The thought of what will happen Saturday leaves Thomas Tang apologetic and even teary-eyed.
The 67-year-old’s restaurant, Won Ton House, is to close after five decades in business, spanning two west-end Ottawa locations and two generations of owner-operators.
“My parents created it, and it seems like I’m letting it go,” says Tang, before he needs to dab tears from his eyes. “Sorry, I’m getting emotional. Somehow I feel like I failed them. I cannot maintain their legacy.”
The Won Ton House is one of Ottawa’s oldest Chinese restaurants. The Golden Palace on Carling Avenue, open for 63 years according to its website, says it is Ottawa’s oldest Chinese restaurant.
Tang’s late parents, Nelson and Winnie Tang, came from Hong Kong to Canada with their three children in 1969. Before he came to Ottawa, Nelson Tang was a chemist in Hong Kong. But he didn’t see a future in his field for himself in Canada, where he wanted to live because his children would receive better educations.
Before the Tangs left Hong Kong, Nelson learned about the restaurant business. After he arrived in Ottawa, he worked as the head chef at the La Paloma Restaurant on Rideau Street. Tang did not have an English name, his son says, but he took “Nelson” because the La Paloma was at the corner of Rideau and Nelson streets.
Eventually the Tangs opened the first Won Ton House in the early 1970s in a strip mall on Richmond Road near Woodroffe Avenue. In a 1989 column, Kathleen Walker, this newspaper’s restaurant critic at the time, recalled the first Won Ton House as her favourite Chinese restaurant, even if it was a simple place bereft of decor and graced with just a counter and a handful of booths. She raved about the hole-in-a-wall’s deep-fried oysters.
Thomas Tang recalled that the first Won Ton House served Canadian breakfasts and fast food during the day before switching to serve Chinese food for dinner. Nelson Tang “wasn’t too sure if the (Chinese) style of cuisine would take off,” Tang says.
The first Won Ton House burned down during a fire at its plaza, and the Tangs re-opened further east, on Wellington Street West, in a building that the family now owns. After decades, the Won Ton House remains an attractive dining room, with a large image of Hong Kong’s skyline, circa the late 1980s, nearly filling one wall.
Nelson, who died in 2004, and Winnie, who died in 2017, both worked at the Won Ton House. Thomas worked at the restaurant while he was in high school and then studied business at Western University. After some years as a real estate agent, he took over the family business in the 1990s.
Tang says business is steady at his restaurant and he has the support of many regulars who are saddened by this weekend’s closure, which he announced online earlier this month.
“There are so many memories,” says Tang, citing regulars who had their first date at the Won Ton House, and a woman whose dinner at the restaurant was interrupted when she went into labour. “There’s a lot of stories like that,” he says.
When Sarah Chown, the managing partner of Metropolitan Brasserie, learned Thursday of the impending closure of Won Ton House, she said: “That’s really tragic.
“My family has been ordering from them for Christmas Eve since I was a child. It’s our family Christmas tradition,” said Chown, who is also Ottawa regional chair of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association.
Also among the restaurant’s boosters is Sue McMullen, a Glebe resident who made a trip to the Won Ton House this week for a final takeout order after she heard it would close.
McMullen says she and her friends who celebrated birthday parties at the Won Ton House will be devastated.
“It’s hard to find a restaurant with wonderful service, terrific food, and a nice ambience,” she says.
The main reason for Tang closing Won Ton House is a shortage of staff, Tang says. “It’s so hard to get people to work and I believe a lot of the younger generation are not going into the same businesses,” he says. “They don’t want to work in a Chinese restaurant. It’s very hard to recruit new people.”
A skeleton crew of just a few people runs the restaurant, which closes at 9 p.m. One night this week, Tang did not leave until 2 a.m. because he was occupied with cleaning up and doing prep work, such as making sauces.
Vicki Wu, who came to Canada from China in the early 1990s, has been a server at the Won Ton House for 23 years. She says she is feeling waves of emotion about the closure, although she felt it was imminent, given her boss’s age.
She says she may take a vacation, perhaps her first trip to Europe, and then look for work, but not in the restaurant business. “It will be too hard,” she says.
“The Chinese have a saying: ‘There’s no banquet that will last forever,’” she adds.
Her boss says he doesn’t know what’s next for him after Saturday.
“I’ll take a deep breath, just to calm down. I do not know what I’m going to do,” Tang says.
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