Fleur’s peace – legendary Moeraki restaurant closes for good

By Sally Blundell of Frank Film

On a paddock on the bank of the Waitaki River, renowned chef and restaurateur Fleur Sullivan spies a clump of watercress.

“Boy, I’d love to get some.”

She is standing in what was once her grandparents’ farm where she spent the first five years of her life, learning a culinary tradition based on what could be grown, fished, hunted (her father would shoot rabbits from the running board of the family car) or foraged.

“There were no supermarkets,” says Sullivan.

But the watercress, even if she could gather it up, won't be gracing a menu any time soon.

Her landmark restaurant Fleurs Place in the coastal village of Moeraki, just south of Oamaru, has been closed for nearly three years – the result of hospitality rules during the early years of the Covid pandemic and a largely unvaccinated workforce.

Now, she tells Frank Film, she is selling up.

“I’ve grieved but I’m prepared to let this go.”

Fleur Sullivan. Photo: Frank Film
Fleur Sullivan. Photo: Frank Film
In doing so, she leaves a legacy of conviviality, local enterprise and fresh regional food.

“I’ve never done it for any other reason than the enjoyment of it and doing it well,” she says. “When you put together this little restaurant and the joy of having these people provide their produce to us – the fish, the tītī, the eggs, the vegetables from Joe’s up the road – all of these things created so much joy.”

Fleur honed her hospitality skills as a newly married young mother working in hotels and restaurants, first on the West Coast then in Alexandra.

In 1967, she bought the historic Dunstan Hotel in the gold mining township of Clyde and, under the new name of Dunstan House, ran it as bed and breakfast, serving slow-cooked regional food – wild rabbit, thyme, game birds, fruit, home-grown herbs – before slow-cooked regional food was a thing.

To preserve and celebrate the town’s history, she set up the Clyde Promotion Group and became a local councillor.

When her marriage fell apart, she found her place in the wave of new restaurants opening in Queenstown, but central Otago still tugged at her heart.

In the late 1970s, as a solo mother with three young children, she returned to Clyde, converting, with her partner John Braine, an old general store into a 40-seat restaurant. Olivers became renowned for fresh local food (and, later, wine), live music and ambience by the truck-load.

As poet Sam Hunt wrote, “When you are living on the highway you remember certain places – will they water the horses well? And she watered the horses really well.”

Twenty years later, a cancer diagnosis demanded a dramatic change.

“I knew I had to get to the ocean and walk in the water every day. And this was the ocean I wanted to get to. Moeraki.”

In 1997 she bought a small house overlooking the historic whaling station, but the fresh seafood arriving at the jetty each day was too good an opportunity. With the help of her son, she bought a caravan and began selling fish chowder, tītī and fresh rēwena bread, reflecting the region’s rich maritime and Māori history.

When the site beside the old jetty came up for sale, “I thought, don't even look at it. Don’t even think about it. I didn’t want to tell myself I would build a restaurant, but I knew I was.”

And she did. Fleurs Place, built from a relocated farm shed, collected furniture and crockery, even an outside filleting table procured from the Clyde morgue, opened to the public in 2002.

Frustrated at her inability to buy fish straight from the boats, Sullivan bought her own quota.

“Sometimes there would be people sitting at their table, waiting on this beautiful blue cod and I’d say, well, that boat coming around the corner has got your fish on it – you’ll just have to wait a minute.”

She recalls the day a whale visited the bay. “It was the first day the restaurant was full of people. I told everyone to come outside.”

Now, as the morning sun pours into the empty restaurant, she points to the graffitied names of appreciative customers over the years: Josh Emett, Roger Hall, the South Otago Smallbore Rifle Club.

When British restaurateur Rick Stein was asked to write a travel article for a British newspaper, he chose Fleurs Place. “I had never heard of Rick Stein,” laughs Sullivan.

Closing the restaurant was never going to be easy. By selling her fishing quota, her most valuable asset, she was able to pay her staff, “but I might as well have had my right arm cut off, because that was why I was here.”

Now, as she wanders along the beach, past the thick ropes of bull kelp, the kids fishing for cockabullies, the fishing boats gently rocking on the water, Fleur Sullivan, ONZM, CNZM, is content. It’s taken a long time, she says, “but I’m at peace with not opening now.”