And by casual, I really mean casual. Some critics consider a restaurant with $40 mains ‘casual’ if the sommelier isn’t French, but for the majority of us it means we’re in danger of ketchup stains, spilt BYO Shiraz and the occasional seagull attack.
The biggest trend I noticed while selecting a new batch of cheap eats this year is that the burger scene has grown up… literally. Some places still serve the usually misnamed sliders, but restaurants are realising that their patrons can’t be bothered with those fiddly little bites: they crave a proper burger instead. It’s part of a global trend, and no doubt helped along by the annual Wellington on a Plate burger competition, but it’s on the verge of becoming as much of a Te Aro cliché as craft beer and Chemex.
Just please don’t call it ‘dude food’: it’s the 21st century and surely we’ve grown out of the embarrassing old myth that food has a gender. What people of all genders want is filling, tasty food that won’t empty their pockets, and they don’t want to be patronised when they’re hungry. So here’s to the savvy business people who are delivering the goods.
How it works
Everyone has their own idea of what counts as cheap. The process started with a rough guide that $10 for lunch and $15–20 for dinner should be reasonable, even though that would’ve been out of my range when I tried to get by on freelance writing for a while last year. In the end it came down to value in the context of quality: at the upper end we expected to be wowed, but something relatively ordinary could qualify if it was an utter bargain.
As usual, we excluded chains. If you want a slab of deep-fried cardboard from a multinational that profits from zero-hour contracts, then you’ll know where to get it. FishHead’s job is to highlight the quirky local favourites, the fresh up-and-comers, and the tireless small businesses that have kept the impecunious in pies and scones for decades.
Dining choices are subjective, perhaps especially at the greasy spoon end of the market, so don’t be disappointed if your local chippie missed out. I canvassed the opinions of locals where I could, but it’s not a popular choice awards. It’s not even a competition, just a personal selection that we hope reflects the variety of affordable dining across the region.
Beach Road Deli
5 Beach Road, Paekakariki
Paekakariki retains some of the village atmosphere that has succumbed to sprawl further up the coast, with a particularly colourful cluster of shops near the railway line. Beach Road Deli might be the slickest of the cafés here, but it also offers decent value and pleasant outdoor seating. In addition to quality coffee, scones, small goods, sandwiches and ice cream, they sell wood-fired pizzas based on fresh Mediterranean ingredients, with an affordable ‘medium’-sized option.
129 Willis Street, Te Aro
This brash and lively combo of diner and bar is better value than it might look. Some of their burgers cost less than those at the good food trucks, and while the servings are not huge, they offer more exotic ingredients: pork belly, venison and a spectacular duck burger. It’s not BYO, but with $9 cocktails and some quaffable wines for under $30 a bottle, it’s an entertaining option for a relatively inexpensive night out.
151 Willis Street, Te Aro
The food and architecture can’t match the venerable Settlement restaurant that once stood here, but at least the notorious Chow brothers’ temporary venture has brought life back to the site. Despite feeling more like a food court in a tent than a market, there’s plenty of variety and a couple of gems. Where’s Charlie? provides decent Vietnamese food, but for many, Miss Kangsta’s Korean street food (bulgogi, bibimbap, toasties and popcorn chicken) is the stand-out.
Fed Up Fast Foods
40 Marine Parade, Paraparaumu Beach
Paraparaumu Beach is less chain-driven than the main town, with independent vendors such as Fed Up instead of Maccas. While Fed Up have no artisan pretensions (the chips are McCain’s), the fish is fresh and the batter is delightfully crisp, and they’ve been keeping locals happy for over 15 years. Their wider offerings include burgers and kebabs, but it’s the seafood dinners (including king prawns and Nelson scallops) that are best suited to their dune-side location.
257 Cuba Street, Te Aro
When we last met Ekim Burgers (2013), they were working out of a van in a Lyall Bay car park. Since moving into the city, they have lost the surfer and dog walker crowds, but even in burger-mad Cuba Street (Laundry; Grill Meats Beer) they stand out enough to generate long queues for their messily succulent burgers and spicy chips. Their transformation of a car yard into a gleefully shambolic, ever-evolving sunny courtyard just adds to the appeal.
Goose Shack HQ
461 Adelaide Road, Berhampore
The mobile Goose Shack also roosts comfortably in the southern suburbs, serving up charcoal-roasted deliciousness, coffee and cocktails on a sunny street corner. Aside from the more substantial mains, they offer small plates, sandwiches and bar snacks that hit the spot for minimal outlay. You can also balance the richness of smoked pork croquettes, Berhampore fried chicken or Tuatara beer-braised beef sandwiches with coconut-marinated fish, charred cucumber and purslane, and boozy sorbet desserts.
House of Dumplings
117 Taranaki Street, Te Aro
After a long time as a stealthy pop-up operation with a cult following, House of Dumplings now has an actual house. Well, more of a shack: it’s little more than a hole in the wall for picking up these jewel-like treats. They’re so moreish that it’s easy to get carried away and gorge on Korean sesame beef, Japanese six-mushroom and Nepalese spiced lamb, but with restraint, a miserly $10 will get you five mouthwatering dumplings.
Huckle & Co.
31A Dundas Street, Seatoun
When a fish and chip shop’s reading material is not Top Gear and Women’s Weekly, but FishHead, Art News and craft beer magazines, you know not to expect your average greasies. With fresh tarakihi and warehou, chipotle mayo, three types of chips and Zany Zeus halloumi salad, this chippie is clearly aimed at the affluent Seatoun demographic. But good, basic fish ’n’ chips are still just $7, and you’re only one block from the beach.
John’s Kitchen and Takeaways
112 Lambton Quay, Wellington Central
Entering this barren alley at the government end of Lambton Quay feels like falling through a wormhole back to Gliding On days, but thankfully that includes (to some extent) the prices. What you won’t find at John’s: quinoa sliders, tattooed baristas or any sense that time has passed since 1992. What you will get: a delicious savoury pinwheel or Dagwood sandwich, plus a huge scone and a drink, and change for a tenner.
32 Miramar Avenue, Miramar
When it comes to unprepossessing locations for a restaurant, it would be hard to beat upstairs in a Nissen hut above a suburban sports and pokies bar. But Long Thai and its predecessors have become a favourite with Miramar locals. It’s mostly familiar Thai fare (tom yum, pad thai, gang panang) with a touch of Isan cuisine (larb), but what it lacks in originality it makes up in value, with most mains only $14 including rice.
167 Riddiford Street, Newtown
Newtown has long been full of musicians, but it hasn’t had much in the way of live-music venues. Not only does Moon now put the depleted central city gig scene to shame, they offer pizza to complement their serious beer offerings, including the excellent Lightning Tape Wolf: mānuka smoked ham, fontina cheese and thyme with rum and pineapple pickle. It’s good value at any time, but Wednesdays are even better: that’s $10 pizza night.
Cable Car Lane, Wellington Central
The canny operators of the successful Nam have now opened up a hole in the wall in Cable Car Lane to capture the passing torrents of students, Kelburn residents and cruise-ship passengers. Specials include beef phở and five-spice chicken with rice, but they’re primarily a bánh mì vendor. The options for your $8.50 crunchy baguette, beside the usual pâté, chilli, pickle and vegetables, include lemongrass pork, five-spice beef, roast chicken and spicy tofu.
Noah’s Ark Teahouse
4/100 Tory Street, Te Aro
It’s easy to overlook this little Taiwanese tea house, especially if like many of us you’re usually looking for BYO restaurants (it’s unlicensed). Think of it more as a café than a restaurant, albeit with some tasty and generously proportioned dishes (try the popcorn shrimp and the braised pork belly). In lieu of alcohol, they have a staggering selection of iced teas, milk teas and yoghurt juices, in colours as luminous as the accompanying Thai pop videos.
158 Cuba Street, Te Aro
In its original Kent Terrace location, Origami failed to make much impact. In Cuba Street it has more opportunity, and while some grumble about its lack of authenticity, there’s much to enjoy for those who don’t mind a bit of fusion. Tuna salsa might raise some eyebrows, but chopped avocado and onion combined with ponzu dressing makes a tangy match for seared tuna slices. There’s also a bewildering array of sushi, ramen and bento sets.
117 Jackson Street, Petone
Pitched somewhere between a 1990s café and a 1970s caff, Palace might not be the most fashionable stop on the Jackson Street strip, but it’s still deservedly popular. Aside from the brunch standbys of the last couple of decades (eggs Benedict, Caesar salad, nachos), they serve hearty truck-stop fare such as bangers ’n’ beans, mac ’n’ cheese and gargantuan mounds of mince on toast. It’s simple, familiar, café comfort food, done cheaply and done well.
Shop 2, 16 Willis Street, Wellington Central
Tucked just out of sight of the Willis Street crowds, this cheery little Grand Arcade spot is worth popping into for lunch. There are empanadas, of course, with regular and special fillings that include crab meat and cheese; ham, olive and tomato; and slow-cooked beef with green beans. But they also have completos (a Chilean take on hot dogs), pies and sandwiches, with a possibly surprising range of vegetarian options.
The Ramen Shop
191 Riddiford Street, Newtown
Newtown’s diverse population (and cheap retail rents) makes it an increasingly popular location for innovative new dining ventures, and when the time came for the popular pop-up Ramen Shop to set down roots, they chose Riddiford Street. They aim for inventiveness rather than absolute authenticity (radish with ash salt is a signature side dish), and they’re not quite a super-cheap Tokyo noodle bar, but their rich and filling bowls of broth and noodles are still excellent value.
255 Cuba Street, Te Aro
This is an infamously ‘cursed’ location, but Satay Malaysia has been around in various guises for years, so they should make a success of it. Their rendang and sambal dishes are richly spiced, and good value even if they’re pushing the ‘cheap eats’ definition [They’re cheaper at lunch — Ed.]; go for laksa or mee goreng if you’re on a really tight budget. Just don’t skimp on the roti, which are so light they’re pretty much just air held together with deliciousness.
Town and Country Café
74–76 Fitzherbert Street, Featherston
Featherston’s still not the foodie destination that Martinborough and Greytown have become, and despite a good bakery and cheese shop, attempts to introduce café culture have generally been lacklustre. Fortunately, some of the unassuming old provincial tea rooms and takeaways still do the basics right. At Town and Country, try the jumbo burger: it’s pretty much every classic burger ingredient (pattie, bacon, ham, beetroot, egg, cheese) stacked in a bun: a bargain heart attack for only $8.50.
Wellington Night Market
116 Cuba Street, Te Aro
As the name suggests, the Wellington Night Market’s hours are more limited than at Capital Market, but it has a properly festive market feel, and a broader and more interesting selection of food and entertainment. Sichuan:Spice’s Panda Packets and Panda Sheets (read: dumplings and noodle salad) are a big crowd favourite, and you can also eat Filipino dim sum, Moroccan wraps, Hungarian chimney cakes, Armenian lahmajoon or Dutch wafels while enjoying bands, photo booths and, sometimes, karaoke.