Why we must always maintain a warm Welcome in Belfast for communities who have made the city so much better
The hospitality business is a tough world even in the best of times and the best of places. It’s a bit of an understatement to note that Belfast in the early Eighties was neither of those things. So for a restaurant established in the darkest of our days to be celebrating, this month, its 35th anniversary is remarkable enough in itself.
But the iconic Welcome Restaurant on the Stranmillis Road represents something much more than just the victory of commercial endurance through difficult days.
Founded by the Wong family, who still own and run it, the Welcome is also Northern Ireland’s oldest family-run Chinese restaurant.
As such it’s as much a symbol too of that honourable and hardworking ethnic community with such long and powerful ties to this place who have brought so much to the cultural and business life of Northern Ireland.
(Those posting vile, hatefilled comments about various migrant groups really do need to learn a bit about the contribution so many of these people have made to our country.)
Chinese people, mostly from Hong Kong, first began to arrive here in sizeable numbers back in the Sixties.
At one point it was claimed that Cantonese was Northern Ireland’s “second language” although, through demographic change, that’s now more likely to be Polish.
Most of these newcomers, almost inevitably, were employed in the restaurant trade. There are few towns and villages in Northern Ireland which now don’t have a much-loved Chinese takeaway.
The Wongs opened their first restaurant in 1973 and the elegant Stranmillis Welcome launched in 1982.
This during what was another particularly dire year in Northern Ireland’s history. A grim year of violence and rising unemployment.
On the plus side (I don’t want to sound insensitive here) the Northern Ireland football team did, famously, make it through to the World Cup that year.
To a generation who have grown up with an endless range of coffee shops where they can take their laptop for a latte, and a vast choice of other cafes, bars, eateries and nightlife venues, it’s difficult to describe the utter bleakery of Belfast back then.
It wasn’t that people didn’t go out because they couldn’t be bothered. They often didn’t go out because they were afraid to. ‘Nightlife’ used to have other connotations.
There were only a few places to go to anyway. So the opening of the Welcome was a burst of light and optimism amid the gloom. Even the decor reflected that. On the ceiling two great blue domes speckled with ‘stars’ added a celestial touch to the dining experience. Although the restaurant has been updated over the years, the Wongs have had the good sense not to ditch its domes.
San, who was awarded an MBE for services to the hospitality industry in the late Nineties, is now supposedly retired but still dons an apron occasionally.
Down the years the Welcome has won numerous plaudits — several times Best Restaurant, and an Egon Ronay citation.
It’s now in the hands of a new generation, including owner and brilliant chef Charlie and the genial Michael out front.
And it’s still winning accolades. Most recently the Wel- come has been voted Belfast’s No 1 restaurant on TripAdvisor.
I’ve no qualms about saying I’m a big fan of the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland in general.
I often wonder why the likes of, say, Willie Jack, the man who more than any other has been responsible for the phenomenal success of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and with it much of this city’s tourist trade, aren’t recognised with the gongs they fully deserve.
Look around Belfast these days and you see a city as spectacularly resurgent as the new Grand Central Hotel now being kitted out in all its glass-fronted magnificence.
And it’s those businesses which have been with us in bad times as well as good that deserve particular credit for their role in this regeneration.
The Welcome restaurant, and the Wong family, have earned a special place in the history of this city.
Here’s to their next 35 years.
Belfast veteran: the Welcome in Stranmillis and (below) restaurant owner San Wong and wife Linda