Passing the Peacock Gardens torch: restaurateur Mathew Chan announces retirement

Mathew Chan behind the bar at Peacock Gardens
Mathew Chan behind the bar at Peacock Gardens  Photo: Janie Barrett

After serving more than one million spring rolls over 45 years, restaurateur Mathew Chan has announced his retirement from Crows Nest institution Peacock Gardens. 

Founded in 1975, Peacock Gardens was the epicentre of long media lunches through the '80s and '90s when most major network offices were based north of the bridge. 

Mathew Chan with his niece Evelyn Lee, who will be taking over Peacock Gardens from her uncle.
Mathew Chan with his niece Evelyn Lee, who will be taking over Peacock Gardens from her uncle. Photo: Janie Barrett

"I'll still come in quite often for lunch service and say hello to all the regulars, but I'm also looking forward to retirement," says Chan. "Now seemed the right time to make the move – I think I probably deserve it."

At 73 years old, Chan hopes to spend more time with his grandchildren and travelling with his wife, Joannie. "I have other business interests to manage that will still keep me busy, too," he says.

David Leckie, Peter Meakin, Tracy Grimshaw and Brian Walsh are among the many television industry heavy-hitters to frequent Peacock Gardens for a sang choy bao and shiraz session over the past five decades.

Peacock Gardens remains incredibly popular for its Chinese comfort food and warm servive.
Peacock Gardens remains incredibly popular for its Chinese comfort food and warm servive. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

The restaurant remains incredibly popular today, partly for its Chinese comfort food and prestige wines, but mainly for Chan's warm service and work ethic.

"In the old days, I used to work seven days a week, lunch and dinner, and not leave until after the last customer," he says. "After my stroke in 1993, I cut the hours back but I was still in the office every day for more than 44 years and working another decade before that."

Chan has sold Peacock Gardens to his niece, Evelyn Lee, already assistant restaurant manager at the Crows Nest establishment.

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"I wanted to sell the restaurant to someone who knew its culture and appreciated what Peacock Gardens means to its customers," he says.

"Evelyn had been with me for 10 years before I suggested she gain some work experience from other restaurants to build more skills and knowledge."

Lee spent four years with Rockpool Dining Group at Sake in Double Bay before returning to Peacock Gardens last year.

Chan's biography is now available from Peacock Gardens with all proceeds going to the Stroke Foundation.
Chan's biography is now available from Peacock Gardens with all proceeds going to the Stroke Foundation. Photo: Supplied

"Peacock Gardens shaped me to be who I am," says Lee, who started working at the restaurant when she was 19. 

"People treat it like a home away from home. You build a lot of relationships with customers. It's not like other restaurants."

Neither the menu or the tableside service are set to change. "I can't be and shouldn't try to be Mathew, but I must try to maintain his great sense of hospitality and genuine caring for the restaurant's customers," says Lee. 

A 150-page biography of Chan was published by the Peacock Gardens team in June and is available for purchase from the restaurant. All proceeds from the book will be donated to the Stroke Foundation. 

"I knew Mathew for more than a decade before his stroke, but forgot what a larger than life character he used to be until I set out to write his biography," says author and former ad-man Kim Terakes.

"He was a bit of a larrikin, who would fly to Brisbane on a whim to back a horse with mates, and have to eat at Peacock Gardens that night because they had no money for dinner."

Terakes received quotes for the biography from 30 high-profile Gardens regulars including Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates, Rockpool chef Neil Perry and cricketing great Ian Chappell, plus contributions from longtime waiters John Lau and Ricky Law.

"Beyond the boozy media lunches, the restaurant is about family, and the relationships between Mathew, the staff and their guests," says Terakes. "It's about the kids once served in high chairs by Ricky and John, who now take their own children to Peacock Gardens for the same spring rolls."