Venture into the heart of funky Hamilton East and there you’ll find Hayes Common. Located beside the beautiful Waikato River, this suburban neighbourhood eatery is the go-to spot for locals – no matter the time of day – and for good reason.
Everything on the table is sourced with locality, ethics and sustainability in mind, from having their own kitchen garden and using free-range eggs and meats to glass-bottle milk and line-caught fish.
Lisa Quarrie, co-owner of Hayes Common, says the eatery supports as many local suppliers in the Waikato region as possible – and they even trade with neighbours.
“We encourage drop-offs from the neighbourhood,” she says. “Quite often we will take bags of feijoas or bags of tangelos or lemons or limes and people swap them for a coffee, and then we’ll put them on our menu. In the past we’ve done a frozen smoothie bowl with the fruit from the neighbourhood.”
Since opening five years ago, Hayes Common has been running a series of events called “Meet the Maker”, which showcases some of the region’s talented local product makers. The chefs then craft a menu around the specific product for foodies to devour.
“The locals always really love it,” says Mrs Quarrie. “There’s a strong community feeling here and support.”
Drift down the Waikato River to Palate Restaurant in the heart of the CBD, another local favourite that specialises in capturing the rich local flavour – think tasty Ohiwa truffle, succulent Coromandel oysters, and fresh Kawhia snapper.
Palate Restaurant owner and head chef Mat McLean says the menu now floats with the seasons and ever-changing conditions – instead of fighting against nature.
“Things taste better and are fresher, crisper, when they are straight out of the ground,” he says.
“You don’t manufacture or farm fish; people go out and try to catch it. If the weather’s bad, you don’t have it on the menu.”
Foodies and adventurous eaters can sit back and experience the ‘romance of food’ at Palate’s iconic kitchen table, where the chefs treat diners to an intimate seven-course degustation.
“It’s a warts-and-all kind of experience,” the seasoned chef jokes.
“We do everything for you. You sit down and enjoy your company and the chefs serve the meals and explain them.”
Palate’s menu is a great representation of food in the Waikato region, says Mr McLean, while stressing that the local cheese is “phenomenal”.
Retail stores across the region such as the Country Providore are also passionate about showcasing talented local producers. Situated on the quaint Strawberry Farm in Tamahere, only a short drive from town, the Country Providore serves its own famous fruit ice cream and berries alongside other Waikato produce and products.
Emma Gethen, who manages the Country Providore, says the ice cream shop is “super busy” over summertime, with people pouring in from all over. And demand doesn’t cease in winter either.
“It could be the coldest, most miserable day, and we’ll still have kids in here wanting ice cream,” she laughs.
All the berries used in their ice creams are grown locally, in places including nearby Matangi, and, of course, their very own farm. And Punnet, the sister eatery next door, utilises Providore’s strawberries by making jams, garnishes, and salads that feature in their menu.
“Customers love it because they can come out, pick the strawberries, taste them on site whilst they’re picking, and then come in and have a strawberry ice cream.”
The Country Providore stocks delicious other local treats such as cheeses, organic meats, honey, and vinaigrettes.
Ms Gethen says she loves the people and stories behind the local products she stocks, such as Earth Soldiers Clover Honey and Over the Moon cheeses.
“You understand their passion, their drive for what they do,” she says. “I love passing that onto my customers.”
Foodies interested in the artistry of food production and meet the people behind the products will want to check out the Waikato Farmers’ Markets. The markets, located in both Cambridge and Hamilton, offer a unique community experience, connecting growers and creatives with food lovers, and showcase some of the region’s best local foods, products and innovations.
Farmers’ markets like these provide a chance to meet the colourful characters growing and making the region’s celebrated produce and products – and to buy it when it’s at its absolute freshest. What better way to finish a paddock to plate journey through the Waikato?