Iconic Penrith restaurant Happy Inn is soon to celebrate its 40th birthday, having opened on High Street on February 1, 1984.
Owner Vincent Wong recalls Happy Inn being a comparatively tiny venue when it first opened, catering to Penrith’s small population at the time.
“My first impression when I came here was that it was just a little country town,” he said.
“When we started here, it was a small Chinese restaurant that seated about 60 people. We did our best, serving the locals, and we found people to be quite loyal, and very friendly. We only had four staff working here at that time.”
It wasn’t until 20 years later that Happy Inn expanded into the space next door. Now, in 2024, they seat 120 people, and employ 35 staff members.
In the last 40 years, Happy Inn has built a reputation for being one of the best Chinese restaurants in the area. But, Wong said he owes it all to his loyal customers – many of whom have been around since the start.
“Our customers always say we’re one of the best restaurants, but I say they are the best customers to us,” he said.
“A lot of our regulars have become close friends for me. I think I spend more time here than at home, so I spend more time with them than my wife!
“They’re very supportive, they help me, and they always give me new ideas for the business as well. I’ve still got families who have been coming here since we opened.”
But, Wong said there have been plenty of changes to Happy Inn in the last 40 years as Penrith has grown.
“People have been educated on how to dine out and enjoy it a little bit more now,” he said.
“In the old days, I think they were very simple, not because they didn’t know how to enjoy a meal, but nowadays there are so many different cuisines and so many restaurants popping up around Penrith.”
It’s because of this that he’s continued to change the menu every few years. However, some things never go out of style.
“Some of the popular dishes we haven’t changed since we opened, like honey chicken, sweet and sour pork, and Mongolian lamb – they’re must haves, and people are still ordering them today. They’re our best sellers!” he said.
“But, I think more fusion Chinese is getting popular. I think young people are more accepting of the more fusion Chinese food. I don’t think there’s been much change when it comes to old favourites like spring rolls and those foundation dishes, but people are more interested to try new dishes now.”
Though he said it’s been challenging to keep up at times, Wong said it’s all been worth it.
“It’s getting more challenging every year, and every year I try to come up with a new dish to surprise the customers,” he said.
“I always try out other restaurants and bring new ideas to us.”
Despite making the decision to go without a big celebration this year, Wong said that 40 years is an incredible milestone to share with his family and community.
“I wonder how I do it, and sometimes I feel very tired, but I always look forward to coming in every day,” he said.
Despite owning other businesses in the meantime, Wong said Happy Inn has been the most special to him, hoping that when he does retire, his family will be there to take it over in due course.
“This was the first business I ever had, and it will be the last one I ever have, too,” he said.
“After 40 years, do I need to retire? I’m not sure. If I was going to retire, I would have done it 10 years ago, so now I think I’ll continue until I have grandchildren.
“I hope that one of my family members will be able to take over the business when I retire, but I don’t think I’ll retire completely. I think I’ll still come in maybe a couple of times a week.”
Cassidy Pearce is a news and entertainment journalist with The Western Weekender. A graduate of the University of Technology Sydney, she has previously worked with Good Morning Macarthur and joined the Weekender in 2022.