Steve Braunias farewells a Queen St institution


Breakfast at 10:02am on Wednesday at Auckland’s great and holy cathedral, the McDonald’s on 260 Queen St, was the bacon and egg McMuffin with 1 hash brown, and black filter coffee (order number 197, $9.10).

It tasted as good as always but it was sad to sit there and stuff my face with the knowledge one of Auckland’s iconic landmarks was about to shut its doors. It opened in July 1977 and will close within the next fortnight – “November 1-ish,” confirmed Simon Kenny, McDonald’s head of comms – to bring an end to an era of fries with that in high-ceilinged splendour.

Maria Morunga, 59, was feeling it, too. “It’s a sensitive thing for me,” she said. As the eldest of a family of seven growing up on McKelvie St in Ponsonby, she could measure her childhood at 260 Queen St. “Dad would bring us here and he always used to say, ‘This is a special occasion treat.’ It was a big thing for us.”

She lives on the North Shore now and got the ferry into the city on Wednesday especially to revisit the place of so many good memories. She knew her Auckland icons; her dad was a builder, and worked on the Pt Erin pools.

“He was the first person who went in for a swim, and I was the second.” Yes, she said, she knew McDonald’s was moving only a few doors down to 268 Queen St. “But that’s not the point,” she said. “Dad would be really disappointed this is going.”

She looked around at the vast space and up to the stained glass windows on the ceiling. The busiest McDonald’s in New Zealand is in New Plymouth. The most insane is in Taupo, with the airplane on top. But the grandest has always been 260 Queen St, in the stately premises of the ASB Bank, built in 1862.

It’s got class. It’s got heritage. It’s got a lot of room, too. An elderly Chinese couple came in and unpacked a hot thermos, two old bananas, and a packet of strawberry wafers. Then they sat down at a table, and enjoyed their picnic.

Lunch at 1:44pm was a Big Mac with Coke (order number 186, $9.90). I’d spoken with various friendly diners in the morning – Paul Coe ,62, Wiremu Chalmers, 71, and Poko Tupuola 40, who wore a red hibiscus to match her red bracelets – and they all expressed sadness at the closing of the golden arches on the golden mile. But sentiment was in short supply in the afternoon.

The best I got was from Michael Fulcher, 37, who went as far as to comment, “It’s annoying. It’s kind of disappointing, really. I like places that are old and established. But it’s just McDonald’s.” Frank Tea, 52, observed the ceiling windows and the delicate patterned filigree. “It’s a beautiful place,” he agreed, “but I don’t care, really.”

Dinner at 9.28pm was a Serious Angus with a 10-piece Chicken McBites and black filter coffee (order number 106, $15.70).

“Yeah,” said Johnny, 30, a Russian-born man who preferred not to give his surname, “now that you mention it, it definitely has an atmosphere about it. A majestic aura. But you don’t really come here for that. You just come here for a Mac attack. It’s habit. It’s what’s open.”

I don’t mean to be too critical but I hated Johnny. It was as though he thought of life in the same way as fast food: something cheap, something to be grabbed on the run. Also, he was the only diner I saw all day who couldn’t be bothered tidying up.

When he left, I sat and seethed at the mess he’d left behind and began to despair that there was no decency left in the world – until the glass doors slid open just before 11pm, and six university students roared in, wearing visor caps from the Holey Moley cocktail bar on the Viaduct, and spoke from the heart about the loss of a place they called home.

“I feel pretty distraught,” said Pieta Surridge, “and I think I can speak on behalf of most students about that. You get a sense of home here. It’s a huge part of Queen St and a huge part of our lives.”

She estimated her and her friends rocked in six times a week, often twice on Saturday nights. “I mean – look at it!,” she said, and marvelled at the cathedral. “An icon? That,” she said, “is an understatement.”

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