Chinese Restaurants in D.C. at Mid-Century
We previously chronicled some of the very first Chinese restaurants to open in Washington. Traditional Chinese restaurants became ubiquitous here, as in other American cities, during the 1920s and 1930s. While going out for Chinese food offered a touch of the exotic, it was generally not an expensive undertaking, and it was accessible to many. Washingtonians became accustomed to eating Chinese food—Chinese American food, that is—on a regular basis.
|The Peking Restaurant, at 711 13th Street NW, opened in 1957 (author's collection).|
Chinese restaurants branched out from Chinatown to open as casual neighborhood eateries across the city. Most were not segregated. During World War II, the most successful Chinese restaurants in the city were several large nightclubs—including the Casino Royal and Lotus restaurants on 14th Street and Treasure Island on K Street—that offered a variety of live entertainment as well as typical Chinese American fare.
From the start, many Chinese restaurants had offered authentic Chinese cuisine “off the menu.” You could find it if you knew where to look and what to ask for. The Chinese Lantern, for example, had a special menu of 257 authentic Chinese dishes that were available to those who expressed an interest. Sam J. Chan (1889-1957) opened that restaurant at 8 Massachusetts Avenue NW in 1928, and it became a favorite of Chinese and other diplomats. However, before World War II, restaurants like the Chinese Lantern were relatively few.
|A page from the Chinese Lantern's special menu (author's collection).|
Then, in the years after the war, Chinese restaurants rose to a new level. An era of fine dining came along that celebrated the most sophisticated Mandarin dishes for an American public that largely had known only chop suey, chow mein, and fortune cookies. Postwar economic growth and confidence likely spurred customers’ interest in new patterns of self-indulgence, including new culinary adventures. Increasing international trade also improved the availability of specialized foods from foreign sources. Equally important was the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943 (Magnuson Act), which lifted the ban on Chinese immigration to the United States after 61 years (but left in place strict annual immigration quotas), and the subsequent passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart–Celler Act), which finally removed the Magnuson Act’s stringent limitations.
Three examples of mid-century Washington restaurants that specialized in fine Chinese cuisine were the Peking; the Yenching Palace; and the Empress.
In 1947, the Peking Restaurant opened at 5522 Connecticut Avenue NW in Chevy Chase. It was founded by Chuon Ming Lo (1918–1980), a Cantonese native who had come to Washington in 1941 as a chef at the Chinese Embassy, and four of his friends. Lo offered “Peking-style” dishes, including moo shu pork and Peking duck, which quickly gained a following among diplomats and local connoisseurs. According to Lo, the Peking was the first restaurant in the country to offer northern Chinese cuisine. Other exotic novelties included 00 soup and eight precious rice. For special occasions, the Peking would serve a ten-course meal centered on Peking duck that won for the restaurant the Washington Winers and Diners Club award for excellence in authenticity, taste and service in 1954. In succeeding years, the New York Times and Holiday magazine, among others, ranked the Peking as one of the city’s best restaurants.
|Interior of the Peking Restaurant (author's collection).|
After ten years of success, in 1957, Lo opened a downtown branch, at 711 13th Street NW, which had a distinguished twenty-year career of its own. As Lo told the Washington Star in 1977, the Kennedy White House would sometimes order sizable late-night takeout meals from the downtown Peking. The restaurant became the pre-eminent branch of the small Peking chain, which eventually grew to four restaurants. It continued to be widely recognized as one of the best of Washington’s restaurants. The downtown Peking finally succumbed to pressures from Metro construction and downtown redevelopment, closing in 1977. The original Chevy Chase branch survived until the early 1990s.
The Peking’s success inevitably inspired imitators, most notably the Peking Palace, which opened in 1955 just down the street from the Peking at 3524 Connecticut Avenue NW in Cleveland Park. The Peking Palace took over the building of an older restaurant known as the Seafare, which had opened in 1945 and had been created by combining two 1920s storefronts into one building.
S. Van Lung (1926–1991), the restaurant’s founder, had previously worked at the Peking Restaurant, as had his business manager, twenty-three-year-old Paul Dietrich. Lung, the son of a top Chinese Republican army general in World War II, copied many aspects of the groundbreaking restaurant he had previously worked in, including the extensive menu of exotic dishes. So much so that the Peking Restaurant filed suit against Lung for unfair competition, arguing that both the name and the similarity of the new restaurant’s menu unfairly implied a connection between the restaurants that didn’t exist.
|Matchbook cover from the Yenching Palace (author's collection).|
The new restaurant lost the legal battle and was forced to change its name. However, as the Yenching Palace, it gained a loyal following, soon eclipsing the Peking in Chevy Chase. Already in 1956, it was adverting that it “entertained more diplomats daily than the White House.” The restaurant gained a unique spot in history as one of the “secret” sites where ABC News reporter John A. Scali (1918–1995) met with Soviet emissary Aleksandr Feklisov (1914–2007) to negotiate the terms for a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The fashionable Yenching Palace, already well known as a rendezvous for statesmen and diplomats, was a natural spot to meet.
|Page from a Yenching Palace menu (author's collection).|
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met Chinese representatives there in 1971 to discuss reestablishing diplomatic relations. In keeping with its Cold War legacy, there were even suggestions that at least one of its booths was fitted with secret listening devices—although which side was supposedly doing the listening remains a mystery. The Yenching Palace continued in business for several more decades, closing in 2007. The building was subsequently renovated as a Walgreens pharmacy but is now vacant.
Passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart–Celler Act) finally removed remaining restrictions on immigration by Chinese nationals, and two years later Washington benefited with the opening of the Empress, a sophisticated Chinese restaurant staffed by four Chinese chefs with many decades of experience. Owner David Lee, who had previously served as an officer in the Chinese Republican army, had immigrated to America in 1938. He settled in DC and for many years ran the Seven Seas Grill, a seafood restaurant in Brightwood. After switching to a career in real estate, he was persuaded to return to the restaurant business when he at last had the opportunity to invite experienced Chinese chefs to come to Washington and help him open an authentic Chinese eatery.
|Matchbook cover from the Empress (author'c collection).|
The result was the Empress, a highly regarded restaurant at 1018 Vermont Avenue NW that opened in 1967. Like the Peking, the Empress offered authentic Mandarin dishes, considered the cuisine of royalty in China, and it wowed Washington critics. “The Empress…is a restaurant not to be missed,” wrote the Evening Star’s John Rosson. “But it isn’t the spot in which to order chow mein. You might be laughed at.” Unlike traditional Chinese restaurants, it was formal and pricey, but Rosson and other critics thought it was well worth it.
|Postcard view of the dining room of the Empress (author's collection).|
Echoing the Peking restaurant’s special occasion dinners, Lee began offering gourmet banquets on the second Tuesday of each month. For a flat $10 fee (expensive at the time), you would be treated to a 10-course dinner of classic Mandarin dishes, none of them repeated from month to month. The special dinners, served at three large communal tables, showed off the talents of the Empress’s star chef, Shuo Tian Shih. Offerings included lotus float abalone soup, shrimp with sizzling rice crust soup, boneless duck in oyster sauce, birds’ nest and chicken sauté, squab with walnut and Mandarin cake, silver thread pastry, and the very popular Empress shredded chicken.
In Washington Post dining critic Donald Dresden’s opinion, David Lee was the dean of Chinese restaurateurs. Just as numerous exceptional French chefs from Blais Gherardi’s Rive Gauche in Georgetown went on to open or work in many other French restaurants in the area, so too did Lee bring a long list of distinguished Chinese chefs and restaurateurs to the Empress who went on to open their own eateries. A new tradition of fine Chinese dining became well established here, reflecting the truly extraordinary depth and sophistication of authentic Chinese cuisine.
|Matchbook cover from David Lee's Empress at 1875 Connecticut Avenue NW (author's collection).|
By the early 1970s, the Empress had four locations. Then, in 1974, the restaurants’ two owners agreed to divide the eateries between them and go their separate ways. David Lee took the two that were located at 1875 Connecticut Avenue NW, just north of Dupont Circle, and in the Rockville Shopping Mall in Rockville, MD. The original Vermont Avenue location, along with one on Thayer Avenue in Silver Spring, MD, went to Lu Hu Chuen “Trudie” Ball (1924-2015), who had partnered with Lee on the original Empress. Born in Shanghai, Ball had served as a member of the Taiwanese delegation to the United Nations in the 1950s and came to Washington in 1960. In addition to the two Trudie Ball’s Empress locations, she opened Trudie’s, at 33rd and M Streets NW in Georgetown in 1976.
|Pages from the menu at Trudie Ball's Empress (author's collection).|
In the spring of 1974, just after the split, food critic Dresden sampled both Trudie Ball’s Empress on Vermont Avenue and David Lee’s Empress on Connecticut Avenue, finding them equally excellent. The rival Empresses continued in business into the 1980s but by some accounts were never as good as the Empress had been in its heyday. In any event, by the 1980s Chinese restaurants of all types, from simple Chinese American carryouts to sophisticated, high-end culinary destinations, were here to stay.
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Some parts of this article previously appeared in different form in Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC: Capital Eats.