Having been burned before, the Internet was skeptical, and the tale's share-worthy details – a wife who died just the week before, the old man eating alone for the first time – seemed tailor-made for ending up on news feeds across the land.
"Uh … this is awfully familiar," one Reddit commenter noted. "I've seriously read like 30 different variations of this," complained another.
What happened next may surprise you: The whole thing was real.
Lee Ballantyne was eating at Cicco's, an Italian restaurant in Barrie, Ontario, when he spotted a pair of strangers sharing a romantic meal. Remembering how similar the scene was to nights he had spent with his late wife, Carol, Ballantyne paid the couple's check, and left them a heartwarming note on a napkin.
"You don't know me," he wrote, "but my beautiful wife of 43 years died last week."
"Please allow me to buy your dinner … I will put a smile on Carol's face, and make me happy. For now."
Ballantine closed with a simple epigraph: "Pay it forward."
Ballantyne met Carol in high school, and the two were married in 1970. Their decades-long marriage saw three sons and five grandchildren, as well as Carol's long battle with lupus. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in September and died in hospice Dec. 30.
"Watching them smile and chat as they studied the menu at first made me envious, but the longer I watched, the more I came to realize they are on the same journey as Carol and I experienced over the years," Ballantyne told the Daily Mail.
"I believe my gesture of paying the bill was selfish on my part. I wanted to feel good, and I did," he told the paper.
He has not revealed the couple's name, saying what happened at Cicco's was "a private moment between us."