Travel Bites: The Retro Cafe That Delivers the Ultimate Fish and Chips Experience
If you didn’t know better, you could walk into this Dunedin “cafe” while waiting for a coffee and a scone.
This is a rather unlikely destination for fish and chips, located just down from the Octagon in the city center, a short walk from the spectacular train station.
But Best Cafe is actually a seafood restaurant – and a legendary restaurant at that. It was started by Patrick Collins in 1932, and with his great-granddaughter Jessica Marks at the helm 90 years later, it’s believed to be the oldest family-owned fish and chip shop in the country.
There’s a small take-out shop out front, but for the ultimate fish and chip experience you have to dine in.
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Stepping into the restaurant is like stepping into a time capsule, thanks to the blackboard menus, brown vinyl tablecloths, and lime green lino flooring.
The nostalgia intensifies when you sit down at your table and are presented with a complimentary plate of white and brown bread, cut into triangles, accompanied by generous swirls of butter. Be sure to save a few slices to make a butty chip later.
Best Cafe’s “fish meals” are fancy prepared fish and chips. They consist of your choice of one or two breaded tenderloins, presented on a plate with hand-cut fries and coleslaw.
The batter is to die for – beautifully browned, light and airy. Marks says the recipe came from his great-uncle, who took over the business in the 1950s, and to this day remains a closely guarded family secret.
“Everyone always asks us for the recipe and I never give it away.”
Blue cod, which is most common in the cooler waters of the lower South Island, is a popular fish choice and available at Best Cafe year-round. You can also get hāpuku, gurnard, brill, tarakihi, and lemon sole.
But Best Cafe is also Dunedin’s go-to spot for seasonal specials, including the famous Bluff Oysters, available from early March to late August.
They pride themselves on being the first establishment to serve the southern delicacy for the season, with Marks traveling to Bluff the day before the first boats depart, collecting the bounty early the next morning and returning to Dunedin in time for the lunch service .
Oysters can be ordered by the dozen, plain or breaded. At certain times of the year, you can also get whitebait, which comes in the form of a classic egg fritter.
Other gems on the menu include classic shrimp cocktails, fish finger sandwiches, and old-fashioned chocolate sundaes with pink wafers and chocolate fish. There are great wines and craft beers on the drink list, or you can stick with the retro theme with a milkshake or spider.
Everything is shamelessly kitsch. But much like the heritage buildings that surround it, Best Cafe is proof that it’s the classics that stand the test of time. Food trends come and go, but fish and chips are forever.
Where to eat: The best cafe is located at 30 Stuart Street, Dunedin. A fish meal with blue cod starts from $23 for a fillet. See bestcafe.co.nz
Stay safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Face coverings are mandatory on all flights and public transport. Proof of vaccination and vaccine exemption may be required at some locations under the traffic light system. Follow the instructions on covid19.govt.nz.
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