25 June 2021

The Institutions: Happy’s Chinese Restaurant, the underground restaurant dishing up tasty Chinese food since 1962

| Amelia Bidgood
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Gavin Chan

Gavin Chan, owner at Happy’s Chinese Restaurant in Civic. Photo: Supplied.

Have you seen the bright red and yellow ‘Happy’s Restaurant’ sign in Garema Place? It’s hard to miss.

Go inside and you’ll be led down a set of stairs, and as soon as you open the door you’ll be hit with the smells of delicious Cantonese food cooking in the kitchen. Walk down another set of stairs and you’ll find Canberra’s first Chinese restaurant.

This family-owned and operated establishment has been around since 1959, first opening in Queanbeyan. The current restaurant opened its doors in 1962 and they’ve been serving delicious Chinese food to their customers ever since.

Gavin Chan now runs the family restaurant, but it was his grandfather, known as Mr Happy, who started the business all those years ago. I spoke to Gavin on the phone the day before my visit and he tells me his parents and uncle took over the business from his grandparents.

Gavin and his brother started washing dishes at the restaurant from a young age before Gavin left Canberra to build his career in Sydney before returning and taking it over in 2007. He now runs the restaurant with his wife, and his mum often helps out, along with his daughters.

Happy’s has been on my ‘to eat’ list for years. I’ve always been intrigued by the sign and what I’ll find when I walk down the stairs. My partner isn’t a huge fan of traditional Chinese food, and he doesn’t enjoy the after feeling that comes from dining at some Chinese restaurants. When we eat at traditional Chinese restaurants, it’s usually for yum cha, dumplings and a few select dishes.

When I told someone we were having dinner at Happy’s, they mentioned the big thick carpet and the age of the restaurant. It had been a while since they dined there, but after hearing this, my expectations were lowered, and I was prepared to walk into a dated restaurant for a not so memorable experience.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I entered the restaurant to find a fresh, modern and simple interior. A mural of the Great Wall of China occupies Happy’s great wall, and other symbolic Chinese artwork and décor tastefully features throughout. Large round tables with lazy susans and tables for couples and groups allow plenty of space to feed hungry diners.

Great Wall mural

A mural of the Great Wall of China features on the longest wall at Happy’s Chinese Restaurant. Photo: Supplied.

We arrived at 7:30 pm on a Wednesday night and the restaurant was half full with tables of other couples, groups of families and groups of friends. We’re greeted by Gavin’s friendly wife, May, and are quickly seated. I order a glass of local Pankhurst Sangiovese Rosé and my partner orders a Tsingtao.

Our prawn toast entrée soon arrives and unlike the thin, oily prawn toast you sometimes find at Chinese restaurants, their version is topped with a thick layer of light and tasty prawn mixture with a crispy bottom. It’s moreish and I’m glad there are only four pieces as I could easily devour another serve.

Prawn toast

The moreish prawn toast from Happy’s Chinese Restaurant will make you want to order another serve. Photo: Amelia Bidgood.

Plates of stuffed bean curd topped with seafood, scallops in XO sauce and honey chicken arrive for our mains. I rarely eat honey chicken but it’s one of their most popular dishes so we had to try it. I have no regrets. The chicken is coated in a light batter and the sauce has a little savouriness to it so it’s not sickly sweet.

The generous bean curd pieces are topped with a seafood mixture and a light fried skin encases the ingredients. The parcels are topped with a delicious sauce, fresh crispy vegetables and large pieces of perfectly cooked prawns and scallops. This is a popular Chinese dish and I understand why. I would happily eat it again.

My favourite dish was the scallops in XO sauce.

The plump scallops were cooked just right and the dry XO sauce that coats them was packed with flavour. There was enough heat to make your lips slightly tingle and make a few beads of sweat appear. I’d never eaten an XO sauce like this and I can’t wait to eat this dish again.

The vegetables were fresh and crisp and the sauce, protein and vegetable ratio was just right for each dish. We’d both been out for lunch that day, so regrettably, our dessert stomach didn’t want to play. We’ll make room for the fried banana fritter with fried ice cream on our next visit.

Happy’s is a casual restaurant serving old school Cantonese dishes with a few Aussie classics featured on the menu. Its off-street location gave it an intimate feeling that made me feel like we were eating in a hidden, private restaurant. A stream of takeaways continued to leave the kitchen as we ate our dinner so if you want to try their dishes before visiting, you can order takeaway, with delivery available to some suburbs.

I asked Gavin how a restaurant stays in business so long and he says it comes down to consistency, quality and support from his customers. Their stock goes on at 10:00 am and it cooks until 9:00 pm to create a delicious base for the dishes they serve. He says they don’t use MSG and the menu hasn’t changed for 30 years.

“We stick to what we’re good at and our recipes and sauces have stayed in the family for three generations without changing.

“We’ve always been very consistent with our food. I think one thing we’ve been persistent about is that we’re one of the only restaurants that make homemade stock from scratch.

“I would like to thank our loyal customers who have travelled near and far to support us over the years, and especially over the past 18 months,” he said.

Our dinner at Happy’s was one of, if not the best, most flavoursome and freshest dining experiences I’ve had at a casual Chinese restaurant. We walked away feeling full but good. Nothing was too oily, salty or sweet. My partner even said he would happily return and that says a lot.

Happy’s Chinese Restaurant is located at 1/17 Garema Pl, Canberra City. It’s open from Wednesday to Monday from 11:30 am to 2:00 pm for lunch, and from Wednesday to Sunday from 5:00 pm for dinner. You can find them on Instagram and Facebook.

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There was a lot happening in the Chinese restaurant scene in Canberra late 50s and early 60s. Before that – not much Chinese cuisine. In January 1957 the Casablanca in Kingston advertised that the famous Chinese chef “Happy” late of the Bamboo in Sydney was cooking for it. Happy’s was at 205 Monaro Street, Queanbeyan in 1957. Shortly afterwards he also opened at 7 Lonsdale St, Braddon and briefly at the Starlight Drive-In. Lonsdale St continued for a while after the move to Garema Place. Ri Lee’s opened at 5 Bunda Street in November 1957; Lucky Chinese opened in Green Square in May 1958 and Mee Sing in Lyneham in October 1961.

Frank Spencer8:18 pm 26 Jun 21

This is really interesting. A great history of early Canberra dining.

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