Toasting the Family Diner: 80 Years and Four Generations Later, Edmonton’s Commodore is Still Holding Strong
Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue with the Commodore’s lunch sign, circa 1940s (Louis Pereira/Alberta Provincial Archives); Inset: Today’s sign (Courtesy of David Gee)
In 2022, a family-run restaurant is a rare thing, and a fourth-generation family-run restaurant is practically unheard of. There’s a reason for that.
The Commodore opened on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton in 1942. The owners, the late Fong Chun and Ting Gee, were not part of the wave of immigrants who created Canadian Chinese food. Initially, they served all the things you’d expect to find on a diner menu — cheeseburgers, shakes and cherry pie, as well as sardines on toast and devilled eggs. Eventually, their son Wally took over with his wife, Sun Hee (Sunny). When Wally and Sunny’s sons were born, they grew up in the restaurant. David, the eldest, worked there off and on until he bought the place from his parents in 1997, and his daughter, Meagan, joined him on the line until she quit during the second lockdown of 2020. He’s still there. So are his folks.
When I visited this past summer, Wally, 86, was washing dishes during a Saturday brunch. He’d take the occasional break, sitting in a vinyl kitchen chair by the doorway, hands resting on his cane as he peered out at the customers in the dining room. Sunny, 84, was there, too, bustling around the kitchen in a pink golf shirt, her eagle eye overseeing every aspect of service. The photos on the wall near the kitchen show the two of them with baby David by the back door of the original restaurant. (The restaurant was rebuilt after a 1971 fire, which is when Wally and Sunny decided to revamp the menu and feature Chinese Canadian dishes for the first time.)
David, 62, is in front of the stove in a black apron, frying bacon for a clubhouse, and plating eggs sunny side up. He hurries past, ferrying a plate of fried rice to a table, greeting customers along the way.
There are two people missing from the Commodore staff: David’s wife, Wilma (Willi), 68, and their daughter Meagan, 30. Before the pandemic, they were all at the diner, a place renowned for its longevity as much as its hot turkey sandwiches.
“It is arguably one of the only old-time, café-style Chinese restaurants left in Edmonton. It certainly is the only one left in the city centre,” Linda Tzang, a former Royal Alberta Museum curator, wrote for a 2012 exhibit, Chop Suey on the Prairies, now posted on the Commodore’s website.
She notes Jun Gee, one of the first Chinese men from Canton in southern China to arrive in Edmonton in the 1890s, opened the city’s first Chinese laundry. His son, Fong Chun, arrived in 1920 and, as we know, he didn’t follow in his dad’s footsteps, but the rest of his family followed in his, longer than anyone could have expected.
“My grandparents actually had quite a few restaurants,” says David. “Back then, in the ’30s and the ’40s, a lot of the Chinese would go in together to help each other out. So, he was actually partners with a bunch of other people in a bunch of other restaurants.”
The family legacy has been a news hook over the years, evidenced by the clippings on the wall, and never more than when Meagan, who went to George Brown College and cooked for a few years in Toronto restaurants, took over as chef in 2012, becoming the fourth generation to participate in the family dynasty. Alas, it couldn’t hold; the pressures of the pandemic have changed all of us, the Gees as much as anyone. Meagan loves the Commodore — it’s where she grew up, after all — but she can’t work there anymore. The societal changes of the last five years — from #MeToo to BLM to the pandemic — have all worked on her in a way.
I spent a decade of my working life in restaurant kitchens, and I have covered the restaurant beat for most of my writing career. I saw firsthand how restaurant workers mobilized to demand better conditions. Less a case of “no one wants to work anymore” than the working class seeing the untenability of their situation — hard labour in precarious employment, with no benefits or sick days, taking place in, more often than not, a patriarchal hierachy resistant to change — many decided they simply weren’t going to take it anymore.
Lockdowns set a lot of people free, and Meagan is one of them.
“It was the first time I’ve had off since 2012. It really gave me a perspective shift,” she says. “I was processing all of the stuff I had experienced since starting in the industry. How toxic and problematic and stressful it can be to be a marginalized person in the industry. It all kind of hit at once and I realized, maybe this isn’t the future for me.” She still loves cooking, she just doesn’t want to do it for a living anymore.
Four generations have shepherded the Commodore, but it hasn’t been easy.
“You could say it was somewhat stressful,” says David. “Each generation wants to do their own thing, to update whatever needs to be updated. When I took over, some of my changes I had to fight my parents over. Same thing with my daughter. She fought over some things with me.”
Willi, whom they used to call “the machine,” left her accounting job when Meagan was still in elementary school to work at the Commodore, sometimes beginning her days at 5 a.m.
“I’m 68-and-a-half,” she says. “Up until I was 65, I was working 60 hours a week, before it became impossible, physically, for me to do it.” Meaning, perhaps, that she could still do it, and would, if only her body would let her. “Would I like to be back there? Oh, you betcha.”
When Meagan was growing up in Edmonton, everyone knew her parents, and not in a transactional, small-business kind of way, but in that these people were actually fed regularly by the Gees. Meagan remembers they would be stopped at the mall or in grocery stores by customers who wanted to say hello. The Commodore has also fed some celebrities, notably Pierre Berton and David Suzuki, as well as Bill Maher, but for the most part this is a place for regulars.
“One fella comes in just about every day for a veggie omelette, no cheese, with a side order of tomato. And Stephen Mandel, our ex-mayor, he would come in for a hot turkey sandwich or a clubhouse,” says David. “If you see them enough, you’ll know they want their eggs poached medium or scrambled hard or whatever.”
During Saturday brunch, the dining room is full and a band plays Johnny Cash standards and Townes van Zandt deep cuts, their bolo ties and belt buckles glinting in the sun through the front window. Live music on the weekends is one of the few changes that David brought in. That, and a loaded omelette. “The menu has pretty well stayed the same,” he says. “Meagan brought in the corned beef hash. And about 10 years ago I started doing a breakfast burrito.”
The servers are pouring coffee and mixing milkshakes, while plates fly from the kitchen. A diner is a nostalgic cauldron of emotion that holds our collective dreams, shaped through Happy Days and Riverdale nights.
We use the word “community” a lot these days: The Commodore is the living, breathing reality of the word. “It is a history of this city,” says Willi, “a reminder of where we came from, how hard we worked, all the different cultures that have come into play. The strength of all those people who came before and brought us to where we are.”
But Edmonton is changing fast, and the Commodore’s downtown neighbourhood has some valuable real estate.
“The developers came to us to purchase the property,” she says. “We were insulted with the offer. They said, ‘We will just build around you.’ And David’s parents said, ‘You do that.’” She understands the ways of cities, she just hates the lack of foresight. “They are tearing apart the whole district, shutting down all these small businesses, putting up 45-storey highrises a block down from us. The developers have no respect for history. They really don’t give a damn. We’re not unique to them, we’re just old.”
Not just old, but the oldest family-run restaurant in town, and one with a strong sense of belonging.
“Everybody knows everybody, we’re all friends. This place, it’s one in a million,” says Willi.
The family may have shrunk in 2022 when Willi retired, two years after Meagan’s exit in 2020, but it’s still strong. The elder Gees are still in the kitchen, part-time, with their son, and out front are the dedicated servers Angie, Margo and Roxy. The mint green Hamilton Beach milkshake maker is still buzzing up thick shakes 70 years later.
The pandemic taught us many lessons, not the least of which is how important restaurants are to the lifeblood of a city. This is where we gather, reconnect and raise a glass. Where we enjoy the luxury, no matter how humble the venue, of letting someone else do the cooking and cleaning. The family restaurant is a home away from home, with coffee poured hot and chrome napkin dispensers and a daily Chinese Canadian special. The Commodore is all the more precious for being so endangered.
David’s parents are now in their 80s, and, like Willi, they’ll have to retire at some point. His daughter is forging her own path. The Gee family’s long legacy might end with him.
“I’ll run it for as long as I can,” he says with a smile.
And if the Commodore doesn’t stay in the family?
“That’s a possibility. I can’t worry about that too much right at the moment, because it’s not in my control.”
For now, he’s got orders to fire and a dining room full of regulars to feed.
A version this article appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue with the headline ‘A Toast to the Family Diner’, p. 80.