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After 50 years in Pemberton, Centennial Cafe is closing its doors

Beloved Chinese spot purchased by buyers group led by Mayor Mike Richman

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To get a sense of the resilience of Centennial Cafe, Pemberton's beloved Chinese restaurant, you have to put its history into context. When Ken and Won Won Mah first opened their doors in 1967 (a landmark year in Canadian history that gave the restaurant its name), Pemberton was still a rugged outpost home to rough-and-tumble logger and rancher types. Electricity had only arrived in the Spud Valley 15 years before, and a blacktopped road connecting Pemberton to Whistler was still two years away.

And yet, for all the change that the sleepy farming town has endured over the years, Centennial Café has been the one constant Pembertonians could always count on.

The long-running local haunt will serve its final bowl of wonton soup this month, closing the final chapter on a story that goes back half a century.

For husband-and-wife Joe and Pauline Fong, the fourth generation of Chinese-Canadians to run the restaurant, it seemed the right time to sell.

"We are excited, we are not sad," said Joe. "We want to retire and we can get the place sold."

Taking over the Frontier Street location is a team of buyers that includes Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman, Snowline Catering's Matt Prescott, longtime Mile One staffer Dan Baird, and Whistler Resort Management's Scott Schober.

For Richman, who ran The Pony for several years, it was a chance to get back into an industry he sorely missed. "We'd been looking for opportunities to get back into the food industry, and we think that Pemberton is definitely right for it now. It's getting busier and there's more development happening," he said. "And I guess I missed it. It's a crazy business, but I'm looking forward to it."

Richman wouldn't reveal any details about the restaurant's new concept, saying only that a major interior renovation is in the works. He's hopeful to have the new spot open sometime in June.

"We like the fact that we're building suspense on this," he said.

For the Fongs, retirement is well deserved. The couple took over the restaurant in 1993, running it on their own until 2000, when three other family members came on as partners. That was also the year the restaurant expanded, doubling in size.

"I had only about 24 seats at that time. It turned into a big restaurant now today," Joe said, his pride beaming through the phone. "I still have the old picture between the new restaurant and old restaurant. Maybe next day you come in and I show you."

The Fongs had been looking to sell the cafe for the past few years, with the hopes of passing it on to another Chinese restaurateur. (Several of the kitchen staff are hoping to open another Chinese restaurant at a different Pemberton location, however.) This, Joe tells me, had more to do with keeping his loyal customers happy than anything else.

"It's so disappointing, only (for) the customers. Our customers, because we know lots of people in Pemberton, they always asking for (our food). They get used to the takeout. After the working, nobody wants to cook, right?"

I would fathom a guess it was more than just the takeout that kept customers coming back over the years. (Although, there's certainly no knocking the food: The Fongs, in the fashion of mid-century Chinese restaurateurs before them, are as adept at pumping out delicious, fresh-made Szechuan and Cantonese staples as they are classic diner fare.) Hospitality comes easy to the Fongs. Joe and Pauline spend as much time chatting tableside with patrons as they do in the kitchen, and you get the sense that anyone who comes in is considered family, whether it's a longtime local or a tourist passing through.

"Once we are running here, we made a lot of friends with people, especially (First Nations)," Joe said of the restaurant's strong contingent of Lil'wat customers. "They feel like it is their food."

But now is not the time for sentimentality. It's lunch rush after all, and there are hungry diners to attend to.

"By the time we are closing, we'll be very, very busy," Joe said. "We have so much to do."

The Centennial Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. It's slated to close at the end of the month.

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