Ottawa

Brockville's oldest Chinese restaurant closes for good Christmas Eve

The eastern Ontario city is about to say goodbye to the New York Restaurant, which has served politicians, authors and locals alike since 1930.

New York Restaurant has served politicians, authors and locals since 1930

The iconic New York Restaurant sign hangs above King Street in downtown Brockville. After nearly 90 years in business, the Chinese restaurant will serve its final customers Christmas Eve. (Mario Carlucci/CBC)

This Christmas Eve, Brockville, Ont. will say goodbye to its oldest Chinese eatery.

Alice and Louis Yeung, the owners of the New York Restaurant, said they've have had enough of the late nights and early mornings. But mostly, they miss their family and adult children. 

"Sad and exciting. Mixed feelings. Bittersweet," said Alice Yeung. "We would like to spend more time with [our kids and] be close to them."

The Yeungs have owned the New York Restaurant since 2005, but like so many Chinese restaurants in rural and small-town Canada, it's been a downtown fixture for as long as anyone can remember. 

Alice and Louis Leung have sold the New York Restaurant in Brockville after 14 years of ownership. They say they're done with working until 3 a.m. and want to get closer to family in Toronto. (Mario Carlucci/CBC)

In Ann Hui's book Chop Suey Nation, the author drove across the country profiling small-town Chinese restaurants. She found that family was at the heart of these establishments — and things are no different at the New York Restaurant, Yeung said.

Last week, she even got to serve former owner Joe Lor.

Lor, 80, is the son of original owners Leip and Agnes Lor. The couple opened the restaurant in 1930, with Joe and his five sisters helping out as they became old enough.

"At first, we did the laundry downstairs, washing the tablecloths. As we got older we served the customers. But one thing  we never did was work in the kitchen for some reason," said Lor.

Lor told CBC News he left his job as an engineer in the 1980s to help his mother, who was 80 years old at the time, run the restaurant. She'd done so since the late 1950s, after the death of her husband.

Authentically Chinese-Canadian

The menu today features staples of Chinese-Canadian cuisine: lo meins, chow meins, and sweet and sour dishes. And of course, there's a hamburger menu too. 

But back in the day, according to Lor, the restaurant served exclusively North American food: lobster, roast beef and hot turkey sandwiches. 

"The thought was people wouldn't go for authentic Chinese food," Lor said. But then, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, along came "chop suey" and the growing popularity of this North American take on Chinese dishes.

So his parents thought they'd give it a try, and the rest is history. 

Joe Lor's father opened the restaurant, formerly known as the New York Café, in 1930. Lor worked there as a child and then returned to run the restaurant after a career in engineering. (Mario Carlucci/CBC)

'Different in a small town'

Lor said his mother and father were convinced that getting into the restaurant business was the way to advance in Canada. 

"The first generation would open a laundry. The second generation would open a restaurant," said Lor, whose grandparents did own a laundry in Brockville. 

Lor's extended family also owned restaurants in nearby Prescott, Morrisburg and Gananoque. His grandmother even owned the New York Café in North Bay, which Lor thinks might have been the inspiration for the Brockville restaurant's name.

Another theory is that New York state was just across the border, said Lor. 

It's different in a small town. You become family.- Alice Yeung

The restaurant attracted an eclectic crowd, Lor recalled, including politicians of all stripes. Even former U.S. vice president Walter Mondale was a repeat customer, he said.

The late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings was such a good patron, Lor said, that the pair became good friends. And Lor also discovered Pierre Berton at one of his tables years ago. 

When Lor asked why Berton was dining there, the Canadian historian told him it was a favourite of his while he was in military training, and it brought back great memories. 

The New York Restaurant maintained its classic decor over the decades. (Mario Carlucci/CBC)

Will become a pub

The new owners take over the space in the new year, and will be converting it into a pub.

Lor said he's happy to hear they plan on having a space in the pub that pays tribute to the history of the New York Restaurant. And while people are curious about what might happen to that iconic sign outside, according to Lor, nobody knows what the new owners have in mind.

One regular diner, Bob Castle, said the New York might not have been Brockville's only Chinese restaurant, but it was the best.

"It's going to be missed," said Castle. "For Alice and her husband, we just wish them the best ... There are a couple of Chinese restaurants in the area ... but this was always our first choice."

This framed newspaper from the Brockville Recorder and Times marks the Leung family's purchase of the New York Restaurant in 2005. (Mario Carlucci/CBC)

Yeung says the customers provided on-the-job training for her in the early going, recalling how one of them even coached her through making the classic screwdriver cocktail when she had no idea what to do.

"For myself, it was the first time running a business. But they gave me a lot of patience and were very kind to us," said Yeung.

The idea of closing hasn't sunk in for the Yeungs, as it's just been too busy to think about it. Yeung does know that despite being able to see her family more often, she'll miss her customers dearly.

"A few of them are so sad. They cry. They miss us so much. Even last night, a lady said, 'Alice, you're a part of my life. What can I do without you?' So, I don't know what to say," she said.

"It's different in a small town. You become family."

 

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