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50 years of Old Surrey worth celebrating in post-pandemic restaurant industry

Philip Aguirre reflects on family business in the place where he grew up
Old Surrey owner Philip Aguirre rests a foot on an old wooden stool in the kitchen. As a kid, he stood on the stool to wash dishes in the family-owned restaurant. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

One of Surrey’s oldest Craftsman bungalows is home to what is now one of the city’s oldest restaurants.

Newton’s historic Burkart House, built in 1920, is where fine-diners continue to find the appropriately named Old Surrey, which opened in 1974 and this year celebrates 50 years of serving French-style food.

No question it’s a culinary landmark, a place where restaurateur Philip Aguirre grew up and watched parents Valentin and Lesley build a business and provide for their family.

“It’s the true immigrant story, right?” Aguirre said on a recent Friday afternoon, before the dinner rush.

“My father left Spain when he was 17 and worked in Montreal at Expo 1967 because they were in desperate need of cooks from all over the world, I guess.

“They met in Winnipeg and settled down in Surrey, of all places, in Newton,” Aguirre added. “Aldergrove, really, is where I grew up. We had a farm on the north side of the highway. I was five or six when we moved out to Chilliwack.”

Back then, the proprietors commuted from their farm and, on weekends, the whole family came along for the ride to 72nd Avenue in Surrey. Philip, youngest of three, was born three years after the Aguirres opened Old Surrey.

A view of Old Surrey Restaurant in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

As a pajama-clad kid, the current owner would storm around the restaurant appealing for quiet so he could sleep in an upstairs room. In the kitchen was a wooden stool he stood on because otherwise, he wasn’t tall enough to wash dishes.

Five decades on, the old stool is still stored on a shelf behind pots, pans, kitchen stuff.

“We use it as a prop when we’re straining the stock,” Aguirre noted. “It’s almost fully fallen apart but I’ll repair it. It’s there, it’s fine.”

Aguirre took over business ops in 2007, and Valentin and Lesley still live on the farm.

“They come get their free meal once a month, and the price is right,” Aguirre said with Seinfeld-like delivery. “They come to give me a hard time, you know, and they take their job very seriously in telling me about all the things I’m doing wrong.

“Actually they’re super supportive,” he added, “and it’s just a hard industry to work in, really taxing, and once you get a little bit older it’s just time to retire. We’re in the second generation now, of course. My father had a Grade 5 education and the passion and background in cooking, and my mother, she never gets enough credit for doing all the bookkeeping. They worked together to provide an income and raise a family.”

Now with his own family, Aguirre not only runs Old Surrey, he’s executive director of Newton Business Improvement Association (BIA). Last election he ran for a seat on Surrey council, is an avid triathlete and coaches his kids’ hockey teams in Vancouver.

“Yeah, I’m super busy,” he admitted. “Is it a balanced lifestyle? I’m still married, have the three kids, we’re happy, I find time for them, prioritize them. I still cook here, and I have an amazing team, same thing at the BIA. That allows me to do all these extra things. One more espresso, I keep going, you know.”

Server Rob Morrison prepares “nitro” ice cream tableside at Old Surrey Restaurant with heavy cream, Irish Baileys, espresso and liquid nitrogen. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

Things change over time, including some items on Old Surrey’s menu. Right now a big-seller is an “anniversary special” of crab cakes, Caesar salad, filet mignon, lobster tail and “nitro” ice cream made table-side with liquid nitrogen. It’s quite a show, in a science-experiment kind of way.

The restaurant’s 72 seats are often filled for special occasions, and Open Table reservations number among Canada’s top 100, Aguirre says proudly.

B.C. is home to more than 15,000 restaurants and food vendors, and business has been tough in the years since COVID.

No news flash there.

“There’s been massive inflation of operating costs and food costs, wage increases,” Aguirre said, starting a list. “There’s been the CEBA loan stories out there, there’s paid sick days added this year as well, new statutory holidays, a loss of staff post-COVID, and property taxation has ballooned as well. We’re fortunate enough that I own the property here, but all those things add up.

“We’re hearing that around 50 per cent of restaurants aren’t making money Canada-wide, half of them losing money,” he continued. “All of these things are causing the restaurant industry to be hard, so we’re just happy we’re still here after 50 years, still thriving, still being successful in the heart of Surrey, in Newton. The average lifespan of a restaurant is around three years, I believe, so to last that many years, five decades, we should be celebrating these things in our community.”

Tom Zillich

About the Author: Tom Zillich

I cover entertainment, sports and news for Surrey Now-Leader and Black Press Media
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