Golden Century's golden era comes to an end

Myffy Rigby
Golden Century owners Eric and Linda Wong, and son Billy, pictured in 2018.
Golden Century owners Eric and Linda Wong, and son Billy, pictured in 2018. Photo: Christopher Pearce

There are restaurants, and then there are restaurant institutions. Golden Century, late-night Cantonese restaurant to the stars, is the latter. And now, as NSW gears up for another month of lockdown, the Chinatown landmark has entered into voluntary administration.

The 20-year lease on the Sussex Street location is up at the end of August and is not to be renewed, according to a spokesperson from the restaurant. "We've been trying to come to terms [with the landlord], but you have to ask, is this the time to commit to a long-term agreement?"

For 32 years, Golden Century has been a dining destination for name actors, musicians, politicians and chefs. But the real charm has always been the other people in the room.

Alongside every Rihanna, Rod Stewart, George Bush snr and Grace Jones, there are the anonymous diners who receive the same service, in the same room, ordering from the same fish tanks. The quality of the experience is purely reliant on just how much money a diner is willing to drop on wine and seafood.

"I think the great thing is the egalitarian nature of it," says chef Neil Perry, who has been eating at Golden Century since the early '90s.

"We'd often be sitting [as a group of chefs] and there'd be ladies of the night, gangsters, bikies, drug dealers and restaurant folk. It didn't matter what table you were looking at, there'd always be a mud crab or a lobster or a whole fish or a big bowl of pipis and steamed prawns."

Golden Century Seafood Restaurant's fish tanks will soon be empty.
Golden Century Seafood Restaurant's fish tanks will soon be empty. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The restaurant, opened in 1989 by Eric and Linda Wong, has charmed generations of diners. Dishes such as pipis in XO sauce served on crisp rice noodles, mud crab stir-fried with ginger and shallot, prawns cooked in Shaoxing​ wine at the table, whole lobsters, Peking duck two ways and generous bowls of pork and preserved egg congee is the food that has defined Chinatown's late-night eating culture.

Over the years, past-midnight supper at Golden Century has been a strong draw for the Sydney hospitality scene. A regularly occurring party where, on any given night after service is finished in their fine dining restaurants, you would find the likes of Guillaume Brahimi, Tetsuya Wakuda, Peter Gilmore and Neil Perry flanked by their kitchen brigades, cracking cold beers and ordering excessively.

"I can distinctly remember coming in for supper one night and seeing the Rockpool guys in one corner and Tetsuya Wakuda in another corner falling asleep," says chef Dan Hong. "For every special occasion within your kitchen brigade, you would always go to Golden Century after service. The true chef's dish was adding the fried bread to your pipis with XO sauce."

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Like a lot of Sydneysiders, the executive chef of Mr Wong grew up eating at Golden Century. He first started dining there in the mid-'90s with his mother, chef Angie Hong, who kept a bottle of Cognac at the restaurant and tipped waiters $50 at the beginning of the meal. "That's the way you would tip in Chinese restaurants so they would look after you for the rest of the night," says Hong.

Speculating on whether Golden Century will close for good or just for good at that particular site is a game nobody can win – least of all the Wong family who have had to shut the doors on perhaps Sydney's most widely loved restaurant.

"I'm hoping that they can come out the other side of this. Sydney's not going to be the same without Eric and Linda," says Perry. "My fingers and toes are crossed for them. It's an institution in Sydney and it would be a terrible shame to see it go."

The signature pipis in XO sauce.
The signature pipis in XO sauce. Photo: Christopher Pearce

On hearing the news about the closure, American chef, author and media personality David Chang was shocked. "I can't imagine life without GC. It's a cultural institution and should be saved by the government."

"As special as that place is to all of us," says chef and long-time GC devotee Mitch Orr, "it doesn't compare to how special that place is to that family and all the staff who have worked there since day one, or who have migrated from overseas to work there and have worked there their whole life in Australia. I can only imagine how hard a decision it would have been for them to make."