It all started in Venice. At the end of their holiday Mimi Olds-Spence and her partner went on a food tour that visited some of the city's lesser-known eateries. "We kicked ourselves," she says. "Why didn't we do this at the start of our trip?"
She wondered if a similar concept might work at home in Auckland – a tour that takes the guesswork out of choosing a restaurant and showcases venues that visitors might not find otherwise. Last year she bit the bullet and launched the Downtown Auckland Gourmet Food & Wine Walking Tour – a 2½-hour experience that allows guests to sample a glass of wine and a tasting at some of her favourite restaurants.
We meet at Auckland Ferry Terminal where she explains how waves of immigration from Europe, India and Asia have made this New Zealand's most multicultural city. It's a diversity that's reflected in its cuisine.
Not so long ago downtown Auckland, and in particular its main thoroughfare Queen Street, was a rather soulless proposition. But the revitalisation of precincts such as Britomart and Wynyard Quarter plus an ongoing frenzy of construction (there are reputedly 53 cranes in the CBD during my visit) have injected a welcome dose of vibrancy.
Well, during the week, at least. Finding somewhere decent to eat at weekends is more of a challenge. Oaken, the first stop on our tour, hopes to change that. It's one of the few restaurants in Britomart that's open seven days a week. Housed in a striking Art Deco building, it playfully mixes Mediterranean, Scandinavian and Asian cuisine.
I take a seat at its sweeping granite-topped bar and am soon enjoying smoked mozzarella on a house-made lavosh cracker accompanied by black mission figs soaked in red wine and spices and paired with a fabulous dry riesling from Peregrine Wines in the Gibbston Valley near Queenstown.
I'd be happy to spend the rest of the afternoon here but Olds-Spence lures me away with the promise of many more snacks delectable delights to come.
"You know how Melbourne has all those fabulous laneways?" she says as we stroll across Britomart's Takutai Square. "Well, we have one."
Despite visiting Auckland at least a dozen times, I've never noticed Roukai Lane. Linking Galway and Customs streets, this diminutive thoroughfare is home to three stylish bars – the most notable being sophisticated New York-style basement speakeasy Caretaker.
When we turn into Fort Street, Olds-Spence points out Lucky Buddha Eatery, a highly regarded Asian fusion restaurant, and Ima Cuisine, a popular eatery serving Israeli food.
These additional recommendations are an unexpected bonus. As we stroll between venues, Olds-Spence shares many of her favourite spots in the city and I end up with a dozen suggestions for future visits.
Our next stop is a little slice of Paris. Chef Antoine Salles opened Touquet in 2013, naming the restaurant after the seaside town in northern France where he started his career. Simply furnished with wooden tables and modern artwork, it feels every inch a classic French bistro.
Where possible Olds-Spence arranges a meeting with the chef during her tours and Salles emerges from the kitchen in his chef's whites to explain that the deliciously rich pork rillettes I'm tucking into are made using a recipe that originated near Le Mans. He's paired it with Hay Paddock's Gypsy Rose, a crisp rosé from Waiheke Island, and for the second time today I'm in gastronomic bliss.
While the restaurant specialises in French classics such as snails and duck confit, Salles also incorporates local produce in dishes like New Zealand salmon cured in pastis and slow-cooked lamb shoulder with eggplant caviar.
From Touquet, it's a mere beret toss to Wine Chambers, an elegant, high-ceilinged bar and restaurant in the heritage-listed General Buildings. Jeremy O'Brien, the restaurant's knowledgeable general manager, takes me through a tasting of three wines from Martinborough, a wine region northeast of Wellington that's often overshadowed by Marlborough in the South Island.
The highlight is a delicate 2015 pinot noir by Nga Waka, which O'Brien says scored so highly in a French wine competition that the locals tried to disqualify it.
Our final stop is one of Olds-Spence's favourites. Indian chef Sid Sahrawat burst onto the Auckland dining scene in 2009 with Sidart, a modern European restaurant that's amassed an impressive list of accolades, including the city's best fine-dining restaurant. Three years ago he returned to his roots and opened Cassia, an intimate subterranean venue serving upscale Indian cuisine.
"It's best to eat it quickly," says the waitress as I sit staring at my pani puri, a thin fried dough shell that's a popular street snack in India. I pop it in my mouth and the warm spiced broth filling spills out of the crisp, delicate casing. It's followed by a chicken tikka roll – tender chicken pieces pressed between pillowy bread with julienne vegetables and a rich cashew sauce. Washing it all down is a glass of silky 2015 Wanaka Road pinot noir from Central Otago.
It's a fitting finale to this downtown foodie forage. Not only have I tasted some delectable dishes and sampled several superlative wines, but I've also been introduced to four standout venues in a city I thought I knew well. If you're heading to Auckland this tour would be the perfect way to familiarise yourself with the city's dining scene. Just make sure you do it at the start of your trip, not the end.
Air New Zealand flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au
The 2.5-hour tour includes four wine tastings and hors d'oeuvres. Cost $NZ178 a head. Groups limited to 10 people. See uniquetours.co.nz
Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand and Unique Tours.