Dining out is always the perfect opportunity to unwind after a busy day exploring up in the Bay and to refuel for the next day’s action (or a day on the beach!).
So what are the best restaurants in the Bay of Islands? There are a plethora of options from quick tasty take out to high-end fine dining. We’ll share our secrets of the top spots in this post, but first, we want to remind you that eating out is one of the best tourist experiences you could have.
Eat to travel – travel to eat
When we’re travelling it’s easy to get on the tourist bandwagon. Organised tours or following the tourist trail has its advantages of course. But often, its from via a script, and what we really crave is those meaningful, genuine experiences that give us real insight into a country or city’s culture. The local goodness that is ‘off script’; the interactions and experiences that are often small, but can be the most memorable.
So while you’re up in the Bay of Islands having the trip of a lifetime why not prioritise where you will eat. And if you’re a foodie, you’ll love the artisan goods and fresh produce at the local Farmer’s Markets too.
The best Bay of Islands restaurants
As a tourist hot spot, there are plenty of places to eat out. But like any town or city, not all restaurants are made equal. Here’s how we have picked our top spots to eat:
Serving high quality food with a local twist
Stating the obvious here, but a good restaurant doesn’t compromise when it comes to serving great food. It will hopefully have a highly experienced chef who prepares meals with passion, using the best quality ingredients to ensure flavour and consistency.
So aside from quality, something else we suggest you consider is finding an eatery that sources some ingredients locally. This helps the area economically and, for you, it means the freshest produce from garden to plate. And it helps you to get a genuine taste of the area.
Some of the best restaurants we’ve picked use local ingredients such as seafood and local veges as their menu highlights.
A great wine menu
This is a must-have to compliment your cuisine in the higher-end restaurants in particular. As well as a selection of local wines to showcase the area’s winegrowing delights.
It’s also a bonus when staff can help you choose what will work with the food your order.
Wine should be well paired to each menu item, and ideally, matched with a view!
Note that if serving alcohol, restaurants must have a license. So some may be BYO (Bring Your Own) where you will pay a small ‘corkage fee’ (even though most New Zealand and Australian wines will be screw top bottles).
The Bay of Islands is known for its friendly people – this is no exception when eating out. But this also means you shouldn’t expect The Ritz treatment either. As kiwis, we pride ourselves on being an approachable and down to earth bunch, so even when you’re fine dining you’ll find the staff to be relaxed and keen to have a laugh with you. Nothing too posh!
Due to the area being a tourist Mecca you’ll often find international staff as waiters and chefs, which can bring another cultural dimension to your service experience too. So whether they grew up here or have lived here since last summer, no doubt the staff will like to share their insights – whether that’s about their favourite menu item or their favourite fishing spot.
Mood, character and the right atmosphere are key to match with all the culinary delights you can savour.
Comfortable seating, decent background music, openness, and lighting all help. But up at the Bay you can’t surpass things like a stellar view of the harbour, or in winter being able to sip a Pinot in front of an open fire in a beautiful historic restaurant, like the Duke in Russell which offers both.
No one wants to eat in a place that’s dirty – yuk. This includes the front and back of the restaurant, restrooms and employee areas. If in doubt, check out their food rating.
New Zealand has strict food standard legislation and you should see a restaurant’s rating as you walk in (it must be prominently displayed). ‘A’ being top marks, and if you see a ‘D’ maybe chat to them about why – they will have been given specific reasons that they will now be required to rectify. If you’re not happy, walk away.
Same same but different
Crayfish? Whitebait fritters? Shellfish and fish that’s completely different to what you’re used to? Or perhaps an experimental gastronomy dish of some kind?
Most people are looking for something a little unique when they dine out – especially while travelling. Check out the menu usually displayed on the outside of an eatery. If there’s something a little different we recommend that you give it a go.
The price factor
Of course price will influence your decision. But perhaps when you’re budgeting for your trip in the Bay of Islands, put aside some cash for a fine dining experience.
If budgets are an issue though – we can’t recommend kiwi ‘fish’n chips’ on the beach. Snapper is the prized fresh fish choice up here, so ask for that.
Along with our local know-how, we’ve double checked with online review sites to pull this list together, but you should do it too as hospitality is a fleeting business and things can change overnight.
Trip Advisor is a good start.
Best restaurants in Paihia
Chances are you’ll be in and around the bustling town of Paihia at some point in your journey. Check out our detailed recommendations on what to do, see and eat in the area for planning your trip.
Charlotte’s Kitchen has probably the best location and view of most restaurants in New Zealand, right at the end of the wharf in Paihia. It’s an absolute treat to dine there on a still summer’s night.
Try the signature free range pork knuckle or handcrafted pizza option. The menu changes with the seasons. Locals recommend trying a cocktail when you visit.
On the Paihia waterfront, Only Seafood provides an inviting atmosphere for dining, serving yummy seafood dishes. Mouthwatering stuff!
Another restaurant right on the waterfront (there’s a theme here!). The Italian-inspired menu has a great selection of a wide variety of dishes, from freshly prepared seafood as well as plenty of options for red meat lovers and vegetarians.
They have an impressive selection of New Zealand wines and beer as well as some international options. The daily happy hour is popular amongst both tourists and locals, as you would imagine.
Best restaurants in Russell
If you haven’t been over to Russell via the quick ferry from Paihia, this restaurant is a great excuse to head over. Make a day of it and wander the quaint streets of this enchanting town, and take in some of New Zealand’s most intriguing political and cultural history.
The acclaimed Gables restaurant is the perfect spot for a wine on the deck overlooking the waterfront, after a day of exploring the cobbled streets and gift shops. It’s also one of the few more high-end fine dining experiences you will find in the Bay of Islands.
The Gables is actually New Zealand’s oldest operating restaurant, built from pit-sawn Kauri in 1847, and even has whalebone foundations.
Despite the fine food and wine selection, the relaxed atmosphere is a drawcard. As is the chef, Italian born Stefano Demartini (ex Poderi Crisci & Cable Bay) who heads up a strong and international team of chefs.
Stefano’s food emphasises fresh, local and seasonal produce which gives it an unmistakable Northland touch. Just what we like!
The Duke of Marlborough
Another iconic favourite located right on the waterfront in Russell.
This famous restaurant is set in one of New Zealand’s most important, historic hotels and serves up delectable delights for both lunch and dinner. If you have too much to drink you can always stay the night!
The menu showcases locally sourced seasonal produce and presents a new take on classic favourites – like fish’n chips.
Depending on the season, highlights at the moment are the local Waikare Inlet Oysters and the delicious oven roasted market fish, or the timeless fish and chips served in a crisp beer batter with hand cut chips.
They also have a variety of vegetarian options and cater to most dietary requirements. The beverage list is great with over 100 wines and 30 beers all of which are specially chosen to compliment the food.
All this and the view – you can’t beat it! But don’t take our word for it – read blogger Megan Hutchinson’s article about her romantic trip to Russell, including lunch at the Duke.)
Omata Kitchen (at Omata Estate Vineyard)
Omata Estate is a boutique vineyard that’s a little outside of Russell (8km to be exact) so you may need a car, or you can just taxi from the Russell ferry.
The restaurant is set on a stunning winery looking out over a vast, open peninsula, across the vines.
The Omata Kitchen is relaxed, serving gourmet platters and delicious wood-fired pizzas during the day and early afternoons. Naturally, everything is paired to a wine. It’s certainly worth trying theirs!
Once again, this restaurant source ingredients locally and menus change seasonally. It’s really designed for those long afternoons in the sun. Late night dinners are only offered on Sundays over the summer months.
This fun, down-to-earth eatery offers authentic wood-fired pizzas, local craft beer on tap and boutique wines (many local varietals) in a chilled out, sheltered tropical garden.
There’s a green wall, loads of shelter if the Heavens happen to open on you, and the vibe is funky and welcoming.
They also do takeaways if want to take a pizza to the beach.
Aside from a mouthwatering lunch or dinner, there’s so much to do and see in this romantic town. Have a look at our detailed guide to Russell, and plan some time here to soak it all in.
Best restaurants in Kerikeri
We adore this friendly, historic town and have heaps to say about it! Read our guide on what to do, see and eat in Kerikeri to plan some activities … in and around your restaurant touring of course!
Marsden Estate has become known for the quality of its original, locally sourced cuisine, and the extra selling point is the terrace that’s shaded by grapevines, overlooking the lake, gardens and vineyard.
It’s the perfect place for a long lunch accompanied by local wines, and they offer weekend dinner sessions as well over summer (best to double check first).
Ake Ake Vineyard Restaurant
This acclaimed winery also has a fashionable bistro-style, vineyard restaurant. The setting amongst the vines is a big drawcard, and in the summer, it’s relaxing to chill out on the deck and enjoy a tasting or something from their menu.
They describe their dishes as “honest, wholesome and full of flavour” – and they adapt and evolve menus with the local seasonal produce, which we love.
Heaps of ingredients are sourced their back garden including wild mushrooms, fresh vegetables, meats and seafood.
Best to book during summer.
Do I tip in New Zealand Restaurants?
Unlike many other service cultures, restaurant workers do not work for tips in New Zealand. Kiwis do not usually tip each other (they will probably tell you they pay enough tax), so do not need to feel obliged to leave a tip.
Of course if your experience was above and beyond and you want to show your appreciation with a tip, then the staff will certainly appreciate this gesture. This is not uncommon in tourist spots like the Bay of Islands – but again, it’s certainly not expected.
Some restaurants have adopted an electronic system when you’re paying your bill by credit card, it allows for a tip, just before you click to pay. Once again it’s up to you.