SF's Chinatown has been, economically, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the pandemic, with no tourist foot traffic and businesses that say they were denied federal PPP loans. Now we're sad to learn that one of the longest-lived banquet restaurants in the neighborhood, Far East Cafe, is reportedly giving up the ghost after 100 years in business.
Chinatown's Wind Newspaper broke the news that Far East's last day will be New Year's Eve, December 31.
"I love Far East Cafe. I don’t want to give up," said owner Bill Lee. "But I have no choice. We can’t afford to keep the restaurant up for running without any revenues from the business and resources from the City."
Opened in 1920, Far East Cafe is a rare gem in a neighborhood where restaurants and retail businesses were struggling to get by even before the pandemic killed off most of their remaining business.
In addition to being a special, moody, old-school tourist draw with its high ceilings, crown molding, and wood-partitioned, curtained-off booths along the walls for more "private" dining, Far East Cafe is one of two remaining banquet restaurants in Chinatown. As the Chronicle notes, "It’s a destination for Lunar New Year luncheons, red egg and ginger parties for babies, grand weddings and fundraisers for charities and politicians."
Under Lee's ownership in the last 21 years, the restaurant added a banquet hall upstairs that made it even more popular for large events, because it could host up to 800 guests at a time. With the closing of Four Seas Restaurant (now Mr. Jiu's) and Empress of China, the only remaining large banquet restaurant will be New Asia Restaurant on Pacific Avenue, as Wind Newspaper reports.
As the Chronicle notes, New Asia is currently operating as a grocery store due to the pandemic.
"That's really sad to see that Far East is closing because it's one of the best restaurants in Chinatown," says Domingo Ortiz, a worker in the neighborhood, speaking to ABC 7.
Chinatown leaders have been expressing alarm at the loss of these banquet restaurants because of the vital role they play in the community — and large spaces that serve affordable food are major losses for the neighborhood.
As NBC Bay Area reports, the SF Board of Supervisors has introduced legislation to create a $1.9 million fund to pay Chinatown restaurants to provide meals for the needy, as a lifeline for businesses like Far East Cafe. It's unclear if this will be enough to save the restaurant in the near term.
Other businesses have been appealing to the city for more help, and saying they were denied federal loans. Sam Chen of Magical Ice Cream tells ABC 7 that he attempted to get a small business loan but was denied, and the same goes for New Age Camera.
Eva Lee of the Chinatown Merchants Association says that San Francisco is at risk of seeing the neighborhood in a wholesale death spiral if more aid in the form of loans or grants doesn't become available.
"What do we want our city to look like?" Lee asks ABC 7. "Are we going to be like a typical suburbia with just Targets and big stores left? Is that what we want? The fabric of our city is being torn apart right now."
Top image: Andrew D./Yelp
*This post has been updated to include information about the Board of Supervisors' legislation, and the possibility that Far East Cafe may not, for certain, close.