When it comes to the year’s best new openings so far, we’re all about quality over quantity. If we could pinpoint themes, the first would be evolution and the second adaptation. Several venues have evolved their menu or been given a refresh with a new head chef. Favourites have reopened after disaster, and two key Auckland additions are the second of their kind.

To help you navigate what should be next on your hit list, we present the best new openings of the year so far.

Aigo Noodle Bar Newmarket, Auckland
We’re big fans of whatever formula David Lee has discovered – it clearly works. The founder of Gochu, The Candy Shop and Aigo Noodle Bar Ponsonby opened his second Aigo in Newmarket just over a month ago. It’s a slightly more polished version of its Ponsonby sibling, but with the same spirit in its menu, full of punchy, memorable flavours. Riffing on the same blend of Korean flavours with Italian techniques, the new menu includes site-exclusive dishes such as yukgaejang ragu with house-made pappardelle, gnocchi-like tteokbokki with a creamy pancetta sauce, and dishes that invite lingering like a T-bone steak with soy mustard, onion brûlée and confit garlic. As usual, the wine list is well-chosen for cutting through Aigo’s sweet and salty, umami and at times rich dishes. It’s a contrast that’ll see you making repeat visits to this Newmarket newcomer.

Chaat Street, Auckland
When it comes to modern Indian food, Vaibhav Vishen is on a mission to make you look beyond curries. He’s been successfully doing so since his Wellington restaurant Chaat Street opened in 2022, and brought the turquoise and red accented space to Auckland this March. Head to the top of Parnell Rise for Vishen’s ever-changing menus of Indian street food – the dishes are from several different Indian regions, and are served tapas-style. Try the Delhi staple chole bhature if it’s available (deep-fried, puffy, leavened yoghurt bread with braised chickpeas) and there’s always a special during the “chaat hours” between midday and 5pm, such as tangy, crunchy gol gappa – also known as panipuri. The hearty (but not heavy) dishes are just as ideal for lunch as for evening meals, enjoyed in Chaat Street Auckland’s light-filled, uncluttered space.

Local Talent Taverna, Whāngarei
Local Talent was a highly anticipated opening – and for good reason, given the welcoming hub that Matt Hawkes and Sophie Evans have created in Whāngarei. Casual enough for anyone to feel like they can stop in for a quick pint, it’s just as good for a sit-down meal thanks to Hawkes’s ever-changing Mediterranean menu that favours Greek cuisine. Order a meze plate, a saganaki sando with fried haloumi, pickled onions, rocket and roasted red pepper mayo on brioche, or the chicken souvlaki which has buttermilk-marinated spiced chicken and comes with organic green salad. Adding fries is a no-brainer, there are regular seasonal specials, and you can order frozen Greek yoghurt for dessert any time of day – the Tav is open for lunch and dinner with a snack menu through the afternoon. Drinks-wise, there’s a concise cocktail list as well as Parrotdog beer, natural wine and prosecco on tap, with Garage Project and McLeod’s in the fridge and Coffee Supreme on until 5pm. Whangārei is steadily evolving thanks to new boutiques and the Hundertwasser Art Centre, and Local Talent Taverna has a big part to play in this shift.

Panacea, Auckland
Looking at its subtly marked doorway with a tiny plaque bolted just inside the entrance, you might mistake Panacea for just another office on O’Connell Street. But head up the stairs and you’ll see a bigger sign on the plain black door that opens into a sophisticated, dimly lit cocktail lounge. We were instantly impressed the first time we visited Panacea, not just because of the interesting, delicious drinks but also because owners Dany Dentith and Sheena Thomas, and bar manager Theo Tjandra, offer the kind of attentive warmth that makes it clear service is a top priority. Their drinks are batch-prepared fresh every day for easy pouring so the team can spend the rest of their time chatting to customers – but this doesn’t mean they skimp on creativity and effort. Formally Known As, for example, is made with bee pollen-infused Starward Two-Fold double-grain whisky, chamomile aperitif, quince reduction and clarified pear juice. The juice alone is a process, with fresh pears that have been soaked in water, put in a juicer, then combined with an enzyme for clarification and, finally, finely strained. Since opening in February, Panacea has now started offering ticketed masterclasses for people to learn from a team that clearly has plenty of knowledge and passion to share.

Paname Social, Auckland
The newest venue from the Atelier, Wander and Ambler team is part of the major redevelopment of a landmark site on Lorne Street – and it’s always great to see a worthy go-to in the CBD. A 100-seater cafe and bistro, Paname Social is open seven days with a ranging all-day menu; a lot of the team is French, including both owners Matt Gossett and Matt Ferragati, so there’s a loose French and European thread (Paname is, after all, a slang word for Paris). There are also North African and Middle Eastern flavours in there – go for brunch and you might order oeufs cocotte (baked eggs) with champagne ham, crème fraîche and gruyere, or shakshuka with labneh and coriander. Stop by after work for the oyster and champagne bar, and from morning till late the bistro menu includes dishes such as smoked kahawai croquettes with chorizo romesco, duck liver crème brûlée with caramelised onion and crostini, and a steak with fries, salad and house butter. The wine list is also impressive, with 35 glass pours spanning both organic and conventional drops from around Aotearoa and the globe.

Somm, Auckland
It’s been musical chairs on Princes Wharf over the last few years – 22-year-old restaurant Euro closed its doors in 2021, to be replaced by New Zealand’s first Wahlburgers branch. Nourish Group (which owned Euro) was acquired by Foley Hospitality, and then set about switching up its Crab Shack site a few metres down the wharf from the burger shop. That space is now unrecognisable in its new iteration as Somm, a sleek new inner-city wine bar that offers a taste of the winery experience (wine flights and tastings, a soon-to-open cellar door) with waterfront views. While wine is obviously a big focus, executive chef Gavin Doyle’s seasonal sharing menu is far from an afterthought. Good-quality antipasti, charcuterie and regional NZ cheeses precede dishes like market fish crudo with confit fennel, seasonal citrus, capers and a verjuice dressing. Don’t leave without trying a pizza (or two) – they’re made with a 72-hour poolish dough and toppings include mortadella with hot tomato and melted cheese, and sweet zing from house-made Zuni pickles. The Pukekohe carrot pizza has also been a sleeper hit, Doyle told us when we visited; the carrots are charred in the stone pizza oven before going on with ricotta, lemon zest and parmesan.

Honourable mentions
Two venues worth your attention have re-emerged after being struck by disaster. Cassia’s Fort Street restaurant was flooded twice in nine months, and reopened triumphantly in Skycity in May. Located at ground level in the Grand by Skycity entrance, Cassia’s new iteration has retained the buzz of its previous, and we’re just glad we still get to enjoy its modern Indian food that always feels special no matter the occasion. In Hawke’s Bay, a full year before Cyclone Gabrielle swept through, the bistro at beloved Havelock North winery and venue Black Barn Vineyards was damaged extensively by fire. It reopened in April with a new look for the space along with a tweaked, evolving and elegant menu by chef Regnar Christensen – a great drawcard indeed for a trip to the Bay.

There have been new appointments for respected chefs – Hayden Phiskie (ex-Cotto, ex-Ada) is now stationed at Ponsonby’s Daphnes Taverna where he’s evolved the menu from Greek to more broadly European and Mediterranean. In Tauranga, Simon Wright (ex-The French Cafe) now helms the kitchen at Clarence Bistro and is also harnessing the flavours of the Mediterranean.

Despite its teeny size, Roses Dining Room has always been a flexible space primed for evolution – and it’s currently a wine bar on Thursday and Friday nights for at least the next three months. Rather than having to book tickets for an event, you can just head along for thoughtful and distinctive wines, seasonal spritzes and creative plates by rising chef Katie Riley.

Krishna Botica and Tony McGeorge’s Xuxu Dumpling Bar closed in March 2022 and after about a year sitting empty they replaced it with Perch Britomart this March. The intimate atmosphere and a concise, snacky menu remain, evolved to include dishes like roast duck spring rolls, and wong bok spring rolls with shiitake, carrot and coriander as well as dumplings. Inventive house cocktails make it a great stop-in after work or for a light, fresh dinner.