I'm an Auckland local, and would definitely recommend Dine, which is just fantastic: we ate there in April and were blown away. It's great to see Peter Gordon coming home and really cooking up a storm.
The city is ok, and I guess if you're a tourist then the Viaduct area next to the harbour is obligatory, but Auckland really hums in the suburbs, so if you can cope with our appalling public transport system or spring for a taxi, then that's your best bet.
Try The French Cafe in Newton, short trip from the CBD, winner every year of best restaurant in AK. The food is modern, easy fusion, just gorgeous and the wine list is great. It's a gritty, urban area, so don't be put off: inside it's an oasis of grey and black. Website on www.thefrenchcafe.co.nz
We're also mad for The Engine Room, which is over the Harbour Bridge in Northcote Point, a seaside suburb of old wooden houses. The Engine Room is a smart local, with superb fish and meat: I recently had the best fish meal I've had in a long time, a succulent steak of Hapuku on a white bean and tomato broth. So good I had to ask for bread to mop up the rest of the sauce! The style is unpretentious but beautifully cooked, a menu that changes weekly depending on what's locally available. Save room for the Churros con Chocolat, the best dessert in town.
Ponsonby has the best cafes - take "The Link" which is a bus that does a loop around the city's inner suburbs. Check out Agnes Curran, which is a cafe cum antique shop on the corner of Franklin Rd and Ponsonby Rd. Locals will know it.
If you're up for more ethnic food and you're brave, then Dominion Road, in Mt Eden, around the Valley Road shops and the Balmoral Shops, is the place. Superb Vietnamese noodle shops, Chinese dumpling shops, and Korean barbecue. But they're pretty bare-board plain and you will need to be brave!
You must also go to the Hilton Hotel's bar, Bellini, for a cockatil. the hotel is part of a wharf redevelopment and has a superb view down the harbour.
Waiheke is great, although I've eaten at Te Whau and while the winelist is excellent, the food and service left much to be desired. Another great day trip is 40 minutes drive to Matakana, a valley of vineyards and small cafes. You'll need a car, but it's worth it.
Have a great time, it's a good time of year to come, just coming into Spring, and the city's really coming alive.
Thank you so much Mr/Ms Auckland Local. We will be arriving from west coast USA so I have mentally discounted our first day. I figure we will really have only two days, so will probably be hanging out in the downtown environs. We might be interested in a wine tour, but, as far as I can tell the wine areas are quite far from the city. Most of all, I just need to see how we feel and play it by ear. I have printed off your reply to take with me along with Joan's. It will probably make more sense to me when I get there and talk to the hotel concierge too.
Again, thank you so much for taking the time to write out so many inviting suggestions. We're really counting the days.
Some of the suburbs are definitely do-able, particularly Ponsonby. It's not actually that far from downtown, and the circuit bus takes you there, so a cab ride would be even faster. You are definitely going to want to get out of the immediate downtown, so the either the wine tour with the guy I mentioned (who was very very knowledgable and offers a half-day tour too) or the trip to Waiheke is worth considering. Do make sure to get out on the water, even if it is only the ferry to Davenport.
I absolutely love Soul Bar and Bistro down on Viaduct Basin (the Americas Cup inlet). http://www.menus.co.nz/soulbar/index.html?RID=152
In fact, it's one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. Wonderful casual place, great seafood, fabulous bar and wine selection, terrific service and a very friendly crowd. Try the fish grilled "tarator" style, with sage fried potatos and a walnut and coriander vinagrette. I've eaten there multiple times on each trip (I've been in Auckland for business purposes the last several Marchs). If you don't get around to reserving a table, you can order from the bar or full menus in the bar. There are plenty of restaurants in this area, but this is the standout -- although I understand Kermadec is also pretty good for seafood. Also Harbourside, just in front of the ferries, is quite good for classic New Zealand fare in an upscale setting. I believe all are more affordable than Dine (which indeed is supposed to be good).
For great fish and chips for lunch, there is a nearby amazing fish market called Seamart that has a popular cafe. The Auckland fish market itself has a fabulous little sushi bar.
The Thai Place across the street from Sky City is some of the best Thai food I've had, and there are a number of nice cafes on Vulcan Lane. I also liked Rice, which was casual/upscale Asian fusion, and located between Sky City and the Harbor on one of the smaller streets.
All of the above is pretty much in the downtown area.
I believe many of the other really noteworthy restaurants are out in Parnell and Ponsonby, which are upscale Auckland neighborhoods.
If you want to do a local wine tour, this operator is great -- small groups and extremely knowledgable: http://www.winetrailtours.co.nz/.
I can also recommend Waiheke Island as a nice day trip and you can visit wineries there as well; many have restaurants requiring advance reservation. Te Whau is the most famous -- the restaurant is world known for its wine list and while I've not been there, a friend vouches for the quality. It's a one hour ferry ride over and so a good way to see the Bay.