Travel bites: The retro café that offers the ultimate fish and chip experience
If you didn’t know better, you might wander into this Dunedin “café” expecting a coffee and a scone.
It’s a rather unlikely destination for fish and chips, located just down from the Octagon in the centre of town, a few steps from the spectacular railway station.
But Best Cafe is in fact a seafood restaurant – and a legendary one at that. It was established by Patrick Collins in 1932, and with great-granddaughter Jessica Marks at the helm 90 years on, it’s thought to be the oldest original family-owned-and-operated fish and chippery in the country.
There’s a little takeaway shop out front, but for the ultimate fish and chip experience, you have to dine in.
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Entering the restaurant, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped inside a time capsule, thanks to the blackboard menus, brown vinyl tablecloths, and lime green lino floor.
The nostalgia ramps up when you sit down at your table and are presented with a complimentary plate of white and brown bread, cut into triangles, alongside generous curls of butter. Be sure to save a couple of slices for making a chip butty later.
Best Cafe’s “fish meals” are fish and chips made fancy. They consist of your choice of one or two battered fillets, presented on a plate with hand-cut chips and coleslaw.
The batter is to die for – gorgeously golden, light and airy. Marks says the recipe came from her great-uncle, who took over the business in the 1950s, and to this day it remains a heavily guarded family secret.
“Everyone always asks us for the recipe and I never give it out.”
Blue cod, which is most common in the colder 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 the go-to spot in Dunedin for seasonal specialities, including the famed Bluff oysters, which are available from the beginning of March to the end of August.
They pride themselves on being the first establishment to serve the southern delicacy for the season, with Marks travelling to Bluff the night before the first boats go out, picking up the bounty early the next morning and returning to Dunedin in time for the lunch service.
Oysters can be ordered by the dozen, natural or battered. At certain times of year you can also get whitebait, which comes in a classic egg fritter.
Other gems on the menu include classic shrimp cocktails, fish finger sandwiches, and old-school chocolate sundaes complete with pink wafers and chocolate fish. There’s some nice wines and craft beers on the drinks list, or you can stick to the retro theme with a milkshake or spider.
It’s all unashamedly kitsch. But just 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: Best Cafe is located at 30 Stuart Street, Dunedin. A fish meal with blue cod starts from $23 for one fillet. See bestcafe.co.nz
Staying 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 in some venues under the traffic light system. Follow the instructions at covid19.govt.nz.
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