Legendary Chinatown restaurants fight for their lives up stairs no one wants to climb
Dragon City Mall, the shopping centre anchoring Toronto's west Chinatown, is home to nine food businesses, but three remain hidden from sight.
The majority of these restaurants and food stalls sit on the main floor: There's a Dairy Queen and Sugar Marmalade fronting the street. The most popular of them all, Juicy Dumpling, can hardly contain its customers and food couriers during peak hours.
But on the second and top floor of this Dundas and Spadina fixture, three businesses are struggling to make ends meet.
Shabby street signage, the temporary closure of malls, and Dragon City's own misleading interior have bulldozed sales, say business owners.
Charlie Lin, owner of Sky Dragon, says profit for his restaurant has gone down by a whopping 90 per cent.
The 26-year-old dim sum restaurant, once the crown jewel of the mall and weekend hub for Chinese seniors, sits eerily empty.
With dine-in forbidden, the appeals of Sky Dragon—glimmering gold ceilings and an incredible vista across downtown Toronto—are no longer a factor. Gone are the bookings for birthday parties and wedding receptions, and the groups of regulars who kept the business alive.
"We miss our regular customers very much," says Lin through a translator.
"A lot of our loyal customers are older folks.... Because of the pandemic, not a lot of people want to come out and order."
Lin, once a manager at the restaurant, took over the business from its first owner seven years ago. Last March marked Lin's first partnership with delivery apps like Uber Eats, Skip The Dishes and Fantuan. The restaurant just got an Instagram account in December.
Lin says that, these days, they see about 20 to 30 orders daily, and up to 50 on weekends. It sounds like a lot, but the orders are small: typically two or three items each (dim sum staples like siu mai or cheung fun, less than $5 a dish).
Like many restaurants dealing in dim sum, an inherently communal meal, Lin says they're trying to shift folks over to pricier dinner dishes. But those orders are few and far between.
And then there's the obstacle of navigating the mall itself.
Dragon City has always been a reflective labyrinth of stairs and escalators. Under normal circumstances, that can be fun. These days, visitors enter the mall and are directed to head straight to the main entrance and the hand-sanitizer dispensers and security guard.
But for access to Sky Dragon, or any of the upper floors, you have to head in the opposite direction, toward the elevator. Stickers directing you the other way are barely noticeable when you arrive in person.
This simple oversight has made a major impact on foot traffic, says Lin, and makes more visible dim sum options like the street-level Rol San on Spadina and even the upper-level Dim Sum King on Dundas more attractive.
Canteen, the Hong Kong-style cafe sitting on the second floor along with the Korean mainstay Owl of Minerva, is in the same boat.
According to Canteen staff Henry and Yuki, business has gone down by about 80 per cent.
The cha chaang teng, once frequented by workers from surrounding banks for quick lunches, now average around 10 orders a day. They come mostly from the medical staff working on the third floor of Dragon City itself, they say.
The restaurant has been open since 2005, serving dishes like pork chops on rice and Hong Kong-style milk teas. The business saw a small shift in its menu in 2014 when Malaysian owners took over.
The most popular orders now are Canteen's tongue-searingly hot nasi lemak and a fragrant Hainanese chicken rice.
The Malaysian Students' Association at neighbouring U of T have been a help for business, says Yuki, but that's dropped now that the school year is done.
Canteen is hoping to change that. A business model once based on word-of-mouth has now shifted to being on a whopping eight delivery apps.
If ordering in isn't your thing, the restaurant is open six days a week from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., cash only.
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