The Blue Willow
The Early Years
Edmonton’s famed Blue Willow Restaurant began life as the Pan American Café. In 1947 Vic Mah, in partnership with seven others, bought and renovated the Jasper Avenue café. Mah had been in the restaurant business since he was 16 and had previously owned restaurants in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek, B.C., but the Pan American was his biggest venture yet. The Pan American under Mah’s management was a success, quickly becoming renowned for its ham and eggs, hot cakes, veal cutlets and steaks.
By 1957, Mah had managed to buy out his partners and become the cafe’s sole owner. The time was ripe for change, and Mah decided that the city was ready for a fine dining Chinese restaurant. The Pan American was torn down and the elegant Blue Willow Restaurant opened its doors in 1958. The Blue Willow was right on trend. The 1950s and 1960s saw a revival in people’s interest in the Far East. The restaurant’s décor was exotic, appealing to people’s ideas of what China was like. Guests entered the blue-and-white dining room by passing over a pond on a footbridge. There was a late night lounge in the basement and, later on, an upstairs dining, dancing and cocktail lounge. Unlike other Chinese restaurant owners, Mah regularly renovated the restaurant’s interior to keep the décor modern.
In these early years, the menu offered a combination of Chinese-Canadian and Canadian food. Mah also claimed credit for a number of innovations, including an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet that he introduced in the mid-1960s and a home delivery service. The service was so popular that Mah maintained a fleet of 12 cars to handle all the orders. When the delivery business proved too much for the restaurant’s kitchen to handle, Mah built a separate take-out and delivery kitchen at 103 Avenue.
In its heyday, the Blue Willow was the place to go. In addition to the food and the elaborate dining rooms, the staff at the Blue Willow worked hard to make sure that eating there was a special experience. Hot towels were provided at the end of the meal with Louie, the singing waiter, giving each towel a spin before handing it over. Louie worked at the Blue Willow for over 30 years. Although he retired more than 15 years ago, he still regularly shows up to sing, spin the occasional towel and greet his regulars.
In 1980, Peter Pocklington purchased the Blue Willow from Vic Mah and the restaurant, along with the rest of the block, was demolished. Mah turned his attention to his second restaurant, the Canterbury Inn, a themed steak house reputed to have offered Edmonton’s first salad bar. But long-time guests missed the Blue Willow and its Chinese food. And so, in 1983, Mah reopened the Blue Willow on the site of its former delivery kitchen. The restaurant is still in operation, with long-time chef ‘Uncle Tony’ at the helm, serving its classic menu of Chinese-Canadian food. As always, innovations have been introduced. They include a new, set menu lunch and a fine wine bar overseen by a French-trained sommelier.
Vic Mah was also a sports enthusiast. He had a tennis court built in his backyard and played daily before going to the restaurant for lunch. Mah sponsored the Blue Willow Angels, a Junior AAA baseball team, from 1966-2003 and was General Manager of the Edmonton Oil Kings in the 1970s. Until his death in 2011, Mah still held season’s tickets to Oil Kings games, and the family continues to award the team’s ‘Unsung Hero’ trophy. Mah also tried to buy the Edmonton Oilers franchise, but was beaten out by Peter Pocklington. Given his devotion to sports, it is not surprising that the Blue Willow was a regular hang-out for Edmonton Oilers players. When the Blue Willow reopened, Wayne Gretzky was on hand to cut the ribbon.
At the age of 79, Mah decided that it was time to slow down and closed his second restaurant, Vic’s Family Restaurant (formerly the Canterbury Inn). His son Stan had learned about the restaurant business by shadowing Vic, and he took over the day-to-day running of the Blue Willow in the 1990s. Following in his father’s footsteps, Stan is currently renovating the Blue Willow.
Location: Edmonton, AB
Owned by: Mah Family
Copyright 2014 Royal Alberta Museum