Sign of renewal for Eglinton’s iconic Chinese food eatery

Under new ownership, China House’s lit marquee is restored to its past glory

Jonathan Wise had a light bulb moment when he saw an Eglinton Ave. West restaurant for sale online.

After running luxury restaurants and hotels all over the world, he recently moved back to Toronto with his family to run the China House restaurant on Eglinton Avenue West.

“One doesn’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to be the owner of China House,’ ” he says.

But on a visit back to Toronto last fall — he grew up around Spadina and Eglinton but has been out of the city for 25 years — Wise saw a picture of the resto’s dining room online and recognized it.

By March of this year the restaurant was his.

Of all the original iconic fine dining restaurants that opened in the 1950s and ‘60s, this is the only one left standing, he says.

“China House, unlike all these others, has remained in place, stuck in time,” he says.

“This is a mid-century classic. It’s a beacon of memories.”

Reverencing that history — both personal and communal — was a huge part of what made running China House so attractive to him.

Wise remembers standing on the bridge in front of the resto as a kid and tossing pebbles into the pond. He says he also recalls when you could drive by and tell how long the wait to get in was by how many people were lined up on the bridge outside.

The memories run deep in the community as well. Wise says he recently spoke with someone who used the restaurant building as a landmark when coming home from the cottage.

That’s why preserving what was there was vital, he says.

“It looks exactly as it was. It looks fresh.”

Restoring the exterior fluorescent sign was the focus of his business plan from the get-go, Wise says — but it wasn’t something people appreciated until they saw it lit up at the lighting ceremony on the evening of April 5.

“Everyone thought I was nuts,” he says. “Now they get it.”

The fluorescent letters that make up the sign haven’t been fully functional for about 20 years and restoring them by hand cost thousands of dollars. But it was worth it, he says.

The interior of the restaurant was spruced up but also kept true to its roots, so to speak: he and his family took apart and cleaned by hand the faux Bonsai tree in the middle of the dining room.

“We hand washed every branch on that tree.

“It’s the human spirit,” he says of the retro resto’s appeal. “We always want to have a connection to our past.”

Not that making some changes aren’t called for.

Wise and his wife Nicole have already taken the MSG out of the food. They’re planning live Jazz Thursday evenings, and, after finding a fully functional yet abandoned dim sum kitchen in the basement, they’ll soon be starting dim sum on Sundays.

“It belongs to the community,” Wise says of his new acquisition. “Hopefully the community will embrace it again.”

On another personal note, Wise says there’s a real connection for him between China House and his now deceased father, Ben Wise, a well-known restaurateur and hotelier who was a China House fan.

“I think of him now more than ever before,” he says.

“This could possibly be my shining moment.”

About this article:

By: Kelly Gadzala
Posted: Apr 29 2010 11:24 am
Filed in: Business
Edition: Toronto