As we launched into a small box of chocolates last night, I started thinking about how the eating-out culture of provincial New Zealand is changing. For the better. I base my comments here on recent experiences in Rotorua, Cambridge, Hastings and Havelock North.
Maybe it's because we are recently out of lockdown and anything that involves freedom of choice has a gloss. I say no. Our eating-out culture is definitely improving.
I believe, from what I've seen over the last couple of weeks, that "fine dining" might be starting to take a back seat to what I shall call "casual urban vibrancy". Even in the provinces.
Let's start with yesterday (as I write). We walked down a side lane and suddenly were greeted by the sounds of people having a joyous time. Even at outside tables mid-winter.
What they were mostly eating was pizza and I'm talking pizza the kinds of which I thought were destined to become just memories of southern Europe.
I'm talking thin-crust pizzas cooked in wood-fired ovens with blackened bubbles around the edge of the crust. Aaah!
It was evident someone coming in here and ordering a thick-crust pizza with ham and pineapple would be faced with an expression of genuine bewilderment. This place was clearly run by a passionate artisan.
Cross the street and there's Indian, more pizza and a trendy cafe. Walk down the road a few minutes and you'll find the same vibrancy with Mexican flavours. Or "modern Asian". And more. All in the "village" of Havelock North.
Travel a few kilometres into the eastern end of Hastings' CBD and it's happening all over again. Asian street food, pasta, good pub grub - all within a few doors of each other.
Workplaces demand for men's wellbeing resource
Mongrel Mob raids: Police seize four houses, bikes, cars and cash
CHB District Council seeks answers after library forced to close
Even a gin bar. And during the day a French bakery and a French chocolate shop. All good reasons to celebrate.
Two weeks ago I was in Cambridge and my accommodation was set at the end of a newly formed little bar and restaurant area dotted with outside tables. By now it should be up and running and buzzing.
But for dinner I chose an Italian restaurant in the middle of town where I met up with a son who was driving home from Auckland and was only too happy to stop off in Cambridge for an 8pm dinner. We were both impressed. By the food and by the buzz.
And as I sat at the centrally placed bar sipping an on-tap Italian lager and waiting for son to arrive, I scanned the whole operation and considered the fact that, in my younger days, this would have been an eat-as-much-as-you-can smorgasbord with queues and stuff in warmers. A culinary history flashed before my eyes.
On an earlier occasion I had met up with an old friend in Rotorua, which I realise is not quite so provincial as Havelock North, Hastings or Cambridge, but it's still not a major urban area.
Of course, we met in Eat Streat, an entire block near the lakefront, closed to traffic but open to pedestrian eaters and drinkers.
Here you might start with a beer – and I did – at a craft beer pub or something a bit special at a cocktail bar.
Then comes the difficult choice: tapas, Middle Eastern, New Zealand cuisine, gluten-free food, Italian, Thai, Indian, a steakhouse. It's like making a choice from a chocolate box.
Even in the provinces we are spoilt for choice.
And in our chocolate box at home, only the green ones were left. Yes, I like peppermint but given all the other choices, it's the flavour that remains in the box until the bitter end.
The green ones are the smorgasbords of yore.
• Wyn Drabble is a teacher of English, a writer, musician and public speaker.