The man who ate Lincoln Rd sat by himself on Wednesday in the pretty vacant lot of Valentines. I took a corner table and that made me feel even more lonely and - let's be frank about it - pathetic.
It seats maybe 100 people; nine people were at lunch, and that includes a baby. The manager on duty, a large, rather gloomy Indian fellow, moved ponderously in his kitchen whites. There were no other staff. The food in the buffet trays seemed kind of... jaded. I looked out onto a view of a carpark and the Warehouse. I thought: I am in hell.
But I just needed to relax, and adjust to its charms. It was my first time at a Valentines. The original Valentines opened in 1989, in that great social laboratory of New Zealand, Pakuranga. There are now restaurants in Mt Eden, Manukau, Glenfield, Hamilton, and Petone. It's become a New Zealand classic. We can all picture that strangely designed heart-shaped V.
You go to Valentines for an occasion, don't you? Something to celebrate with family and friends. It's always had that kind of appeal - a treat, somewhere nice to go with the kids or your deaf uncle.
"Rubbish," according to a Trip Advisor review of Valentines in Petone. Another:
"Absolutely disappointed." A third: "Awesome place for Gold Card members." A fourth, devastatingly: "Childhood memories destroyed."
What about Valentines in Lincoln Rd? "Horrible...Disgraceful....Never coming back." And, devastatingly: "Seriously?"
I could see where they were coming from as I plodded around the buffet trays and piled my plate with worryingly brown pieces of roast pork, wilted lettuce, dry chips, and stiff clumps of white rice. The buffet lunch is $15.90 and all you can eat but there wasn't much that I wanted to eat. I passed on the Greek salad and the egg salad and the creamy potato salad which had pieces of celery on top of it.
Alone at my table in the corner, I was a loser picking at the bland meat. The music didn't help. "How great thou art," bellowed Howard Morrison.
I needed cheering up so I went and had a chat with the other solitary diner. Manu Dunwoodie, 42, from Henderson, was in terrific spirits; she'd just polished off her main meal, and was about to attack the dessert trays. "Oooh," she said, "I love it here. It's a bit special, isn't it? I come here with my brother on my birthday. I been here 10 times."
Her surname, she explained, was Scottish. "I'm Maori. They adopted me."
I asked her to rate Valentines out of 10. She gave it serious thought, and then said, "Nine. It would have been 10, but they didn't have any mussels today. Oooh," she said, "I love me mussels."
Her happiness was like a lesson that I wanted to learn. The best way to go about that, I figured, was to eat more. I piled my plate a second time, with more pork, and fries, and roast potatoes, also quite a bit of curried chicken; then I emptied a sachet of salt over it, and actually it was really delicious.
Pale sunlight softened the view of the Warehouse. "Like a river flows surely to the sea," Elvis sang, "darling so it goes." Love was in the air. An old couple came in; he wore a loud Hawaiian shirt, she wore a black beanie and held onto a walker.
"I live in Amberwood rest home on Don Buck Road," said Barbara Wallace, 75. "This is Barry. He's 87 - it's his birthday!"
I said, "Happy birthday!"
She said, "He can't hear you. A gunshot went off in his ear in the war."
He wore his silver hair long; he was quite agile, and moved with a certain grace. Barbara said, "We met last November. November 19. We went to Greenlane hospital for eye operations and we've been together ever since."
He gave the thumbs-up.
She said, "I've written three books. One is about my life. It's called, 'I, Barbara.' Some of it is very sad. I married three times and each of them belted me up. My second husband, I came home one day and he was in bed with three women. Naked. I ran to the car but he caught me, and punched my face so bad.
"But Barry," she said, "Barry's very kind, and gentle, and he's always giving me things."
I said, "Is it love?"
She said, "I'm sure it is. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Barry gave the thumbs-up again.
She said, "I write him letters."
I said, "What do you write?"
She looked him in the eyes, leaned closer, and said, "What kind of things do I write to you?"
He said, "Nice things."
Their love story followed me to the dessert tray, where I piled my bowl with chocolate cake, chocolate log, a chocolate brownie, chocolate mousse, strawberry jelly, a green marshmallow with coconut icing, and raspberry jelly. It was a continent of sweetness, a whole planet, and I explored every bit of it, then went back for more. Everything was good.
"I'll be there," sang Freddy Fender, "before the next teardrop falls." The guitar solo, that sharp, ringing Tex-Mex bell, filled the room. I drank a Corona. I was happy.
Barbara gave Valentines 10 out of 10. I'm hovering somewhere between three and nine.