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Dining Customs

New Zealand has not "grown up" with a long tradition of service in restaurants, so there will be times when you wonder if we even know what the word "service" means. For many young people, being a waitress or waiter is a reluctantly sought holiday job to earn money for university studies - and sadly, it often shows. However, the competitive market is forcing restaurant owners to wake up to the importance of good, friendly, smiling service, and many polytechnics now offer proper training. It is heartening to see a gradual swing toward a belief that restaurant service can be a career option, not just a long-suffering ordeal.

Service glitches are more noticeable in smaller provincial centers; some of that can be attributed to a lack of suitable local employees. Areas such as the West Coast face the reality of young people moving out to the cities; and major tourist centers like Queenstown tend to have a very transient population of restaurant employees.

New Zealand restaurants are either licensed to serve alcohol or BYO (bring your own); some are both. BYO of course is cheaper, as you don't have to pay the restaurant's surcharge on the wine, though some BYO establishments charge a corkage fee (usually NZ$3-NZ$8) for opening the wine bottle. Note: BYO means wine only, not beer or any other alcoholic beverages.

New Zealand restaurants and cafes do not apply any surcharges to simply sitting at a restaurant table. You are only charged for what you purchase. However, where there are outdoor cafe tables, you must purchase from the restaurant/cafe they're owned by.

Most cafes and restaurants now have table service, but some smaller cafes still operate on a counter service policy, where you place your order at the counter and pay before receiving your meal.

Note: All eateries are now smoke-free. This is a government edict, with smoking banned across-the-board in all restaurants, nightclubs, and public buildings.

Tipping is not customary in New Zealand, although I've never met a New Zealander who doesn't like a show of appreciation for good service and value. But that's relative. My policy is don't tip for the sake of it. This does nothing to foster an improvement in our serving standards, which, let's face it, still need work.

Dining hours vary from one eatery to another. Many cafes and restaurants open for coffee from around 9 to 10am and serve lunch between noon and 2 or 3pm, reverting to coffee and snack service only after that, then serving dinner from 6pm on. Others open for dinner only and that is almost always from 6pm onward.

Food

New Zealand is a land of edible bounty - Canterbury lamb; Central Otago pinot noir; Bluff and Nelson oysters; Nelson scallops; Kaikoura crayfish (lobster); West Coast whitebait; South Island venison; Marlborough green-lipped mussels; Akaroa salmon; Stewart Island blue cod; Central Otago cherries and apricots - and you shouldn't miss any of it.

Within the restaurant scene itself, there has been a revolution in the last decade. Fine dining (silver service) still lingers in a few city pockets, but the upmarket trend is predominantly toward fine gourmet food in more relaxed, contemporary settings. Increasing numbers of restaurants are also sourcing fresh, local ingredients, often specific to their region and often organically grown. As farmers' markets spring up all around the country and increasing amounts of genuinely organic meat and produce become available (albeit at extra cost), chefs are able to secure the very best ingredients to ensure flavorsome, healthy menus. Most will state this on their in-house menus.

Pacific Rim has been the primary culinary influence for some time, and although many chefs have stopped using the term, preferring modern or contemporary New Zealand terminology instead, the end result is much the same - the combination of classic Pacific and Asian ingredients combined to perfection and presented elegantly. You'll be spoiled with all the choices in this category, especially in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown (in that order).

For moderately priced, casual meals, including lunches, there are now so many cafes, restaurants, and bars it seems silly to try to define what each delivers. In short, you will seldom be without a choice. Most prepare good soups, salads, and main courses based around beef, lamb, chicken, fish, and vegetarian choices. Many others specialize in counter food, rather than menu-based options, and include panini, pastries, pies, sandwiches, and salads. Just be aware that many of the more casual cafe/bar establishments offering lighter meals often turn into rowdy drinking holes after 11pm.

There are a huge number of ethnic restaurants in all the main cities - Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are the most common, but you'll also come across Burmese, Afghani, Turkish, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, French, and Middle Eastern choices in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indian restaurants are usually the cheapest of the ethnic choices, and you'll be able to enjoy great meals for a very reasonable price.

On top of the usual restaurant and cafe experiences, you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you miss trying a few iconic Kiwi meals. Fish and chips for instance. The fish-and-chip shop is still one of the most popular takeaway choices in this country - despite the colonization of McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and other conglomerates - and you'll find a fish-and-chip shop in virtually every town and village in the country. It goes without saying that some are better than others. Many still offer the meal - deep-fried battered fish and fat potato fries - wrapped in newspaper, which is how most New Zealanders prefer them; but some have opted for fancier packaging.

The small meat pie is still a Kiwi favorite, too. Every dairy and service station in the country has a pie warmer and, I'm almost reluctant to report, the meat pie is famed as a hangover cure after a night of heavy drinking.

The barbecue is a summer favorite. Almost every family in New Zealand will probably have a barbecue at some point during the summer months. Our balmy evenings lend themselves to eating outdoors and there's nothing quite like it. It invariably includes sausages and steak - often wrapped in bread and smothered in tomato sauce - accompanied by salads. Like most things, though, the barbecue is also changing and many people now apply as much culinary invention to the once-humble barbecue as they do any meal. I have friends who stay at the beach every summer and they live off freshly barbecued fish, scallops, and crayfish (lobster) plucked straight from the ocean and enhanced with their own particular sauces and spices. It's as good as any restaurant meal.

Last but certainly not least, the traditional Maori hangi, where food is cooked underground, is a must-do experience while you're in New Zealand. Traditionally, it involves lighting a fire and putting large stones in the embers to heat. Simultaneously, a large pit is dug. The heated rocks are then transferred into the pit, covered with wet sacking and/or wet newspapers. Prepared lamb, chicken, pork, fish, shellfish, and vegetables (most commonly sweet potato, pumpkin, and cabbage) are wrapped in leaves, placed in flax baskets (now made of wire or mesh), and lowered into the cooking pit, covered with more newspaper and earth, and left to steam. The moist, tender, melt-in-your-mouth food is lifted a few hours later.

Hangi food is not to everyone's taste - certainly not initially. The distinctive smoky flavors are an acquired taste. If you'd like to try hangi food, ask at visitor centers for tour operators who include a hangi. You'll find this easiest in Rotorua, where a number of hotels offer hangi meals as part of a cultural performance package. Bear in mind, though, that because of modern health and safety regulations, many hotels now prepare their hangi meals using gas-fired ovens, so the meal will lack some of the unique traditional smoky flavors that, to my mind, make a hangi meal.

Other distinctly New Zealand culinary experiences include the sheer craziness of the annual Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, where the policy is "If it's not moving, it's edible"; the numerous annual wine and food festivals; and farmers' markets held in individual provinces. All are always well publicized at information centers.

Price categories for eating in New Zealand are as follows: Inexpensive (up to NZ$150), Moderate (NZ$151-NZ$300), Expensive (NZ$301-$600), and Very Expensive (NZ$601 & up).

Drink

A decade ago New Zealand's wine exports totaled around NZ$100 million; soon they are expected to top NZ$1 billion. That's rapid growth by anyone's standards, and as you drive around New Zealand you'll probably wonder if there'll be any farmland left without flourishing vines in another 10 years. It was a very different story 20 to 30 years ago when our nation's vineyards and wineries were restricted to a few long-standing operations in West Auckland and Hawke's Bay. That all changed in the 1990s when a British wine critic tagged New Zealand sauvignon blanc as "arguably the best in the world." Since then, the growth in the wine industry has been unbelievable. We now have 10 major winegrowing regions spanning latitudes 36 to 45 and the entire length of the country. That makes for some diverse growing conditions and some very distinct wine styles. Turns out we can just about grow anything here, although it is our pinot noir and our sauvignon blancs that have made us famous internationally. There is also growing recognition of our chardonnay, méthode traditionelle sparkling wines, our Rieslings, cabernet sauvignon, and our merlot - all of which have cemented New Zealand's reputation as a producer of world-class wines. I have highlighted major wineries in all the wine regions throughout the guide; you'd do well to get yourself a copy of the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail when you arrive here. It's available from all visitor centers and is well worth your while if you enjoy wine and food.

To say that New Zealand is a nation of beer drinkers is an understatement. We don't use the phrase "rugby, racing, and beer" here for nothing. There was a time when the New Zealand beer scene was dominated by just one or two major breweries - Lion and DB for example - but in the last 10 years there has been a proliferation of small boutique breweries springing up all over the country. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this has almost been in response to the astonishing growth of our wine industry; or maybe it was a backlash to the domination of the industry by a few big players. Whatever the reason, New Zealand beer drinkers are happier than they've ever been. You can travel from one end of the country to the other and never drink the same beer twice. To name just a few brewers there's Epic Beer in Auckland; Macs in Wellington; Founders Organic in Nelson; Dux de Lux in Christchurch and Queenstown; Monteith's in Greymouth; Twisted Hop in Christchurch; Speight's and Emerson's in Dunedin; and Wanaka Beerworks in Wanaka. You can do an excellent beer tour in Wellington and you can visit breweries in most major centers.

Vodka is also a word on many people's lips - specifically 42-Below Vodka, that multi-award-winning sensation that tackled the world head-on with its stunning advertising campaign. Based in Auckland, 42-Below hit the shelves around 2002 and it's been winning international awards ever since - or as their cheeky advertising campaign says, they've "had more awards for best vodka than you've had hot dates."

In the soft drink line (sometimes called fizzy drinks here), we've also had a flurry of recent activity. Our ever-popular Lemon & Paeroa, "World Famous in New Zealand," is part of contemporary New Zealand lore. Ever since therapeutic spring water was discovered in the little Thames Valley town of Paeroa in the 19th century, it's been a huge hit. Now we have many new players bringing us a whole range of new soft drink flavors - from elderberry to feijoa and guava. Most have sidestepped mass marketing and have targeted boutique delicatessen stores. That's where you'll find more new brands than I can possibly name here - all of them well worth sampling.

Coffee is the other revolution! In the last decade we have turned into a nation of caffeine addicts. There are numerous coffee grinding companies in most cities - Christchurch alone has close to 20 - and cafes serving excellent espresso are springing up on every corner. You'll also find mobile espresso carts in all sorts of unexpected places, from sports grounds and farmers' markets to street corners and beaches. There's even one on Stewart Island. A number of national cafes have moved into franchising. Yes, we have Starbucks here, but you'll find their cafes are usually filled with tourists. Most New Zealanders prefer a different brew (more like the coffee of Melbourne and Italy) and if they're going to frequent a franchise, they're usually loyal to a New Zealand-based operation.

You'll also find some "interesting" interpretations of espresso in the provinces - not all of them drinkable - but at least they're trying. It all comes down to good espresso training and product knowledge; too bad not all cafes have learned how important it is to invest in these. But with increasing numbers of students pouring out of our hospitality schools, we can only hope to see improvement in this area.

Organic and fair trade coffee is readily available in all the larger cities and towns.

Menu Terms

Afghans -- Popular Kiwi cookies made with cornflakes and cocoa

ANZAC biscuits -- Cookies named for the Australia New Zealand Army Corps; they contain rolled oats and golden syrup

Bangers -- Sausages

Beetroot -- Beets

Biscuits -- Cookies

Blue vein -- Bleu cheese

Capsicum -- Green or red bell pepper

Chips -- French-fried potatoes

Chook -- Chicken

Courgette -- Zucchini

Devonshire tea -- Morning or afternoon tea, plus scones with cream and jam

Dinner -- The main meal of the day; can be the meal eaten in the middle of the day

Entree -- Appetizer

Grilled -- Broiled

Hogget -- Year-old lamb

Iceblock -- Popsicle

Jelly -- Gelatin dessert

Kumara -- Kiwi sweet potato

Lemonade -- 7-Up

Lollies -- Candy

Main course -- Entree

Marmite -- New Zealand-made yeast spread

Mash -- Mashed potatoes

Meat pie -- A two-crust pie filled with stewed, cubed, or ground meat (usually beef) and gravy

Milk shake -- Flavored milk

Milo -- A hot drink similar to Ovaltine

Pavlova -- Popular meringue dessert named after prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, served with whipped cream and fruit

Pikelets -- Small pancakes served at teatime

Pipis -- Clams

Pudding -- Dessert in general, not necessarily pudding

Roast dinner -- Roast beef or leg of lamb served with potatoes and other vegetables that have been cooked with the meat

Rock melon -- Cantaloupe

Saveloy -- A type of wiener

Scone -- A biscuit served at teatime

Silverbeet -- Swiss chard

Silverside -- A superior cut of corned beef

Snarlers -- Sausages

Takeaway -- Takeout

Tamarillos -- Tree tomatoes

Tea -- The national beverage; also a light evening meal, supper

Thick shake -- Milkshake

Tomato sauce -- Ketchup

Vegemite -- Australian-made yeast spread

Water biscuit -- Cracker

Weet-Bix -- A breakfast cereal similar to shredded wheat

Whitebait -- Very tiny fish, served whole without being cleaned

White tea -- Tea with milk

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.