Eli Orzessek on the fast-food chain that played an integral role in his culinary upbringing.

As I was growing up in Ponsonby in the 90s, KFC was the only classic American fast-food chain on the main drag. It was where I would go for dinner with Dad when Mum worked late, it's where I celebrated my 12th birthday and it's where I cashed in the $3 burger vouchers I nabbed out of people's letterboxes as I delivered the local newspaper.

A primary school friend lived above the fish and chip shop that was right next door to it and she would wake up to that distinctive smell every day. I asked her if she ever got sick of it, but she said it just made her crave it even more.

The joy this admittedly unhealthy food brought us kids was reflected in the decor at Ponsonby KFC. On the walls hung framed photos of 1950s children chowing down on drumsticks. The children were in black and white, but the chicken was rendered in blazing orange. Clearly KFC was the only colour in their otherwise bleak lives - something I could relate to.

KFC has cult status in this country. A couple who took wedding pictures outside the Whangarei branch last year ended up with an invite to the headquarters in Kentucky. That same year, the company ran a series of online giveaways for KFC-branded merchandise. I've never seen Twitter in New Zealand get so feral. But I'm proud to have won a beanie, even though the scented candle was the prize I truly desired.


So it's safe to say I'm pretty obsessed with KFC. I even own a copy of the Colonel's autobiography - Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger-Lickin' Good - and it's actually a really good read if you're interested in US history. KFC also helped me break the vegetarianism of several significant others - because only the most militant vegan could be immune to that smell.

But sometime in the 2000s, the Colonel fell from grace. Ponsonby KFC in particular became a huge gamble.

Some nights, they couldn't get even the drinks right and you'd end up with soggy chicken, undercooked chips and a watered-down Mountain Dew.

The main problem was the lack of staff - it became the norm for a store to have only two people on, trying to cook the chicken, work the front counter and deal with the drive-thru. It was a disaster and never really made sense, considering how popular KFC is here.

But I'm happy to report that it has returned to its former glory with the highly anticipated opening of the Fort St branch this month.

Located in a former convenience store, it's fitted out in a subtle, minimalist style that makes you feel like you're in some hip Melbourne eatery. It's also the only branch to offer table service.

I visited it for the first time with an old friend when it had been open for just one day, the paint still fresh on the huge Colonel Sanders mural adorning one wall. The line was huge and we weren't sure if we were even going to get a table, but the stars aligned.

We ordered two Zinger Tower combos, eight Wicked Wings and a tub of bean salad (a very under-rated menu item) and waited at our table for our feast to arrive - and the line at the counter grew much longer. The first thing I noticed was just how many staff members were on duty - at least six, possibly more - and unsurprisingly, this resulted in far better service.

When our feast arrived, the waitress apologised profusely for the length of time it had taken to get to us. Then she apologised even more after we realised there were no spoons for the bean salad.

"Stop saying 'sorry'," I felt like saying. "It's only KFC."

But it wasn't "only" KFC. It was the best damn KFC I'd tasted in my entire life. The least-greasy Wicked Wings I've ever touched with my bare fingers. The chips, crispy and extra salty, because there were special seasoning dispensers at the table. There wasn't much talking after that. Just eating.

They even brought the iconic refresher towel out of retirement - but since the chicken was so perfect, I forgot to use it. It just wasn't necessary.