AAs long as you’re in Sydney, you’re never far from the Golden Century. Depending on your age, origin, and time of day, the importance of the multi-story Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown to you may differ. But with its endless opening hours, its influence on the food around it, and more than three decades of memories, it’s always there.
My mother told me it was the first restaurant she introduced me to in Chinatown for my first Chinese New Year. On another visit she met a friend. He was surprised to see a family eating there on a weekday – he thought it was just for political talk and big evenings.
In the cult classic Two Hands from 1999 with the young Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne, it can be seen in the background when the two characters have their first date. Cooks eat there when their own eateries close, touring rock stars make the pilgrimage, and for politicians, especially New South Wales Labor, it’s the place where business is done and dreams come true.
With the venue in the administration, its future in the same place is uncertain. Guardian Australia put together some memories of the restaurant from the diners who knew it best.
Dan Hong, chef and founder of Mr Wong
In my opinion, the Golden Century was probably the most important restaurant in Sydney. Can you think of any other Sydney restaurant that defines Sydney?
Bob Carr, former Prime Minister of New South Wales
It was an easy haven for the people in the union offices and the Labor Party on the ninth floor at 377 Sussex Street. Promises of upper house seats or preferential treatment in Senate primary elections have fulfilled the air, scented with heavy sauces.
Jess Scully, Sydney Deputy Mayor
Klee’s [Moore] Team go there too often and we love it. I remember clover [Moore] took us there for a Christmas dinner or Christmas dinner for a year. It’s a place that I think is special to people of all political stripes.
The sturdy, if unimaginative, kitchen turned out to be the perfect setting for ecstatic expressions of connectedness – often followed by dipping the stiletto deep into the kidney fat of someone who needed to be silenced or betrayed.
Neil Perry, Chef and Founder of Rockpool
I don’t even remember [when I first went], it was so long ago. It used to be open until five in the morning. We always finished work Friday and Saturday evenings, tidied up the kitchen and went to Century. You stopped by often and there were tets [Testuya Wakuda] and his mob over there. Tets and I, our teams used to visit it a lot, then other people started going through the 90s and early 2000s.
“That feeling like you’ve come home”
Eric Mao, chef and master chef candidate
I remember going there as a kid. It should always be a solemn event. Seeing those large aquariums – now they’re so common in all of these Cantonese restaurants – but I think it was probably pretty impressive back then. I remember hanging out with the other kids in a small function room. We ran around the restaurant looking at all the crabs and fish in their tanks and wreaking havoc.
Remy Hii, actor
There is this universal language among Chinese restaurants all over the world, the furniture, that very plain white tablecloth, the lazy Susan. It makes it feel like you’ve come home in some way.
It’s for foodies, for people who like gigs and karaoke, and people who like non-alcoholic events too. You could bring international talent there instead of going to a bar and trying to yell at each other to hear each other.
It was like a sign of what our nightlife can and should be.
“We’d see everyone there”
The last birthday I had that wasn’t locked was in the Golden Century. Whenever friends from overseas came through town, this was the place. I had two friends who had just finished filming Mulan in New Zealand … we went to Golden Century. And friends like Benedict Wong, who I worked with at Marco Polo when he was down here to see Dr. Strange to turn. Another buddy of mine, Ronnie [Chieng], he would be with Simu. walk [Liu] pretty much when they were doing shang chi down here. It’s the right place you know
There is an account of in my memoirs [former federal senator] Graham Richardson and [journalist] Peter Barron with [chief of staff] Kris Neill – just before the 1995 election, told her what was going on [my] Guided tour, interrupted by the crunch of the fried spring rolls and the bowing of the prawns.
We’d see everyone there. Unfortunately, I remember seeing the English rugby union team having lunch there on Sunday in 2003 after they had won the World Cup against the Australians on Saturday evening. I took Heston Blumenthal there, he really enjoyed it. Everyone does.
Reuben Styles, Beijing Duk
It’s so embarrassing to say. But I’m sure there was a night [bandmate] Adam [Hyde] ordered almost everything on the menu and I was the one who passed out. But I don’t remember so hopefully that didn’t happen. But, according to many witnesses, it did.
‘The next day … I suggested ‘
My parents had their first date at the Golden Century about 30 years ago. It was a blind date … The next time they met, he asked her to marry him.
David (Dapeng) Tien, Jianni’s father
I am of Chinese origin and have taught at the University of Sydney. My wife is Anglo-Australian and has taught at a foreign language university in Shanghai. She came back for a vacation and a mutual friend said, “Would you like to meet someone?” We were both single.
Robyn Collins, Jianni’s mother
He was wearing a white coat, I was wearing a blue one, and we met on the steps of the town hall. And then we went to see a movie. And then we went to Golden Century.
David (Dapeng) Tien
It was in a different place [in 1988], about 20 meters down the street … It was pretty late [after the film], after 8.30 p.m. I said, “Well, let’s go get something to eat.” So we went there. And then we just kept talking … And then at four in the morning they very politely sent us the bill. So we went. The next day I proposed because she was leaving.
He said, “Would you consider partnering?” I said, “Well, I really have to think about that” … The next day I said, “Okay”. And then I went back to Shanghai. We used to send each other tapes.
David (Dapeng) Tien
We have been back many, many times. It really is a melting pot. All kinds of people go there – politicians after their meetings, drug dealers, rich business people and gamblers, it’s very, very egalitarian.
I always like to go there because of the atmosphere … it’s very, very important [to our family]. We brought Jianni there. And they’re always very good because they always pick up a baby and take it to see the fish or something. They were always really good that way.
“Part of the history of Chinatown”
When Anthony Bordain came to Australia, he went to Golden Century. I think the dish he called was the XO pee.
They created pees in XO sauce. The XO sauce was made in Hong Kong. But now I’m going to tell you about the pairing with mussels or pees, which didn’t start in Hong Kong. Before Covid, I was in Hong Kong once or twice a year. You would never find mussels or anything like that with an XO sauce made into a thickened sauce … I guarantee you that Golden Century created this dish.
It really upset everyone: the places we love are on the fringes and we have to support them.
Golden Century reaches so many people. It was my inspiration for Mr. Wong. I’ve lived in Haymarket for about eight years now. It was my local. The thing about Golden Century is that it has stood the test of time.
Chinatown has always been known as the Cantonese-style area that was all congee, BBQ areas, and wonton noodles. But now Cantonese restaurants are like a dying breed. It’s all Sichuan local stews, Shanghai cuisine, and that’s not a bad thing. But Golden Century was part of the history of Chinatown and Haymarket.
Quotes have been edited lengthways