Late-night dining, heart-warming hospitality and the freshest of seafood are what we'll remember about Sydney Chinatown's most celebrated eatery, Golden Century, which went into administration this week after 30 years of service.
It comes as Sydney marks nearly two months of lockdown in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 disease, which requires restaurants to pause their dine-in service.
Over the years, owners Eric and Linda Wong have been revered for the traditional Cantonese cuisine they served to families, city hustlers and overseas notables alike. Their restaurant was known as much for its encyclopaedic menu as it was for its list of high-profile guests, including Australian prime ministers, Lady Gaga, former US president George HW Bush and the Princess of Tonga.
However, this Haymarket institution had humble beginnings. The Wongs migrated from Hong Kong to Sydney, Australia, in 1989 with the hope of providing a better education for their two children. The couple had previously owned a seafood restaurant in Kowloon, so it was only natural for them to start a hospitality business.
Within two weeks of landing Down Under, Eric and Linda took the reins of a restaurant called Golden Century, which was then at 405 Sussex Street in Sydney's CBD. Language barriers and culture shock were not the only problems they faced initially. The restaurant's bricks and mortar were compromised and the equipment and furniture were in need of major upgrades.
By 1990, the Wong-led Golden Century was turning enough tables to support the pair's move down the road to 393 Sussex Street.
"At the start, we had to borrow the old system, but after one year we found that the restaurant was under control, so we started to expand and moved to a new site. The old restaurant only had 120 seats, whereas the new one has 500 seats," says Eric.
The biggest perk of changing locations was the opportunity to redesign the restaurant. "At that moment, Golden Century only had one fish tank to keep the lobster. All the steamed prawn was from the freezer and then for the fish we only had founder and Murray cod to steam," Eric explains. "We designed the new restaurant like a Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant with eight fish tanks."
The restaurant became famous for its 200 authentic Cantonese-style dishes that were near identical to those found on the menu at the old location. However, because the new restaurant had room for plenty of live tanks, they could add more fresh seafood dishes to it.
At first, Eric had a hard time convincing the local fishermen to supply live seafood, because of the risks involved in transporting it. Yet over time, fishermen in Botany Bay in Sydney's southeast agreed to provide them with fresh prawns and fish. These deliveries would arrive at midnight, fresh off the boat, and gave birth to Golden Century's famous late-night dining.
"I am very proud of our staff because our team work so hard. They are so helpful and so proud of their job."
Before the pandemic, everyone from hospitality workers and taxi drivers to pub crawlers flocked through the doors between 2am and 4am for an unbeatable midnight feast. Famous chefs were also frequent guests, ordering Golden Century's salt and pepper squid, crispy skin chicken and Mongolian lamb. Other classics that customers devoured included its abalone steamboat, mud crab with ginger and shallots, and seasonal winter hot pots. However, there was one dish that customers came back for time and time again.
Hailed by Momofuku's David Chang in 2016 as "the best dish in the world", XO pipis were Golden Century's signature dish. The pipis were sourced from farms in Newcastle, Coffs Harbour and South Australia, and transported straight from the tank into a wok then laid on a bed of fried vermicelli and topped with a house-made XO sauce.
The XO pipis first appeared on Golden Century's menu in 1991. Demand grew so much that the restaurant found itself ordering 300 kilograms of them each week. In Hong Kong, pipis are not so popular since they're typically served with a cheap type of sauce. Eric and Linda reinvented this seafood specialty by serving it with a premium Hong Kong-style chilli sauce called XO, which contains dried shrimps, chilli, oil and garlic.
Eric attributes the popularity of the XO pipis dish to its reasonable price. "Our customer gap is very big, from restaurant staff to taxi drivers to overseas visitors," Eric explains. "Customers can spend $30-40 per head or $100-200 per head. Not everyone can afford the lobster and expensive live seafood, but XO pipis, everyone can afford that dish."
When asked what his favourite menu item is, Eric says the XO pipis is a clear winner. Other favourites include the traditional lo hei or prosperity toss, which the restaurant served during Chinese New Year, and specialty moon cakes that the chefs made during the mid-autumn Moon Festival.
"Aussies love them as much as the Chinese," Eric says. "People come back every year for them."
Eric and Linda have shared many special memories over the past three decades. However, their proudest moment was hosting a midnight feast for Australia's best chefs during Sydney Morning Herald's Good Food Month food festival.
"What I am very proud of is that a lot of the famous restaurant chefs have been to Golden Century," Eric says. "At the Good Food Month celebration, there were about 200 restaurant chefs and owners. We planned to close at 2am but on that day we extended to 3:30am, nearly 4am, so everyone was very happy."
From their celebrity guests to Chinese locals looking for a taste of home, there was something about Golden Century that kept customers coming back for more. Eric believes this was because of the superiority of the ingredients and the continued quality of their dishes.
"In our business, we buy the best material because when a customer goes to Golden Century, they expect the best food," Eric says. "Even if the chef is experienced, if the material is not good you can't cook good food."
Eric also attributes much of the restaurant's success to his strong team of over 100 staff, some of whom worked with him for 20 years.
"I am very proud of our staff because our team work so hard. They are so helpful and so proud of their job," he says.
The Wong duo also developed a large community of customers whom they now consider old friends.
"Some of my customers are three generations," Eric says. "When they were little kids, they started to have the Golden Century food. Now they are 36, 37 years' old and are very successful businessmen. They bring their business partners and their staff to come and then they mention to their staff 'This is my favourite restaurant', so you feel very proud of that."
"Some of my customers are three generations. When they were little kids, they started to have the Golden Century food. Now they are 36, 37 years' old and are very successful businessmen."
But not all is lost; the Wong family’s other restaurants in Sydney, The Century at The Star and Darling Square’s XOPP will continue the Golden Century legacy. "The Century and XOPP are separate sites and not part of the lease talks and so will continue as normal," Eric tells SBS.
Even so, the closure of the original Golden Century leaves a hole that many believe may be near impossible to fill. This institution has been deeply etched into Australia's culinary consciousness. What was once a run-down restaurant became Sydney's best and it won't be forgotten – for centuries.
Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries. Photographs supplied by Eric Wong.
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