Nelson sits right at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, on the edge of the glorious Tasman Bay. With a population of 46,000, it’s a really compact city where everything is within walking distance, including its generous scattering of top-class restaurants. Here, we list 10 of the best.
This article was originally written by Max Goodwin Brown and has since been updated.
When you take a concept as potentially classy as an oyster bar, whack a Michelin-trained chef – who’s worked with such notable kitchen wizards as Marco Pierre White and Gary Rhodes, by the way – out the back, and then set it in the Garden of Eden that is Nelson… Well, it was only going to end up going one way. Obviously the food is spectacularly fresh and inventive. But it’s the things you didn’t even realise can be so crucial that set this place apart. Things like the glassware. The glasses really help the beverages. How often do you notice that? And when the chef toddles out with your food himself, and you have a yarn, that’s special. That’s quality.
Fritterbello Stack | Courtsey of East Street Cafe, Photo by Marion van Dijk
The recently reopened East Street Vegetarian Café could be the most chilled-out hang-out spot in Nelson. In the main dining room, there’s a little stage where acoustic singer-songwriters perform. In the large garden out back, one wall is taken up by a colourful mural painted by an American artist. Staff are friendly and welcoming, the coffee is great and the meals are healthy and inventive.
Harry’s is a restaurant with attitude; an inviting place that boasts an extensive cocktail menu and a boisterous atmosphere. It seems determined to pay tribute to its predecessor, Chez Eelco, a coffee house that was the focal point of Nelson nightlife back in the ‘60s and which used to occupy the spot where Harry’s now stands. There’s more to Harry’s than just its vibe though: on the menu is a bunch of creative, Asian-inspired dishes that are carefully put together from locally-sourced ingredients. Even the wines are local. Try the red braised pork belly with chilli caramel dressing, accompanied by a glass of Nelson pinot noir.
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Situated on Wakefield Quay, The Styx is a double-decker restaurant and bar specialising in fresh seafood. While there is no shortage of seafood restaurants in coastal New Zealand, what sets The Styx apart is its inventive menu. Fancy scallop carbonara? How about a crispy calamari salad? There’s an excellent selection of pizzas too. Try the eponymous Wakefield, topped with roast pumpkin, asparagus and feta cheese. Scrummy food aside, The Styx’s two dining rooms and large outdoor terrace all afford stunning views over Tasman Bay. Head there around in the late afternoon to make sure you catch the sunset.
Hopgood’s is considered one of Nelson’s best restaurants, and it’s clear why it’s gained this reputation. The food is of a very high calibre, and comes out as fast as you want it to really. The staff are attentive and gauge your mood, so that if you’re lingering over something you don’t have to worry about them scooting over and rushing you. Conversely, if you’ve just hoovered up the Angus fillet in about 38 seconds, you’re not left waiting an eternity for the chocolate mousse to arrive. Although, when you’ve tried the chocolate mousse once, any time longer than three seconds is going to feel like an eternity the next time you order it. It’s out of this world.
This is decadence. This is wedding anniversary material, or the sort of gaff where you drop a knee and pop the big one. Lobster, truffle fries and cocktails with locally distilled gin are just a few of the delights that are in store for you when you walk into this tastefully decorated restaurant. It’s always worth gambling on the fish du jour – not really a gamble at all, as it’s always going to be great – or getting the fish platter for sharing on a date. This place is a sure-fire way to impress someone with your excellent taste in restaurants. It’s fine dining at its best.
The Indian Café is housed in a little yellow bungalow on Collingwood Street. Open since 2002, it wasn’t the first Indian restaurant in Nelson but these days it’s considered one of the best, with locals filling the dining room pretty much every night of the week. It’s not hard to see why this place is so popular, the food is delicious and each dish is prepared using the freshest of ingredients. All curries are gluten free and there are plenty of options for vegetarians. Plus, this being a coastal town, there are some really excellent fish curries to be had.
Situated in the Trailways Hotel, The Tides offers an affordable fine dining experience. The menu is a celebration of the plentiful fresh, local produce: there’s seafood and game, juicy beef and tender lamb. Each dish comes with its own recommended wine pairing and the range on offer is so extensive that few wines are paired with the same dish twice. The Tides scores high on the presentation front – expect delicate food stacks and plenty of colour. What’s more, the dining room is spacious and elegant, with views over the Maitai River.
Tongtara serves up homey, authentic Thai food in an intimately-sized dining room. The menu is extensive and here, the quantity doesn’t affect the quality. Rest assured everything that comes out of Tongtara’s kitchen has been prepared with expertise. The Tom Yum soup is aromatic and delicately spiced, while the red curry packs a satisfying punch. Fancy something really hot? Try the jungle curry or the innocuously-named basil stir-fry. There are some inventive house specialities and plenty for vegetarians and vegans, too.