown are either slick and priced accordingly, or cheap and undistinguished. But Cuckoo strikes a pleasant middle ground, serving good café food at reasonable prices in a relaxed and almost bohemian atmosphere. There’s a range of dishes and counter food, but the highlights are pizzas with ingredients such as lamb chorizo, roast pumpkin and caramelised pear: at $16, the small size makes a good light meal.
4 Rintoul Street, Newtown
A blend of bar, café and diner, Monterey has rapidly become a Newtown institution. Burgers and brunch are good value by Wellington standards, but it’s the house-smoked American barbecue dishes that are the highlight for impecunious gourmands: $14 will get you anything from beef brisket to southern fried mock duck, all with slaw and bread. At brunch, you can also get $4 bottomless pots of filter coffee: single origin, of course.
103 Vivian Street, Te Aro
Slick and professional, Toast It looks to do for the toasted sandwich what Burger Fuel and Wholly Bagels have done with their respective carbohydrate-delivery mechanisms. Combinations include chicken with avocado and caramelised onion, salmon with lemon pepper and cream cheese, and beetroot with spinach and feta. They also serve breakfast sandwiches, dessert sandwiches, fries, pickles and salads.
241 Thorndon Quay, Thorndon
This most unprepossessing of greasy spoons is the hidden gem of Thorndon, popular with office workers and the hi-vis crowd. Most of the counter food is what you’d expect, but their burgers are something special: huge, fresh and flavoursome. The attention to detail even extends to baking their own buns, and it makes an enormous difference compared to the run-of-the-mill offerings in most tea rooms.
154 Featherston Street, Wellington Central
This may be yet another Tex-Mex/soul food/Cajun place, but it has a point of difference: it’s at the end of town that normally has to put up with blander options. Mains range from $10 to $17, including shrimp burritos and big bird chilli, and steak and egg for the spice-averse. For sheer heart-attacks-per-dollar ratio, you can’t beat the Monte Cristo: a deep-fried ham and cheese toastie served with raspberry jam.
The Meeting Tree
100 Tory Street, Te Aro
After a few attempts at pop-up nights, Wellington finally has a permanent Ethiopian restaurant. This little space, strangely decorated after its previously brief life as a Thai restaurant, serves sizzling meat dishes and lentil curries with wickedly spicy berbere paste and tangy injera bread to scoop it all up. What’s more, when they roast coffee beans on a stove on the floor, your head might explode from delicious caffeine overload.
La Boca Loca
19 Park Road, Miramar
There are cheaper meals to be had in Miramar, but few served with such flair and authenticity, and you won’t get Margaritas with your meal at most of them either. Tacos, burritos and quesadilla dishes start at about $16 for vegetarian options, and there’s a handy chilli guide to help neophytes through the Scoville scale. Don’t miss the quesos fundidos: a gloriously cheesy dip of baked ricotta, Cheddar and feta with pico de gallo and corn chips.