The grand dining rooms of Sydney's Marigold will soon be no more, with the storied Chinatown banquet and yum cha restaurant set to close after almost 40 years. The Cantonese restaurant will hold its final yum cha service on December 5.
In a statement on its website, Marigold pointed to the ongoing impact of COVID-19, and development plans for the restaurant's building, as reasons for its closure.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work and travel. Sadly, it has also hit Marigold's function business and weekday trading," read the statement. "As there are plans to extend the CityMark Building, it is time to say goodbye."
Group manager Connie Chung has been overwhelmed by diners' messages of support after the restaurant announced its closure on Monday 1 November – exactly 39 years after her parents, Mr and Mrs Chung, opened the original Marigold on Chinatown's Sussex Street.
"One email just said, 'No, you can't close', in capital letters," says Connie Chung. "Many of our Chinese customers come here for yum cha, and if they don't come every day, they come every second day. We're very blessed to have such loyal customers."
And like many long-running restaurants, Marigold attributes its success to its long-time staff, with many workers averaging a 10-year run on its books. "A few workers have been here for 20 to 39 years. [...] I've grown up with them, and they've watched me grow up as well. They're like friends and family. They're not just staff."
For a time, the Chung family ran two Marigold restaurants in Sydney's Chinatown – the "Old Marigold" on Sussex Street which opened in 1982, and the "New Marigold" which opened on levels four and five of the CityMark building in 1991. When the former closed, the existing restaurant came to be known simply as "Marigold" to this day.
Marigold is made for lavish Cantonese-style largesse. Over two levels, it has a combined maximum capacity for 520 diners, regal red and gold carpet, and enough mirrors to rival the Palace of Versailles; in Chinese, the restaurant's name roughly translates to "grand and beautiful palace".
Curiously, for a restaurant that nudges "icon" status, it lacks a "signature dish" that anchors so many other hallowed local Chinatown institutions: see Golden Century's XO pipis, Emperor's Garden's eponymous puffs, Superbowl's congee, Mother's Chu's yu tiao. But perhaps this omission only strengthens what remains – its reputation as a place for family, friends and the Cantonese diaspora to meet and yell over starched white tablecloths, and deliver morsels of food, plucked from serving dishes, and parachuted via chopsticks, into each other's bowls.
And though its English name is Marigold, it might as well have been dubbed "Marry-Gold" for its reputation as the place for Chinese-Australian wedding receptions in the '80s and '90s. (If you didn't get married at Marigold, you were very likely a wedding guest in its halcyon days; if you were a child of said guests, you very likely fell asleep under its tables while your parents partook in enthusiastic cognac-clinking in honour of the newly wed couple.)
Or, if you were a child of Chinatown, it was where you worked for extra pocket money. Danny Fu, whose parents own Seasons Fruit Market just two doors down, remembers scoring a casual job there as a teenager.
"My brother Vincent and I worked there on the weekends, either pushing the yum cha carts around or cleaning plates," says Fu. He was only ever put in charge of the tofu fa cart, – the "Mercedes-Benz" of carts because few people ordered the silken tofu dessert. "It sounds lazy, but I got to do less work compared to the prawn dumpling cart."
His parents, Irene and Chi Ching, also count themselves as long-time suppliers, and customers, of Marigold, visiting the storied dining room weekly, and regularly celebrating birthdays and family milestones there.
Marigold reopened on 11 October when Sydney's lockdown restrictions lifted, but Chung says her family had been pondering the restaurant's future in recent months.
"Sadly with COVID we've had no functions, no community events, no weddings for the past two years," she says. Recent changes to traffic conditions, including the pedestrianisation of George Street, have made it difficult for customers to access the restaurant carpark. Weekends sees the dining room pick up for yum cha and dinner service, but Monday to Friday, like most of the Chinatown precinct, it's a ghost town.
"I guess that's why customers are surprised [about the closure]. They come on Sunday and see long queues, but they don't realise during the week it's so very quiet. It's too hard to survive. It's not viable," she says.
The closure of the long-running restaurant is a massive loss to the Chinatown community, says Simon Chan, president of the Haymarket Chamber of Commerce.
"They've been around for so long. When you're talking about larger restaurants in Chinatown where you can hold functions, banquets and events, for a long time the only place you could go was Marigold. It's very sad news."
He says the restaurant, like many businesses in the historic Chinatown precinct, has suffered as a result of on-and-off restrictions and closed borders.
"I like to think next year when we have international travellers and students coming [things will improve]. They're so important for the survival of Chinatown and a lot of these restaurants."
But it may be too little, too late, for many Chinatown restaurants. Question marks still remain around Golden Century, another long-running restaurant in the precinct; many, too, point to Chinatown's streets and businesses being neglected by town planners in favour of the glitzier, more marketable Darling Square precinct nearby.
For Chung, however, the future of Marigold has already been decided. The forthcoming closure spells the end of an era for a restaurant that has stuck around for so long, and holds such special memories for staff and diners alike.
"I didn't realise the restaurant had such an impact. I'm so humbled by their responses," she says. "It's been such an honour to serve Sydney for 39 years. An absolute honour."
Marigold's final service will be yum cha (day time) on Sunday 5 December 2021.
Levels 4 and 5, CityMark Building, 683 George St, Sydney NSW.
Levels 4 and 5, CityMark Building, 683 George St, Sydney NSW.