Albert Cho and Jesse Mulligan. Photo / Babiche Martens

Restaurant Awards 2021: Jesse Mulligan & Albert Cho's Honourable Mentions

Auckland's busiest restaurant critics have put together a special awards list with categories to care about

"I’ve always wanted to write a top 50 list with categories that people cared about," says Albert Cho, creator of @Eatlitfood and a judge in Viva's Top 50 Restaurant Awards for 2021, "Categories like the best restaurant for a first date rather than ‘best smart restaurant’. Sorry, but what even is a smart restaurant?"

Together with Viva's Dining Out editor Jesse Mulligan, Albert has devised a list of categories to suit everyone who loves food, from where to take the family for a child-friendly dinner, to where to have a romantic evening, or enjoy a meal solo.

Without further ado, here are the winning restaurants. See the full top 50 list here.

Apple tart with vanilla ice cream at Esther. Photo / Babiche Martens

Best Family Restaurant — Azabu

Azabu at night is stylish AF but Azabu in the late afternoon is kid heaven, with plenty of space, servers that look happy to see you and a list of strong cocktails for Mum and Dad. As a parent you get used to everything on a children’s menu coming straight from the deep fryer but Azabu shows respect to younger palates, offering great sushi and fried rice as well as the more familiar karaage chicken. But the bento box is best of all — a little dinner project for the kids to enjoy, with plenty to eat, some fun stuff like edamame beans and a choice of mains that will suit all but the fussiest eaters. Colouring packs make the family-friendly experience complete. – Jesse Mulligan (JM)

Delicious pasta at Pici. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

Best Restaurant to Eat Alone — Esther

Anywhere with a bar is good — you can feel like you’re part of the scene without having to choose between either staring at an empty seat in front of you or gazing slack-jawed into the middle distance. I try to avoid playing with my phone while eating alone, and bring a magazine instead if I’m organised enough. But the best trick is to choose somewhere that doesn’t make you feel like a leper. That’s why I’m giving this award to Esther, where the food is really really good and, because you’re in the lobby of a hotel, it’s not uncommon to request a table for one. Chef Sean Connolly has been part of the Auckland scene for a while, but I feel like this is the first restaurant that has really showed off how good he is. It’s fun with friends but perfectly good on your tod. – JM

The asparagus with beurre blanc and espelette pepper at Celeste. Photo / Babiche Martens

Best New Restaurant — Pici

There are other new restaurants in the top 10 but it felt right to both of us to give this special commendation to Pici, a restaurant which represents where we think and hope Auckland dining is going. Thanks to careful decision making and deceptively simple cuisine the owners have captured all the best aspects of dining out. Fast food when you want it, a three-course tasting menu when you don’t, and a fun set of staff pouring you the right drink for your mood. It’s at the heart of K Rd’s new eating scene and has a democratic pricing structure that makes it a sustainable business model, but accessible to most. (Judges’ note: Daphnes opened up after Top 50 judging was completed.) – JM

The octopus on the menu at Celeste. Photo / Babiche Martens

Most Frequently Visited Restaurant When Not Reviewing — Celeste

I’m happiest at Bar Celeste, because it is perfect in so many different situations: the quick drink and snack before heading to a party, a late night feed on the way back from town, a full dinner catch up with six brilliant friends, or a sneaky solo dinner when the family is out of town. The winelist is interesting without being intimidating, while the food is a spectrum running from fast and easy to slowly grilled. I’m always excited to arrive here, and it still has room to get even better. – JM

Most Frequently Visited Restaurant When Not Reviewing — Grand Harbour

At first, I was going to write Celeste as my most frequently visited restaurant but then I got a text from my mum, asking if I was free for yum cha this weekend. It made me realise that Grand Harbour has been a restaurant my family and I go to at least three times a month and on top of that, I go with my friends on separate occasions too. It’s not because I’m Asian that I find myself here so often. It’s because the pork shumai and sticky rice are and have always been the best, while the watermelon juice takes the prize for the best hangover cure. – Albert Cho (AC)

The popular beef carpaccio dish at Amano. Photo / Babiche Martens

Best Restaurant for a First Date — Amano

If you think this is too intense for a first date, raise your standards. You want to treat your date with respect and Amano’s gorgeous fit-out with the floral ceiling is perfect for that. Aucklanders, please get out of the mindset that a coffee or cocktail will suffice and take a boy out to dinner. Thankfully, Amano accepts bookings as there’s nothing more dismal than being turned away by the maître’d in front of someone you want to impress. You’ll find that it isn’t overly expensive so even if your date is a dud, you didn’t waste too much money. – AC

Reconstructed beef short rib at Ada. Photo / Babiche Martens

Best Restaurant Before a Big Night — Celeste

The amount of times I have gone to Celeste, promising myself I will have a quiet night but ending up in an Uber home at 4am is almost embarrassing. The combination of oysters and natural wine sounds chic but in reality, oysters aren’t great at soaking up the alcohol. After a few glasses, you’re drunk and bound to bump into someone, either inside the restaurant or along K Rd as you intend to go home. Before you know it, you’re knocking back pisco sours at Madame George or having a second dinner at East Street Hall. – AC

Vegan beetroot dish at Hugo's. Photo / Babiche Martens

Best Restaurant for a Wholesome Night — Ada

After numerous trial and errors and failing to keep the promise to myself of having a quiet, wholesome night, I have finally cracked the code. You need to eat rich, decadent food that will put you in a coma and Ada’s brown butter cavatelli and pizza fritta will do just that. However, you’ll feel great about it because it’s that delicious and worth feeling ill for. Grey Lynn’s night life isn’t the most rampant either so the temptation to just go home is stronger than filling your stomach up with more alcohol and exposing it as you take off your shirt at G.A.Y. – AC

The ricotta and halloumi at Ponsonby Road Bistro. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Most Underrated Restaurant — Hugo’s

Despite it being one of the best lunches I had in 2020, whenever someone asks me for restaurant recommendations in the CBD, I always forget to mention Hugo’s Bistro. It’s where I had confit potatoes that were so fabulous that it changed my life yet I let it slip my mind and I blame Shortland St. As a 24-year-old creative, I have no business being in that area but I will make more of an effort for Hugo’s. It’s far too good for only the corporates to use the space for meetings so put it on your radar for the next time you’re in central Auckland. – AC

Albert Cho and Jesse Mulligan. Photo / Babiche Martens

Most Romantic Restaurant — Ponsonby Road Bistro
It’s no news that I date a lot. I would say that I go on at least one date a week because I don’t think there’s such a thing as a regretful date. Whether it’s good or bad, you walk away with a great story to tell your friends and I encourage everyone to date more. Ponsonby Road Bistro has to be my favourite date night spot for its romantic atmosphere. It’s like the owners adjusted the light levels so it strikes a sexual chord in your brain. The vibes are very erotic and the gorgeous food makes your hormones go even more out of control. – AC

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