HomeChinese AmericanOldest Chinese restaurant in U.S. survives amidst closures

Oldest Chinese restaurant in U.S. survives amidst closures

Photo courtesy of The Beth Lists

The Pekin Noodle Parlor has withstood more than a century’s worth of discrimination, riots, wars and pandemics. 

Pekin, the oldest Chinese restaurant in America, continues to survive amidst a slew of restaurant closures nationwide, CBS reports. The 109-year-old establishment is a hallmark of Butte, Montana and beloved by generations. 

 “We’ve been through the Spanish flu, we’ve been through two World Wars,” Jerry Tam, who currently runs the restaurant, said. “People in Butte, they love my father, they love the restaurant, and they would never want to see anything happen to it.”

Pekin’s enclosed booths, originally put up in the early 1900s for privacy, have now come in handy for social distancing measures, CBS reports. 

According to The Montana Standard, the booths’ orange color originated with Tam’s father, Ding Kuen Tam, known as ‘Danny Wong’ to Butte residents. 

“One day my father was reading an article in Bon Appetit, and it said that salmon color whets people’s appetites,” Tam said. “So he had the restaurant repainted.” 

“He talked with absolutely everyone — politicians, service members, miners,” Tam continued. “He educated a lot of Butte, America, about the Chinese culture.” 

It hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows though. Pekin opened in 1911, a time rife with xenophobia and anti-Asian racism. 

“Starting in, like, the 1870s and onward, there’s huge waves of anti-Chinese violence. You know, there were shootings, there were beatings, there was lynchings,” Author Jennifer 8 Lee said, CBS reports. “[The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882] was the first time actually in American history that the concept of illegal immigration was introduced.” 

To remain in the U.S., many immigrants turned to the restaurant industry as the Chinese Exclusion Act allowed for restaurant workers, known as the ‘lo mein loophole.’ According to CBS, the number of Chinese restaurants skyrocketed from 1910 to 1930. 

Pekin has been family-run for five generations, The Montana Standard reports. Known for its hospitality and service, the restaurant was named a semifinalist in the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards back in March.  

“This was a traditional mom-and-pop restaurant, where my mom used to work here, my dad worked here,” Tam said, according to CBS. “I have four older sisters that all worked here. My first job was washing dishes. And still, I’m still washing dishes today.”

While Pekin survives in Montana, large numbers of restaurants are shutting down as the pandemic continues month after month, Eater SF reports. 

MY China, a Michelin-recommended restaurant owned by celebrity chef Martin Yan, shuttered its doors in San Francisco this month. Tam Tam, a spin-off of the Vietnamese restaurant Tamarine, also closed its doors in Palo Alto, California recently. 

Miminashi, a popular izakaya-style restaurant, had its last day of business Monday. The restaurant was well known for its casual Japanese fare in Napa, California.

 “A place for the community is what we desired to be, and what we are confident we accomplished thanks to all of you,” owners Jessica and Curtis Di Fede said via Instagram

“Like many restaurant and small business owners, we’ve spent the majority of the past nine months trying to figure it all out,” Miminashi’s owners said. “But as Winter and its challenges arrive, PPP funds dry up, and the ability to financially stay afloat after so many months of struggle leaves us adrift, we see the writing on the wall.”

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