There hasn’t been a new Chinese restaurant opening in the neighbourhood for many years (minus Rhinofish), but a culinary project currently underway may completely change the shape of the historic area’s dining scene for the better.
Mahjong Social Kitchen + Parlour and Shanghai Alley Noodle Shack (276 East Pender Street) will be a massive double eatery (around 5,000-square-feet) opening up in the heart of Chinatown.
The first floor will be home to the main dining area (Mahjong Social), and will specialize in contemporary Chinese fare that draws from traditional flavours and cooking techniques—think Hong Kong-style seafood and dim sum. Guests can also expect a full bar and cocktail program.
The rooftop patio (Shanghai Alley) will offer a quick-serve Asian street-style noodle concept, and its menu will also feature small plates and libations.
Co-owners Cherry Yuet and Benny Doro are the masterminds behind this ambitious project. The two also have titles as managing partners at Seventeen88, which is the parent company of Mahjong Social and Shanghai Alley.
Both have childhood ties to the neighbourhood—her family owns the historic building and used to operate a barbecue meat and seafood shop there; he used to spend all his time in Chinatown because his dad was the owner of Frank’s Cabaret.
“We are bringing the old glamorous neon signs, and we’re going to be making a statement,” Yuet told the Straight in an interview at Seventeen88’s office in downtown Vancouver. “We’re not going to change the façade. We are going to keep it in line with the architecture of Chinatown, [because] we are going to respect the neighbourhood and the culture.”
The co-owners have partnered up with restaurant consulting company The Fifteen Group, which is known for working with notable restaurants in Vancouver (Joe Fortes, Bao Bei, Meat and Bread).
“We want people to be transformed when they come in, and forget what is happening outside,” explained Doro. “They’ll be put into a new world where the food also matches, the service matches, so when they leave they will be like “What just happened? Were we in a movie? The food was awesome, the service was great. We could have been in Asia.””
If you’re wondering what kind of experience you’ll have when you visit this restaurant, Yuet and Doro have teased a few tidbits of what the three-storey restaurant’s interior will encompass.
Mahjong Alley will feature vintage Chinese décor with modern touches, and showcase large Chinese-style banquet tables coupled with more intimate dining areas. The rooftop patio will be transformed into a little piece of the street, complete with a noodle shack, stools, and lanterns.
“There isn’t going to be another place like it in terms of service, and the experience that people will have there,” said Doro. “You’re going to walk in and you’re going to be taken away from the food, service, the environment.”
The menu is still in the works, but don’t expect the same old Chinese food that you’ve been having around town.
Some of its dim sum menu items include steamed lobster shumai (traditional Chinese dumpling), steamed house-made curried beef bun, local pork spring roll, steamed Dungeness crab and spinach dumpling, and more.
“Chinatown is very Cantonese, but we would like to bring the best of different parts of China. There are a lot of Cantonese restaurant in this town already,” said Yuet. “We’d like to have a couple [Cantonese] dishes, but I would like to explore more Northern and spicy [foods].”
“People need to leave going “I need this to be in my life on a regular basis” and that’s what we want you to have with these dishes,” explained Doro. “Then you know you’ve done a good job.”
The restaurant environment may seem upscale, but the owners emphasize that its offerings will be at an affordable price point,
“There’s going to be a delicate balance between being completely different and completely comfortable, where you don’t feel like “Oh, this is going to cost a lot of money,”” said Yuet.
This culinary destination will be one of the biggest restaurants to open in Chinatown in a long time, but the owners don’t want customers to feel like it will just be another faceless, corporate-run business.
“There was an excitement when a place opened, and there was an effort made by the people behind it. The owners were there greeting, and you got to know them,” said Doro. “They cared about what you ate and they knew who your family’s name was. When people are approached with that, they feel welcomed. We are going to put that character back in, from the food to the place to the people, so you feel at home.”
Mahjong Social and Shanghai Alley is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2018.