There’s a kind of eerie atmosphere on Prospect Road. The street is quieter than usual. A few coffee shops are bustling with customers, but there’s a sense of mourning in the air.
Rosemont Hall, home to Mr Chan and Sunnys Shop, is boarded up. Construction fencing bounds the site. Workers are clearing the last of the rubble and twisted metal. Hanging on the fence is an ornamental parrot, its plastic wing broken off – one of the last surviving trinkets from the two restaurants that arguably defined the inner-northern strip for five years.
Since the blaze that destroyed Rosemont Hall last week, customers have treated the loss like the death of a community member. Out in the rear car park, well-wishers have left flowers, cards and photos on temporary fencing. Among the messages there’s some hope: “We can’t wait to see what you guys do next.”
“My life is unrecognisable,” owner Aaron Ratanatray tells Broadsheet one week on. We’re sitting in his home, right behind Rosemont Hall’s car park. Ratanatray has barely left the house since the fire. In a video diary posted to Instagram that week, he says he’s been “psychologically affected” by the loss of his business.
“My routine [usually] is I get up, I water my plants, I have a shower and then I go up to the shop and meet up with the bartenders or the suppliers. That’s all gone.
“I’ve had this feeling of absolute loss and devastation. It’s the greatest loss of my life and no words can express how empty I felt. My staff were like family and I certainly felt a sense of responsibility towards them which also added to the stress..”
Ratanatray says he received a call at 4.30am on Thursday September 16 telling him Rosemont Hall’s alarm system had gone off. He and partner Tamara Lee checked the restaurant’s CCTV and found it wasn’t working. That’s when he remembers smelling smoke.
“Like a parent that has a child and you see them in pain or something, you want to be there and try to fix the problem, and so we were just panicking at this stage,” he remembers. “We didn’t know the extent of the fire. I thought I would be able to run in with a hose and just put it out.”
Investigators understand the fire started at around 2.30am. Up to 60 firefighters arrived at the scene around 4am, by which time the blaze was already raging. It took crews about an hour to contain it. Nearby residents, including Prospect mayor David O’Loughlin, lined the street watching the ferocious fire take hold of the 97-year-old building. Investigators this week determined the fire started by accident, though the cause is still unknown.
“The building is built mostly out of timber. There were so many flammable things inside too, including everything behind the bar, gas, chemicals, oil. It really was the perfect storm.”
Rosemont Hall also had a deep, personal connection for Ratanatray. He grew up in Prospect, riding down to Rosemont Hall to buy sweets when he was a kid. His parents, One and Phanh Ratanatray, opened Chinese restaurant Golden Phoenix in the neighbourhood in 1978.
When Rosemont Hall came up for sale in 2015, he jumped on it. Sunnys Shop opened in 2016 serving pan-Asian street food, with Mr Chan opening the following year. “The whole idea was not so much about a particular food or beverage, it was just a feeling. I wanted to create a place where people could come together.”
Having built up a tight community, he wasn’t surprised so much at the outpouring of love after the fire but at how far it was coming from. “I think it’s extended to people from all over Adelaide,” he says. “People from Strathalbyn are saying they are going to come down and visit.
“I had a lot of customers who said, ‘You’ve cooked for us, let us cook for you this time,’ and people were dropping lasagne at my door and roast chicken. It’s this sort of thing that is really, really touching and is one of the ways I stay positive in this thing – knowing people are behind me.”
A Go Fund Me page, set up by a customer to help support Ratanatray and his family, has raised $2520 so far. Ratanatray, who says standing down his staff was one of the hardest things he’s had to do, will divide the money among his 50 employees.
Ratanatray tells Broadsheet he wants to rebuild, but in what form, he’s not sure. He’s currently trying to gain council approval for a pop-up at his home. He has a commercial kitchen – complete with a dry-stock room – in his backyard, which is where he’d test out new dishes. He now hopes to use it to serve takeaway.
The pop-up won’t be associated with Mr Chan or Sunnys Shop, but would trade under the name of his family’s original restaurant: Golden Phoenix.
“I think it is just so symbolic, that name right now.”