A taste for Wellington’s best foodie secrets

Where to find Wellington’s best kept foodie secrets including Scarlett Johansson’s favourite chocolate cake.

The news is out. Wellington has the best chocolate cake (according to Scarlett Johansson) and some of the best eats in the world (says Nat Geo).

Three Wellington neighbourhoods have received a culinary stamp of approval in National Geographic’s 2017 guide to “the best eats on (almost) every continent”, while Scarlett Johansson has singled out a local café for “the best piece of chocolate cake I’ve ever had in my entire life”. 

Johansson, who lived in Wellington while filming Ghost in the Shell, discovered the chocolate cake at Zany Zeus café in suburban Lower Hutt: “It was worth the like 35-minute drive to get there. I was like I was on a mission – get me that chocolate cake.”

That’s yet more accolades for Wellington, already recognised as the world’s coolest little capital (Lonely Planet, 2011).  National Geographic named the world’s southernmost capital in its 2017 line-up of “six unexpected cities for the food lover”. 

In the online guide, travellers are urged to look beyond the established foodie destinations and “get a taste for each corner of the world”. Selected locales in each of the six cities are awarded titles such as Best Neighbourhood to Get Fancy, Best Neighbourhood to Café-hop, Best Neighbourhood for Ethnic Eats, and so on. 

Other seats of government keeping company with New Zealand’s capital city in National Geographic’s list are Budapest (Hungary), Yerevan (Armenia), Santiago (Chile), Dakar (Senegal). Most unexpected of the cities on the list is that cornerstone of the American car industry, Detroit.

The three Wellington neighbourhoods identified as foodie hotspots are Cuba Street (Best Neighbourhood for a Food Frenzy), Lyall Bay (Best Beach Eats) and the city’s waterfront precinct (Best DIY Eats). 

Lauded internationally for its coffee culture, craft beer and its creative capital in arts and culture, Wellington is increasingly well known for its culinary arts, expressed in everything from high-end dining to street eats and food trucks. National Geographic acknowledges that shift in awareness, saying, “Often overshadowed by Auckland, New Zealand’s capital holds its own as a food destination.”

Cuba Street is described by the international publishing giant as “the city’s hippest stretch, home to trendy restaurants, cool bars, and hidden gems”. It singles out Matterhorn, a dining institution and known haunt of “Wellywood” movie-makers and other creatives; Logan Brown, where innovative cuisine is presented in the resplendent setting of a former bank chamber; Olive café, serving Mediterranean-inspired dishes in an inviting space that spills into a colourful courtyard; and Laundry, site of a former dry cleaning business, reinvented as a quirky bar and restaurant, which gets an honourable mention for its soul food menu.

Lyall Bay’s Maranui Café and Spruce Goose restaurant each get a National Geographic gong. Both offer ringside seats to surfers riding the waves and to aircraft landing and taking off over Cook Strait. In this perennially popular oceanfront setting, it’s worth the wait for a table or, weather permitting, placing a fish and chip order at Seaview Takeaways, which gets a special mention as the go-to spot for Kiwis’ favourite seaside fare.

National Geographic insists, “There’s one place to go in Wellington for the freshest produce, meats, and seafood: the waterfront.” Specifically, it names Harbourside Market, where produce from the region’s growers and artisan producers is tantalisingly arrayed at dozens of stalls. Thousands of Wellingtonians and visitors head here each weekend to stock up their larders and select treats from a host of colourful food trucks. Signature dishes originate from as far afield as Egypt, Chile, Hungary and Indonesia, ranging from dumplings, noodles, churros and burgers to bread, honey, ice-cream and cheese. National Geographic also highlights the Underground Market, where pop-up stalls are housed in cut-off shipping containers, as “a showcase for bakers, designers and artists” and recommends a stop at either of the Wellington Sea Market outlets on Lambton Quay or Cuba Street for fresh seafood. 

On a fine day, the harbourside offers a feast for all senses, with the sun sparkling on the water against a backdrop of glass towers, delicious aromas wafting from food trucks, buskers at work and the denizens of Wellington at play – promenading or jogging along the waterfront, sprawled on grassy borders, and applauding daredevil teens as they launch themselves from the wharf into the water. 

It’s often claimed that Wellington has more cafés, bars and restaurants per capita than New York City. Whether or not that’s true, it would certainly be a capital undertaking to list every eating place, let alone sampling their menus. While National Geographic offers a useful starting point for a tasting tour of the city’s neighbourhoods, wherever they are in Wellington, visitors are only ever a few steps away from a culinary experience they can dine out on.