DINER | Inside “Sai Woo” – Opening Soon On East Pender Street In The Heart Of Chinatown

December 10, 2014.

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Sai Woo is coming back. The 6,000 sqft space at 158 East Pender Street in Chinatown is best remembered as New Town Bakery (1980-2010), but it opened in 1925 as Sai Woo Chop Suey, which occupied the spot for the many decades of the neighbourhood’s high street heyday. The image below – from the City of Vancouver Archives – shows diners and staff out front during the Second World War. I wish I knew what it looked like inside. An old Vancouver Sun story tells us that members of the infamous Hughes gang drank a bottle of rum there after the murder of Yoshi Uno in 1942, but it’s a blur beyond that.

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The new project, which will see 113 seats on the main floor and 75 seats downstairs in a hideaway lounge, is almost two years in the making. Owners Salli Pateman (Section 3) and chef Douglas Chang (ex-West, Terminal City Club) have hired designers Falken Reynolds and Anna Walentowicz together with Evan Creedon of Milltown Contracting for the Herculean job of turning an ancient, layered mess into a clean, modern restaurant…

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When I toured the space earlier this week, they’d already done all the heavy lifting of demolition, stripping, and cleaning, and were busily installing much of the framing. They’d discovered one or two (or three) gross things in the process, but also some cool things, like several extra feet of ceiling hight, a series of skylights, and a tiny trap door/deposit box recessed behind a false wall, which looked to have been built into the foundation of the building, once opening into the basement of the space next door (now boarded up).

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The involvement of Chad Falkenberg and Kelly Reynolds – two of Vancouver’s top design minds – has me confident in the aesthetic. These guys don’t do half-assed stuff, so I expect it will look and feel exceptionally good. Likewise, I’m super excited about Douglas Chang going out on his own. The style he’s going after is simple and modern, informed by his Cantonese and West Coast background but not determined by either. The focus will be on share plates, with the ingredients mostly sourced from Chinatown’s many markets (his father’s side of the family is Jamaican, so there’s a chance we might see some Caribbean flavours, too). He’ll start with a dinner menu, but they’re looking to quickly open for lunch as well.

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From the front door, Sai Woo will start with a 15 seat bar (run by Justin Anello, assistant bar manager to David Wolowidnyk at West for three years) and lead into a narrow-waisted lounge area (bar height seating) before opening up in the dining room, which will be hemmed in by Persian Ironwood trees that look as if they’ve been beamed in by skylights. This “reveal” zone will see 3 cloistered booths side by each and highlight an open kitchen complete with chef’s table for 6-8 people. It was easy to imagine when I was in the space, but what’s more difficult to wrap my head around is the downstairs…

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The space in its current condition is very lair-like, but the design rendering I’ve seen (with banquette tables and couches) lends it a sexy, speakeasy-like feel, as if it’s tucked away, PDT Narnia-style. I can’t wait to see what it’ll look like in the flesh. After a well-made classic or Chinatown-inspired cocktail or two, I trust it’ll look and feel pretty damn cool.

Opening day is set for early 2015. Take a closer look below…

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