Happiness runs in the family of Canberra’s oldest Chinese restaurant

Michael Weaver 17 December 2020 72
Happy's Restaurant third generation owner Gavin Chan with his youngest daughter Jennifer.

Happy’s Restaurant owner Gavin Chan with his youngest daughter Jennifer. Photo: Supplied.

Happiness runs in the family of Gavin Chan, and today the youngest Chan is running through Happy’s.

In 1962, the man known as Mr Happy opened what is today Canberra’s oldest Chinese restaurant. His English vocabulary wasn’t great, but he knew how to cook.

He earned the name after working as a vegetable gardener in Queensland where he’d politely smile instead of engaging in conversation.

More than 58 years later, the restaurant is still serving traditional Cantonese cuisine to its loyal customers and newcomers alike. When it first opened in the main street of Queanbeyan, patrons used to go to the licensed restaurant to avoid a curfew in the nearby pubs.

That spirit may be part of the happiness that makes the restaurant an icon of Canberra’s food scene, surviving as dozens of other eateries have come and gone.

“It’s a really simple restaurant and you always know what you’re going to get,” third-generation owner Gavin Chan tells Region Media.

“It was what my grandfather knew and he was always welcoming, even to the migrants who came to Canberra needing a room to stay in.”

The familiar entrance to Happy's Chinese restaurant in Civic.

The familiar entrance to Canberra’s first Chinese restaurant in Civic. Photo: Supplied.

The familiar entrance and sign at the front of the restaurant in Garema Place haven’t changed, and Gavin wonders whether he would be tempting the fates to expand the business or make a few changes. But he appreciates that the business is best known for its character and history.

“The entrance is not really that inviting compared to some other businesses and it’s an old building, but it just feels like home,” says Gavin.

“I grew up in there and what we have downstairs is unique and it works. It’s comfortable and it’s humbling.”

Happy’s will reopen on 6 January when they’ve completed repairs from the water pipe that flooded the restaurant. Photo: Facebook.

Such are the rigours of the old building, a burst water pipe last week flooded the floor, forcing the business to close until 6 January. Gavin says it highlighted the kind of year everyone seems to be having, but their loyal customers kept them going.

“Even when COVID hit and we went back in just to do the takeaways, it was so overwhelming to hear from the regulars who just wanted to support us,” he says.

“I’ve missed seeing a couple who always come up from Melbourne, but we still have people coming in from places like Bungendore and another couple in their 70s who come from Goulburn.

“Sometimes I don’t get to thank people personally but we’re so thankful.

“There are so many memories in the place and we’ve had lots of reunions from the guys who went through Duntroon. People come to me and say I had my first date at that table in the corner.”

Gavin Chan with Doug, one of the regulars at Happy's Restaurant.

Gavin Chan with Doug, one of the regulars at Happy’s Restaurant. Photo: Supplied.

The food has also evolved over the years, but Gavin says they still use the same recipes from his father and grandfather. He even recalls the days in the 1970s when the restaurant had a T-bone steak on the menu to satisfy the tastebuds of traditional Australians.

The original Mr Happy started with the Aussie/Chinese staples such as sweet and sour pork and beef in black bean sauce. Now, there are traditional Cantonese dishes such as triple-cooked pork stew, taro duck and vegetarian and vegan options.

Gavin says his go-to dish is still the fried rice with honey chicken but not the kind drenched in batter.

“It’s a chicken tenderloin dripping in honey – it just makes me happy,” he says.

Now, Happy’s is heading into its sixth decade and fourth generation of family members in the business, but Gavin says he doesn’t see the need to make any drastic changes to the business.

“It really grows on you and it’s really grown on me. I love the place and love seeing the people who keep coming back. Even our suppliers are locals.

“A lot of people new to Canberra walk past to some of the fancier restaurants, but we’re a modest family business and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Happy’s is located at 1/17 Garema Place in Civic. Check Happy’s for details, or Facebook.

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72 Responses to Happiness runs in the family of Canberra’s oldest Chinese restaurant
Doug Symes Doug Symes 9:50 pm 31 Aug 21

When I was at HMAS Harman we would order meals from Mrs Happy in Queanbeyan and pay the taxi driver, the spring rolls had prawns in them and the Seafood Omelette with that lovely sauce cooked by Mr Happy are etched in to my mind, best wishes to you and your family

Tristian White Tristian White 1:21 pm 02 Mar 21

Best tucker in the city

Kate Murray Kate Murray 7:57 pm 24 Dec 20

Merry Christmas Gavin Chan I promise not to mention you cooking at my house 😂😂

Brian Lockley Brian Lockley 10:49 pm 23 Dec 20

I think it was Happys that changed Dad's mind on Chinese food, he was adventurous to say the least, he would only ever have Chicken Maryland. However he was once known to have Honey Prawns there. This was back in 59, 60 as we lived in Ainslie Hostel at the time

Wendy Watson Wendy Watson 8:00 pm 23 Dec 20

been going there all my life .

Tarz Lam Tarz Lam 3:27 pm 23 Dec 20

I've only been going to Happy's for the past 5 years or so, but it's now the only Chinese restaurant my husband and I will go to.

Treez Treez 10:50 am 23 Dec 20

My mum was a waitress at Happy’s in the late 1960s, and I remember Mr and Mrs Happy and how exotic (and kind) they were to us kids. My favourite was steak tomato rice (no doubt a “Chinese dish created for our Aussie palates) and my sister always had the fish and chips – with soy sauce! Happy memories – pardon the pun!

Bec King Bec King 12:26 am 23 Dec 20

Only the BEST chinese food in Canberra...Australia in fact!!!! Family favorite for 3 generations too :) Gavin Chan you bloody gem

Tianne Stoney Tianne Stoney 8:34 pm 22 Dec 20

Use to eat there regularly when I was a child

John Wilkinson John Wilkinson 10:46 am 22 Dec 20

I have been eating at Happys since the early 1960s. They also had a second cafe at the top of Lonsdale St Braddon. My children always wanted to have their birthdays at Happys. Mr Happy II would put on his apron and cook for us. We didnt order, he just brought plates of delicious food out. Many very pleasant memories and Mr Happy III still gives us special service. It is the second oldest Cafe in Canberra. Only Mee Sings at Lyneham is about a year older

    Lauraine Hampton Lauraine Hampton 9:32 am 23 Dec 20

    No John- Happy's is older than Mee Sings restaurant.

    John Wilkinson John Wilkinson 10:14 am 23 Dec 20

    I had this debate with both Happys and Mee Sing. From memory MS won. I recall they were not far apart. Mee Sings was a bit rougher, we used to go there on Thursdays after training with Ainslie AFL and Saturday after footy. We often ran into bikies. Happys was safer and to my mind better food. MS did not have a liquor licence but We took our beer in bottles and they would give us glasses which we had to keep under table with the bottles. After a few (too many) it was hard to remember the rules.

Joyce Heddle Joyce Heddle 9:11 am 22 Dec 20

My husband and I lived in Campbell when first married 51 years ago. Friday night was dinner at Happy's. Happy memories.

    Jennie Smith Jennie Smith 11:33 am 22 Dec 20

    Joyce Heddle

    We did as well

    Joyce Heddle Joyce Heddle 12:34 pm 22 Dec 20

    Jennie Smith "Mrs Happy" got so used to us being there she would take a little break and sit down with us.

Marilyn Macfarlane Marilyn Macfarlane 8:29 am 22 Dec 20

My family has been going regularly to Happy’s since it first opened . Now we have had 3 generations eating there. Best wishes from the Macfarlanes.

Jennie Smith Jennie Smith 8:08 am 22 Dec 20

The best we went every Friday night.

Alannah Lisa Alannah Lisa 10:31 pm 21 Dec 20

My mum was a waitress at Happy’s in the mid 70’s. She always spoke fondly of her job and the family she worked for.

Willie Lucas Willie Lucas 8:25 pm 21 Dec 20

Ha old mate merry xmas to you and family

Anne Balcomb Anne Balcomb 7:33 pm 21 Dec 20

Umm my favourite place I've been buying delicious Chinese food from them since 1974.

Boaz Timothy Rua Boaz Timothy Rua 5:18 pm 21 Dec 20

Choice food!!

Isabel Kim Isabel Kim 3:23 pm 21 Dec 20

We are the royal customer of the Happy’s restaurant for around 40 years. They have a great selections, service and tradition with excellent food with the great price.

Maryann Schuemaker Maryann Schuemaker 3:18 pm 21 Dec 20

Loved Happys when we lived in canberra best food

Cee Bee Cee Bee 2:36 pm 21 Dec 20

I first went to Happy’s in 1977 and I am still a regular. Alice Bowen

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