Almost nothing has changed about the Canton Cafe in its nearly 100 years of existence except its location. Originally located three blocks down the road on G and River Streets in Aberdeen, it was relocated when the Chehalis River Bridge was built. That was in the 1950’s. Since then, the Canton Cafe has remained virtually untouched, tucked between Wishkah and Heron on North G Street.
On a sunny September Saturday I met with Gar See Lee and his son Lenny under the iconic sign of their family restaurant. They are friendly and welcoming, ushering me through the jade green entry door of the Canton, past the 50s vintage vinyl booths, and into the simple banquet room. Gar See and Lenny are the third and fourth generation, respectively, in this longstanding family business.
Lenny is the son of Gar See Lee. Gar See is the son of Sing Lee. Sing is the son of Benny Lock. And, Benny Lock is the founder of the Canton Cafe. Lenny proudly points out memorabilia around the restaurant. A picture of the original location is displayed behind the register. Next to that is a letter from the mayor declaring December 30, 1986 “Benny Lock Day” to honor Lenny’s great-grandfather for his dedication to the Harbor, its people and businesses. At home, he has an original 1950’s menu framed on his wall.
The only thing that’s changed about the menu are the prices, though they still remain quite reasonable. Gar See says a few of the dishes have been made a little spicier but other than that, the recipes are all circa 1920 Canton Cafe originals. Menu favorites include egg rolls, almond chicken and sweet and sour spare ribs. When asked his favorite, Gar See can’t choose one. He rattles off the menu by heart like he’s eaten it every day of his life.
And he has.
As a kid he remembers growing up at the restaurant. After school he would spend his time doing dishes, cleaning, peeling onions and prepping for the cooks. He would spend hours watching the cooks on the line. He and his siblings all worked the family business and he knew that it would someday be him.
Lenny has similar childhood memories. “Even when I came home for holidays from college, we would go to the restaurant because that’s where everybody was. Nobody was at home. This was home,” he recalls. He is not alone in this sentiment. He has been told by countless longtime customers, that driving over the Wishkah bridge and seeing the Canton sign is what makes them feel like they are home again. “It is like a lighthouse, a beacon,” he says.
In Aberdeen’s heyday The Canton Cafe was open from 4:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. “It was a different time then,” Gar See explains. “There was a lot of activity going on during the weekends, dancing, banquets, drinking. They would all come in around 2:00 a.m. It was packed. Those were the days when the mills were here and the guys would come in on shift changes with a meal ticket. Those lumber mills brought in a lot of business.”
“When you think about it, the economic ebbs and flows of the community that a business like this has seen are pretty amazing,” Lenny adds. “The Canton has seen it all in a small, rural, west coast town: World War I recovery, the Great Depression, World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Vietnam War and more.” And through it all, the guests kept coming – and still keep coming – every day between 4:00 p.m. and midnight. “The Canton Cafe is a constant.”
Another constant for the past 50 some years is the partnership between the Canton Café and Harbor Pacific, another long-standing, family run, Harbor business. The Martin family ensures Canton Café diners can quench their thirsts from the spicy and savory dishes served by the Lee family. “All of our customers are very important to us, large and small,” says Tim Martin, Harbor Pacific’s president and general manager. “But there is a special place in our hearts, a kinship, for small family owned businesses like ours. We are thrilled to be a small part of the success of a Harbor original like the Canton for such a long time!”
When I pointed out the restaurant would reach 100 in just a few more years and asked about plans for a celebration, Gar See just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, no – maybe just some new chairs,” he chuckled. The two had been thinking about new chairs for the banquet room just that morning. No decisions have been made. No changes are necessary. These things take time and the Lees seems happy taking all the time in the world.
The Canton Cafe Restaurant is open every day from 4:00 p.m. to midnight. They are located at 205 S. G St. in Aberdeen. Plates range from $6 – $12. You can call for take-out or to reserve the banquet room for parties or meetings at 360-533-1770.