Cantonese restaurant

The Institutions: Happy’s Chinese Restaurant, the underground restaurant that has been offering tasty Chinese cuisine since 1962

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

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

Enter and you’ll be led down a flight of stairs, and as soon as you open the door you’ll be struck by the smells of delicious Cantonese food cooked in the kitchen. Go down another set of stairs and you’ll find Canberra’s first Chinese restaurant.

This family-run establishment has been in existence since 1959 and first opened in Queanbeyan. The current restaurant opened in 1962 and since then they have been serving delicious Chinese cuisine to their customers.

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 told me that his parents and uncle had taken over the business from his grandparents.

Gavin and his brother started doing the dishes at the restaurant at 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 wife. mother often helps her, as well as with her daughters.

Happy’s has been on my food list for years. I have always been intrigued by the sign and what I will find on the way down the stairs. My partner is not a big fan of traditional Chinese food and he doesn’t appreciate the afternoon feeling that comes from eating in some Chinese restaurants. When we eat in 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 large thick carpet and the age of the restaurant. It had been a while since they had dinner there, but after hearing this my expectations were lowered and I was ready to step into a dated restaurant for a not so memorable experience.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I entered the restaurant to find the interior fresh, modern and simple. A mural of the Great Wall of China occupies the Great Wall of Happy, and other symbolic Chinese artwork and decorations are tastefully presented. Large round tables with lazy susans and tables for couples and groups provide plenty of space to feed hungry diners.

Large mural

A mural of the Great Wall of China appears on the longest wall of the Chinese restaurant Happy’s. Photo: Supplied.

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

Our shrimp toast appetizer is coming soon and unlike the thin and fatty shrimp toast you sometimes find in Chinese restaurants, their version is topped with a thick layer of light and flavorful shrimp mixture with a crispy bottom. It’s more filling and I’m glad there are only four pieces as I could easily devour another portion.

Shrimp toast

Happy’s Chinese Restaurant’s shrimp toast will make you want to order another course. Photo: Amélia Bidgood.

Plates of tofu stuffed with seafood, scallops in XO sauce and honey chicken arrive for our main courses. 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 flavor so that it is not sweet.

The generous pieces of tofu are topped with a seafood mix and a lightly fried skin envelops the ingredients. The packages are topped with a delicious sauce, crispy fresh vegetables and large pieces of perfectly cooked shrimp and scallops. It’s a popular Chinese dish and I understand why. I would happily eat it again.

My favorite dish was the scallops in XO sauce.

The plump scallops were well cooked and the dry XO sauce that coats them was full of flavor. There was enough heat to make your lips tingle slightly and cause a few drops of sweat to appear. I had never eaten an XO sauce like this and can’t wait to eat this dish again.

The vegetables were fresh and crisp and the sauce, protein, and veg ratio was perfect for each dish. We were both out for lunch that day, so unfortunately our dessert stomach didn’t want to play. We will make room for the fried banana fritter with fried ice cream on our next visit.

Happy’s is a casual restaurant serving old-fashioned Cantonese fare with some Australian classics on the menu. Its off-street location gave it an intimate feeling that made me feel like I was eating in a hidden private restaurant. A flood of take out continued to leave the kitchen as we ate our dinner, so if you want to try their dishes before you go, you can order take out, with delivery available in select suburbs.

I asked Gavin how a restaurant stays in business for so long and he says it comes down to consistency, quality and customer support. Their stock continues at 10:00 a.m. and it cooks until 9:00 p.m. 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 unchanged.

“We have always been very consistent with our food. I think one thing we persisted on was that we are one of the only restaurants to make homemade broth from scratch.

“I want to thank our loyal customers who have traveled from 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 the tastiest and freshest dining experiences I’ve had at a casual Chinese restaurant, if not the best. We left satiated but well. Nothing was too fatty, salty or sweet. My partner even said he would be happy to come back and that says a lot.

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

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