The legacy of Shanghai Cafe will live on thanks to its new owners, the Doans, who have spent the last two years renovating the nearly 100-year-old restaurant whose Chinese cuisine and butterfly sign have been long-standing icons in Centralia.
Hung Doan is a house flipper, and initially bought the joint from Song and Young Ok — the restaurant’s second owners, who closed the restaurant in 2019 — with the intention of renovating it and renting the space out. But plans changed when Hung’s daughter, Cindy, learned about the cafe’s lengthy history.
“I Googled and I ran to my mom and was like ‘guess what? They’ve been open for like 100 years!’” Cindy recalled this week, sitting in the restaurant as her dad worked to prepare for Sunday’s grand reopening.
“I was like ‘dad, you cannot change the name. And you cannot take the butterfly down. It has to be there.’”
The Doans have plans to fix up the neon butterfly sign, which no longer lights up. But for now, the family is mainly focused on perfecting the old owners’ recipes — local favorites that they intend to incorporate into their menu along with their own Vietnamese dishes such as phở and bánh mì. The Oks have come out of retirement to help out in that regard, even guiding Hung through his grocery shopping this week.
If you’ve gotten your hands on a to-go menu (Cindy’s parents have been handing them out around town, drumming up excitement for Sunday), you’ll notice duplicates under the Vietnamese and Chinese sections. It’s no mistake. Come Sunday, some dishes, including fried rice, will be served up in both styles.
But the menu isn’t set in stone. Although there’s already more than 80 items listed, if enough locals ask about dishes from the old Shanghai Cafe, the Doans are open to reviving them. Cindy has already seen some people on Facebook asking about the Oks’ Mongolian beef recipe, not currently included in the new menu.
As far as the Vietnamese dishes, Cindy — who studies nursing in Seattle, works in Olympia, and comes down to Centralia to help out with renovations — said the family is unsure of how customers will respond.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of people down here haven’t had very much Vietnamese food, so we’re still testing with that too to see if people like it,” she said.
While Sunday will mark two years of work coming to fruition, the Doans are also aware of the fact that they have little experience running a restaurant.
“That’s the scary part,” Cindy remarked.
But the chef they’re bringing on has been in the business for decades, and family friends have been giving the Doans tips and advice about the industry.
What the Doans are clearly experienced in is renovating. The inside of Shanghai Cafe is evidence of that, the walls now splashed with a coat of blue-white paint and black on the ceilings to help the space feel more open. Hung insisted on letting in more natural light, hence the new glass entrance. And the booths that once filled the restaurant are replaced by new tables and chairs.
Patrons who frequented the spot in years prior will recognize much of the original art still displayed on the walls.
“I wanted to do something more modern than what a typical mom and pop Asian restaurant would’ve been like,” Cindy said. “I want it modern but also still homey.”
Shanghai Cafe will be open for takeout or dine-in this Sunday, and for its first two weeks will be dishing out free egg rolls to customers who spend $20.
The business is located at 519 N. Tower Ave. The phone number is 360-669-5999. Hours will be 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Learn more at shanghaicafecentralia.com.