Princess Mary Restaurant ends a long voyage

The Princess Mary Restaurant in Esquimalt, which began in the bones of a former ocean steamship and became one of Victoria's favourite eateries, is closing at the end of this month, ending its voyage of more than 60 years on a high note.

“We are not closing for any financial reasons,” said owner Bill Lang, adding that 2013 was the eatery’s best year since moving to West Bay Marina on Head Street eight years ago. The restaurant had previously operated in Vic West for 53 years.

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It’s just the right time.

“I’ve been so fortunate,” Lang said Friday. “I’ve ended up with great people to work with and great suppliers.”

Some of his most senior staff, each with close to 30 years at the restaurant, are retiring. Lang’s taking a new direction, too.

He will devote himself full-time to the new Songhees Wellness Centre, 1100 Admirals Rd., where he’s responsible for food and beverage services. He’ll set up a training kitchen — something that’s been on his “bucket list” — for Songhees youth.

A new family-friendly restaurant will open in the Princess Mary space, which is leased from the Lindholm family. The new name is not being revealed yet.

Lang, 61, is taking the Princess Mary Restaurant and Consulting Ltd. name with him.

The Princess Mary steamship was built in Paisley, Scotland, for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Arriving in Victoria on Feb. 15, 1911, the CPR ship spent much of its working life serving the Gulf Islands, Powell River, Comox, Victoria, Vancouver and Alaska.

After the Princess Mary was decommissioned in 1954, Harold Elworthy, head of Island Tug and Barge, saved the ship’s superstructure to establish what became a popular seafood restaurant on Harbour Road in Vic West.

Lang, who was 19 years old when he started working at the restaurant, left to spend several years in the golf course business.

But the Princess Mary called him back.

Over a hamburger, Don Elworthy, Harold’s son, struck a deal on a paper napkin 28 years ago to sell the restaurant to Lang.

“I bought 100 per cent, but he carried the mortgage on it for four or five years,” Lang said.

Buying the restaurant was a big challenge, the kind of thing Lang relishes. He appreciates that Elworthy was willing to take a chance on him.

In his first year, Lang lost $77,000, the next year he broke even, and the next he started making money.

“I’ve never bounced a paycheque and I’ve paid all my debts.”

Lang put the Princess Mary on a new course, expanding its banquet and meeting services. He acquired more land, boosting the size of the site to 3.5 acres from the original 0.98. In 2006, the property was sold to develop the Dockside Green housing and commercial project.

Everyone from local residents to famous names stopped at the restaurant. Lang recalls customers such as Jean Chrétien, Ralph Klein, Joe Clark, hockey players Gordie Howe and Frank Mahovlich, plus James Bond actor Roger Moore, and Anson Williams, who played Potsie on TV’s Happy Days.

When Dockside was developed, the restaurant’s etched and stained glass from the original ship went to the Maritime Museum of B.C. The old ship was taken apart after a new owner could not be found.

Lang moved his restaurant to West Bay, bringing staff and customers. “It’s just a really nice community down here.”

Today’s Princess Mary Restaurant has 148 indoor and outdoor seats. The interior is filled with the ship’s memorabilia, representing only a small portion of what Lang has in storage. Most will be donated to museums, locally and in ports where the ship used to visit.

Lang took to heart former owner Elworthy’s advice, “Never, ever forget to give back to the community.” He has served on countless community boards, staged fundraisers for good causes, and quietly helped those in need.

Lang, who has been working at the Wellness Centre for about eight months as well as at the restaurant, figures he puts in 70 to 80 hours a week.

Just like their boss, Princess Mary’s staff aren’t clock watchers. Helen Zdrilic, 56, is one of the longest-serving employees. How many hours does she work? “I don’t keep track but I do lots,” she said with a smile.

“It’s a good job. Great atmosphere. Great leadership. Great boss and the greatest customers.”

Zdrilic walks customers to the door and invites them back. She’ll pick up a baby to let a tired mother eat in peace. “She has her following,” Lang said.

Some of the 16 staff are retiring or going to other restaurants while others will remain with the new operator. Zdrilic is heading to the Apple Tree Restaurant, 1501 Admirals Rd., to work with owners Sandy Lang, who is married to Bill, and Sandy’s sister Kim Darwin.

Lang said, “I will miss the camaraderie with the staff. Certainly, I’ll miss the customers and the loyalty that they have shown us over the years. It’s just incredible.”

The Princess Mary’s final day is Feb. 27.

“If I had to do it again, I would do it exactly the same way,” Lang said.

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