The National Cafe (est. 1928) was a dimly-lit narrow room with exhausted red carpeting, Formica tables and vinyl-upholstered chrome-legged chairs. A row of cylindrical glass lampshades dangled from the high ceiling, vinegar and Worcester sauce bottles stood in cruet sets on each table. The waiter was 89 years old. The menu offered steak and chips, egg and chips, sausages and chips, fish and chips and baked beans on toast. I ordered steak and chips.
In Napier, on the first day of my visit, 2000 passengers from the cruise ship “Dawn Princess” garbed in cruise-wear and dangling cameras wandered down the main street, or succumbed to the blandishments of touts dressed in striped blazers and boaters keen to sell them “an authentic Art Deco experience”. This seemed mostly to involve rides in open-top vintage cars or traipsing behind a tour guide like a gaggle of school children on a not very interesting field trip.
I poked my head into the Art Deco Centre but it was standing room only. In the grip of Deco-mania, the visiting hordes were hunting for souvenirs. There were postcards and calendars and tea towels and more Deco brooches and beaded dresses and cloche hats than you could shake a feather boa at.
I took refuge in the Two Fat Lattes cafe. It wasn't Deco enough to be of interest to the tourists but it was full of NZ history nonetheless: grease-stained, hand-written recipes torn from old family cookbooks had been sealed onto every table-top. My own table-top contained recipes for Gay’s Sponge, Boiled Fruit Cake and Pavlova.
The tourists also missed out on some authentic culinary history at the National Cafe (est. 1928) where I ate that evening. It was a dimly-lit narrow room with exhausted red carpeting, Formica tables and vinyl-upholstered chrome-legged chairs. A row of cylindrical glass lampshades dangled from the high ceiling, vinegar and Worcester sauce bottles stood in cruet sets on each table. The owner, a deaf, slow-moving old gent (aged 89) in brown trousers and a brown short-sleeved shirt under an Argyle-patterned vest delivered the menu: steak and chips, egg and chips, sausages and chips, fish and chips and baked beans on toast. I ordered steak and chips.
Time passed. The old gent reappeared and placed a plate of sliced supermarket white bread and a pat of butter on my table. More time passed. The old gent delivered a bottle of tomato sauce to the only other occupants of the restaurant with a warning not to “squeeze it too hard because the lid comes off”. The restaurant filled with the heady aroma of fried onions. The folk at the other table leaned over to warn me that I would need cash to pay for my meal as there was no EFTPOS machine.
More time passed. I was admiring the faded Xmas wreathes pinned at intervals along the wood-panelled feature wall when my meagre steak finally arrived. With chips. And the kind of salad I hadn't eaten since I was a kid: a little pile of shredded lettuce, one slice of tomato, two slices of canned beetroot and a dollop of mayonnaise made with Highlander condensed milk.
The following morning, another 2000 tourists, this time from “Radiance of the Seas”, were on the streets. Disgorged by a relay of buses from the port, they adopted the same ambling, narcoleptic walk down the main street as their predecessors. I abandoned town and dawdled along Marine Parade under the Norfolk Pines.
The bronze statue of Pania still sat immobile on her plinth as she had done all through my childhood, gazing towards the sea and the stony beach. The skating rink was turmoil of plywood skateboard ramps, not the smooth expanse of concrete I remembered sailing across on a pair of strap-on skates. “Marineland” had changed too. Renamed “Ocean Spa”, it’s a swimming pool for human beings now, not dolphins, or seals or penguins. The floral clock still told the time, though there were no flowers on its giant face. I walked as far as the port where the wharves we’d fished from were locked behind high security fences.
Then I walked back into town, amazed at how short the distance was, when walked on adult legs. On the way, I came across the little bronze sundial which had intrigued me as a child, but which I had completely forgotten. The distances to capital cities of the world were etched into the concrete around it: 12,900 miles to London where my mother had been born, 163 miles to Wellington where she had given birth to me.
And there was a rhyme inscribed on the rim of the sundial: “Serene I stand / amidst the flowers" it said, " to tell the passing / of the hours”.