Golden Century is a Sydney institution where students can drop $20 on noodles at one linen-clothed table, while politicians flex the expense card on Grange at another. The Princess of Tonga likes to visit for late-night lobster when she's in town (as does Lady Gaga) and former Chinese president Hu Jintao once asked for Golden Century's signature XO pipis to be delivered to Canberra.
"We drove the food all the way to the Chinese embassy ourselves," said Linda Wong, who owns Golden Century with her husband Eric. "We needed to guarantee it made it there safely."
Eric and Linda Wong are celebrating 30 years at the helm of Chinatown's most popular Cantonese restaurant this month. To mark the occasion, the couple and their second-generation restaurateur son, Billy Wong, launched Golden Century Wine Bank on Thursday.
The new level-three dining space can accommodate up to 180 guests and features a purpose-built kitchen, cellar, private rooms and focus on premium wine. One of those wines is Golden Century's 30th Anniversary shiraz crafted by Barossa winemaker Chris Ringland and priced at $393 in a nod to the restaurant's 393 Sussex Street address.
"We have always tried to match fine wine with Chinese food," said Mr Wong. "The new space and cellar gives us more opportunity to do that, while also promoting Australian wine to guests from overseas."
The Wongs migrated to Sydney from Hong Kong in 1989 after operating a "simple" char siu barbecue restaurant in Kowloon for 10 years. "I was working full-time at a bank while Linda managed the restaurant during the day," said Mr Wong. "I could only help her in the evening."
In search of new restaurant opportunities, the Wongs moved to Australia with their young family and found themselves taking over Golden Century within two weeks of landing in Sydney. The original eatery was located at 405 Sussex Street.
"Those early days were a difficult time for us," said Linda Wong. "We didn't have any friends in Sydney and knew very little English. The restaurant also needed a lot of repairs – the ceiling would always leak when it rained."
The Wongs pressed on and by 1990 Golden Century was turning enough tables to relocate to its current site. Sibling restaurant The Century opened at The Star in 2012 and in August Billy Wong will spearhead XOPP, a modern Cantonese restaurant launching at the new Exchange building neighbouring Darling Harbour and Haymarket.
In keeping with the Wong's family focus, XOPP's minimalist interiors are being designed by Paring Onions Design, based in Hong Kong and run by Alex Wong, Billy's brother.
"XOPP will no doubt feature Golden Century's signature XO pipi dish. However, the menu will be more condensed and introduce diners to lesser-known classics we may have grown up with," said Billy Wong.
"People always have stories about dining at Golden Century," he said. "We want XOPP to be a place where more memories are created and shared."
"The best dish in the world"
Little clams on a bed of fried vermicelli with XO sauce are to Golden Century what pancakes are to Peking duck. The restaurant serves more than half a tonne of pipis a week, typically sourced from NSW waters north of Newcastle. The bivalves are stored in the restaurant's underground seafood aquarium (formerly a car park) and the considerable volume moved means the pipis are always fresh.
"We loved pipis in Hong Kong, but never felt confident serving them due to water pollution," said Eric Wong. "When we moved to Australia and visited Nelson Bay, I was amazed to see you could catch and eat as many pipis as you wanted."
The signature dish's creation was a "whole team" effort, said Mr Wong, and first appeared on the menu in 1991. "Pipis were traditionally accompanied with cheap sauce in Hong Kong, but we had the idea to serve them with one of the most expensive sauces, XO – a mix of dried conpoy [scallops], ham, chilli and garlic. XO with Australian pipis was the best of east and west combined."
Golden Century sells its XO pipis by market price, which at the time writing is $81 a kilogram. "I genuinely think it's the best dish in the world," New York-based celebrity chef David Chang told the Herald in 2016. Golden Century's myriad loyal regulars would agree.