Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

WellingtonApril 26, 2024

A guide to Wellington’s best BYO restaurants

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Wondering where to host your next BYO? Whether it’s a small gathering or a massive party, we’ve got some recommendations. 

I was first introduced to the concept of BYOs at Dunedin’s India Gardens, a legendary but sadly defunct establishment, which purveyed enormous quantities of mango chicken to Aotearoa’s drunkest future doctors and lawyers. 

But Dunedin lives under an autocratic regime, which limits patrons to sharing one bottle of wine between two people. Its a hard ask to build up the confidence to talk to that cute girl from Leith St on half a bottle of Cleanskin.

Wellington, by contrast, is a city that does BYOs right. Whether it’s a hastily organised booking for after work drinks, a birthday party or a final farewell before moving to London (there’s been a lot of those lately), BYOs are an essential part of the capital’s social fabric. If your flat is too small or your landlord won’t allow parties, a BYO might be your only option to get the squad together.

A BYO is about more than a meal and five to eight standard drinks, it’s about sharing space, creating memories and building community. Each restaurant offers a unique experience. Are you looking for an intimate evening with close friends and deep conversation, a cheap feed and a bottle of something barely drinkable, or a a roisterous night of singing and yelling? 

As The Spinoff’s Wellington editor, I consider it my job – indeed, my duty – to drink $14 bottles of red wine at as many of this city’s fine establishments as possible. After undertaking years of personal research, and consulting a team of expert eaters and drinkers, these are my official recommendations for where to host your next BYO. 

An important note: A great restaurant and a great BYO spot are not necessarily the same thing. The quality of food is important, but it is only one small part of the delicate and complex dance that is a BYO. There are many other important factors, including: The drinking rules, the efficiency of ordering and paying, the size of booking available, the ambience, the level of appropriately permissible noise, and, of course, the vibe. 

Best for a rowdy BYO

Red Hill
Cuisine: Asian fusion

Red Hill stands tall above Wellington, a great peak offering a signature combination of Chinese food and karaoke. It’s extremely fun if you are the loudest table at the restaurant, and infuriating if you just wanted a quiet dinner. Warning: If any of your friends are musical theatre kids, be prepared for them make themselves the centre of attention all night. 

You should try: The Hot Pot (Fun fact: the Human Rights Tribunal recently considered a case over whether Red Hill’s two-person minimum Hot Pot policy was discriminatory towards single people. The tribunal said the claim lacked necessary seriousness). 

Oriental Kingdom Cafe
Cuisine: Malaysian

Oriental Kingdom has turned the rowdy BYO into a production line. Its simple, functional design and tiled floors are perfectly designed to maximise the number of large, drunk groups of diners while minimising the impact of spills, slops, and breakages. 

The kitchen is an enormous, efficient machine dedicated to pumping out metric tons of carbs at a suspiciously fast rate. It is good? Well, the roti canai deal came dead last on the Spinoff’s ranking. But everything is really cheap. 

You should try: The delightfully greasy mee goreng.

Oriental Kingdom’s roti canai: really cheap

Long Xiang
Cuisine: Southern Chinese

Long Xiang is a beautiful disaster. It’s a different universe, where no rules apply. They’ll let you drink anything in there. I’ve seen Nitro, Diesel, and crates of Waikato Draft. When I was a 19-year-old who just wanted to get messy, it was a revelation. These days, it comes with a few downsides – namely the large groups of 19-year-olds who just want to get messy. 

You should try: The complimentary cake they bring out at the end of the meal. This is their polite way to telling you to hurry up and get the fuck out.

Cuisine: Japanese

Ozeki is like your chaotic aunty who is always off on some new adventure. One day she’s moving to Bali with her new boyfriend, the next she’s trying to sign you up for a pyramid scheme. If you’re out on a Friday or Saturday night, there’s something wild happening at every table. Someone’s singing happy birthday, another table is swapping seats every five minutes. There’s three simultaneous games of Save the Queen happening. The concrete walls mean the noise will echo, but if you’re looking for fun and chaos, that just adds to the experience. 

You should try: The Shake Don with special sauce. 

Best for large groups (12-20+)

Saffron Haveli
Cuisine: Indian, with some Chinese-inspired dishes.

If Saffron Haveli has a million fans, I’m one of them. If Saffron Haveli has five fans, I’m one of them. If Saffron Haveli has no fans, I’m no longer on earth. It’s criminally underrated due to its location on the wrong side of Kent Terrace, but I will never stop advocating for this wonderful establishment. It’s a huge space, probably much larger than it really needs to be, so its usually easy to make a large booking or find a table on a busy night when everything else is booked. And it’s right next door to a liquor store, which takes away the stress of having to pre-organise your drinks. 

Expect a long wait for food if you’re part of a large group, but the quality doesn’t falter. It’s consistent and always executed perfectly; the platonic ideal of a tikka masala. 

You should try: The Dum Biryani. And a chocolate naan. 

Big Thumb 
Cuisine: Chinese

Big Thumb is run by a matriarch with an iron fist. It’s a ruthlessly effective way of managing hordes of drunk diners, something I very much appreciate. The food can be hit or miss, but it’s a huge venue that could feed half the city in one night if it wanted to. You have the option of regular rectangular tables, or giant round lazy Susan tables. The big circles are fun and can fit a large groups, but they can be antisocial – you’re only within talking distance of people to your immediate left and right, the other side of the table is too far away to hear. 

You should try: On a busy night, stick to something simple and deep fried, like the orange beef or sweet and sour pork. 

Curry Pot Newtown 
Cuisine: Indian

Curry Pot’s website proudly boasts the tagline: “The place you want to be with your friends”. And you know what? They’re damn right. It’s a top quality curry house. Reliable and consistent, I’ve never walked away unsatisfied. It’s popular spot for students at the nearby medical school, so they’re used to catering to large groups.

You should try: A mild butter chicken and a garlic naan.

Best for medium groups (8-12) 

Istana Malaysia
Cuisine: Malaysian 

A genuine institution. Many a good time, hookup, and probably a few marriages began within these brick walls. Istana Malaysia can handle a packed restaurant without a single hiccup in ordering, paying, or food quality. It’s a large space, and the tables are laid out strategically to allow multiple big groups at once, without it feeling overwhelming. On more than one occasion, I’ve ended up chatting with the adjacent table and found myself in a newly merged giant BYO. 

You should try: The murtabak.

Cuisine: South Indian and Malaysian 

Rasa feels like has been around forever. When the first settlers pulled up to shore on the Aurora, they probably stopped in at Rasa for a roti and dahl. It’s a small space, but it straddles the line between cosy and lively. The most memorable part might be the toilets – to get there you have to walk through the kitchen. A strange experience, but a rare chance to see a different side of a restaurant. 

You should try: The masala dosai.

Cuisine: Chinese

Dragons is best known for its yum cha, but it goes hard as a dinner BYO too. It’s on the pricier side, but well worth it. It helps that its a fairly busy restaurant, which gives you a bit of leeway to have loud conversation without overpowering everyone else in the building. 

You should try: Something you’ve never ordered before. If there’s anywhere to take a risk, it’s Dragons.

Best for small groups

Mother of Coffee 
Cuisine: Ethiopian 

Sit at one of the outside tables in the Left Bank Arcade. Watch the people coming and going through the laneway. Share a couple of bottles of good wine with some friends you care about. Introduce them to a cuisine they may not have tried before. Order something to share. Open up your heart. Have a night to remember. 

You should try: The vegan combo platter with injera bread (add an extra injera), and order the traditional coffee afterwards. 

Somtum Thai 
Cuisine: Thai

There’s something warm and calming about Somtum Thai. It’s a respite on a windy, rainy night, a sheltered spot in the bosom of Cuba Street. It’s not ideal for large groups and they will shush you if you are too loud (I’ve been on the receiving end a couple of times). But the street food menu doesn’t miss. People far better informed about Thai cuisine than me have described it as the best authentic Thai they’ve tried in New Zealand, and I’ll take their word for it. 

You should try: The pad kra-pad with a fried egg. 

The Rams potato tower (Photo: Liv Sisson)

Cuisine: Asian and Chinese 

Rams is an unassuming little restaurant on upper Cuba Street. Visitors would probably walk right past without ever giving it a second glance. But if you know, you know. Rams has, without a doubt, the best dumplings in town, and the potato tower is a Cuba Street icon to rival the bucket fountain. 

You should try: The chilli oil dumplings.

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