A nationwide trend of younger generations not wanting to take over family-owned Chinese restaurants is noodling through San Francisco’s restaurant scene a bit moreso than other cities’.
It’s that time of the year — and of the decade, arguably — to pour one out for the great institutions lost, and San Francisco has lost a number of notable Chinese restaurants and chefs in recent years. The biggie is probably the 2014 closure of Empress of China, though that place will be remembered more for its pop culture than culinary legacy, and a rebooted Empress will open in that location in 2020. While the 2017 death of Henry Chung did not spell the end of the celebrated Henry’s Hunan, Eater reminds us that we did lose Dumpling Kitchen, among others. Some restaurants can blame regulatory costs and minimum wage requirements and regulations (OK, Yank Sing cannot blame wage requirements) but a New York Times holiday long-read blames another factor for the loss of legacy Chinese restaurants across the country. The young sprouts of the restaurants’ founders are choosing to work in other industries, rather than arduous, low-paying kitchen work that leaves their bodies fried. And their parents aren't complaining.
We like to mock the Times for their trend pieces but this one documents a legitimate trend. The Times analyzed Yelp data to find that in the 20 largest restaurant markets in the U.S., the percentage of Chinese restaurants (compared to all types of restaurants) has fallen by nearly one percent in the last five years. This despite an increase of 15,000 restaurants overall.
Here in San Francisco, home to the oldest Chinatown in the U.S., we’ve seen an even larger decrease with 1.2 percent fewer Chinese restaurants than in 2014.
“It’s a success that these restaurants are closing,” foodie author Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, her middle name is ‘8’) told the Times. “These people came to cook so their children wouldn’t have to, and now their children don’t have to.”
There are other factors in the decline of Chinese restaurants; delivery apps further squeeze their profits, and astronomical rent increases certainly don’t help. But in the Bay Area and beyond, the children and grandchildren of Chinese immigrants see better opportunity in tech than in restaurants or nail salons.
On the positive side, the endangered Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory continues to survive, the delightfully notorious but once-shuttered Sam Wo returned in far nicer condition, and the city’s unofficial Chinese food matriarch Cecilia Chiang celebrated her 99th birthday this past September. That occasion saw Chiang celebrated in the Times, Bon Appetit, and by director Wayne Wang (Chiang founded the legendary Mandarin Restaurant, and her son founded the P.F. Chang’s chain), but this slow-boil closures of Chinese food spots is a reminder we may not see many more like her.
Image: Mikes Camera via Flickr