And it was at its best after midnight, when hundreds of customers from the after-bar crowd would line up, wait patiently, and re-emerge with Styrofoam containers stuffed to the gills with Chinese takeout, spilling it down the sidewalk as they went.
Sun Sun Restaurant was the most unusual, and wonderful, place to eat in this city. The name made no sense. The late-night takeout system felt like queuing for food at a prison camp. And waking up the next morning and finding a white box of Sun Sun’s leftovers in your fridge could be a gut-turning experience.
But for years, Sun Sun was a beloved hub in Guelph’s restaurant world. No doubt the news of its closure was received sadly by thousands of people who’ve eaten there over the years.
By day, the restaurant ran as buffet-style Chinese joint that could fill you up without putting a dent in your wallet. It was always clean, but one of those places that put more emphasis on the food than over its jade-green décor flanked by massive fish tanks.
At night, it transformed into a haven for hungry bar-goers looking for something other than a hot dog or slice of pizza. The owners lined up takeout counters in the entranceway of the restaurant, to keep the hordes from coming all the way inside.
A man shouted “Rice or noodles!?” at you as you approached. If you weren’t quick enough to respond, he’d move on to the next in line. Other staff would efficiently scoop food into your tray, not looking up, trying to keep the assembly line going as quickly as possible. You could get shuffled to the end of counter without getting any food if you weren’t decisive enough.
For $5, you could get a heaping pile of noodles or rice, topped with broccoli, egg rolls, spare ribs and chicken balls so deeply coated in batter you had to bite halfway through them before you found any meat.
And, poured on top of all of it all, was a pond of near-glowing, red mystery sauce that looked like cough syrup and tasted like melted Jolly Ranchers candies.
Downtown Guelph has lost two iconic, independently-owned restaurants in the past year. First it was the Apollo, the greasy-spoon family diner that served up cheap breakfasts, Greek dishes and causal comfort food, without sweating its interior design, for decades.
The Apollo was the kind of place you could show up in sweatpants and a neon ski jacket, and nobody would judge. The food came fast and without fanfare, and the waitresses looked like your mom’s next door neighbour.
And now we mourn the setting of Sun Sun. In their place, we’re getting two new eating establishments. One is a family-run diner that will be built around meat and potatoes, the other a craft beer-making brew pub. Both will be welcome additions to downtown, and both are signs good things are happening in our increasingly urban and populated core.
It’s great we’re getting new, shiny places to eat. And, this turnover is part of the life cycle of restaurants, and the ongoing transformation of cities. But something’s lost, too, when these old businesses close up for good.
Sun Sun, above all, was a unique experience if you were out late and hungry in downtown Guelph. And I’ll miss it.
Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer whose column appears every third Saturday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca. Follow him on Twitter at @MercerRecord.