Far East Cafe, San Francisco, California

In San Francisco there are two Chinese restaurants that claim to be the oldest in the city and both were established in the same year: 1920. There’s the Hang Ah Tearoom, which also claims to be the first dim sum restaurant in the U.S. The food is reported to be good, but the place has zero atmosphere. The other is the Far East Cafe in the heart of Chinatown. In contrast its dining room is spectacular and apparently much of it is original.

 

Far East Cafe

Le Continental couldn’t find any detailed info about the Far East Cafe online. All we know is that it opened in 1920 with its ornate lamps, paintings and other decor coming from China.

 

Far East Cafe

The Bar

 

The Far East Cafe serves traditional Cantonese style Chinese and Chinese-American food, with a sprinkling of Szechuan dishes on the menu as well. They specialize in seafood, so that’s what you should order.

 

Far East Cafe

A unique feature are the private wood dining compartments on one side of the dining room (that matches the wood paneling on the opposite side), which the restaurant says are the last in any Chinese restaurant in the city. Sam’s Grill and Tadich Grill (both in San Francisco) also still have similar private dining compartments. Reservations are REQUIRED to sit in a private compartment (walk-ins welcome for the main dining room).

 

Far East Cafe

The restaurant was freshly painted since the last time I visited but the colors are pleasing, not garish like in so many Chinese restaurants. And check out those beautiful murals and intricate “palace” lamps! I also love the vintage linoleum floor.

 

Far East Cafe

The service was very attentive on my recent visit. The waiters wear black vests with white shirts, black slacks, and red ties.

 

Far East Cafe

 

Far East Cafe
631 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 982-3245
Open daily 11:30am-10pm

Grand Canyon Cafe, Flagstaff, Arizona

If you’re heading for the Grand Canyon or just passing through on Route 66, Flagstaff is worth an overnight stop. There are plenty of motels along the old highway passing through town, some with great neon, but for my money I’m staying at the historic Monte Vista Hotel one block north of Route 66 downtown.

 

photo by The Jab, 2008

photo by The Jab, 2008

 

The hotel opened in 1927 by the City of Flagstaff and was community owned until the 1960s, when it became privately owned.

 

lobby - photo by The Jab, 2008

lobby – photo by The Jab, 2008

 

The Monte Vista Lounge opened with the hotel, reportedly as a speakeasy until Prohibition ended. Both entrances to the bar, from the hotel and from the street, are fabulous!

 

photo by The Jab, 2008

photo by The Jab, 2008

photo by The Jab, 2008

photo by The Jab, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a historic hotel, some of the less expensive rooms have baths down the hall, but many rooms are larger with baths and they also have suites. I stayed in a small single with bath across the hall. The room was basic, but clean (as was the bathroom) and had a historic feel. Some rooms are named after famous guests from the past.

 

photo by The Jab, 2008

photo by The Jab, 2008

 

Besides the cocktail lounge, the hotel also has a cafe/bar called The Rendezvous, which serves as a coffee bar all day from 6:30 am (serving Intelligentsia coffee and tea) but also is a cocktail bar offering classic and craft cocktails until 2:00 am every night. Splendid! Two bars in one classic hotel; now you know why I like to stay here!

 

photo by The Jab, 2008

photo by The Jab, 2008

 

Within a short walk from the hotel there are several good restaurants (I particularly liked Swadee Thai restaurant) but a walk down Route 66 also takes you to the neon splendor of the Grand Canyon Cafe, which opened in 1942. In 1945 three brothers, Alfred, Edward, and Albert Wong bought the restaurant with a partner Bill Yee. Amazingly, it is still owned by the Wong family almost 70 years later. Albert’s son Freddy Wong now runs the restaurant with his wife Tina. The menu is a combination of classic American cafe fare (Freddy’s specialty) and Chinese food (Tina’s expertise). So it’s a great place to come both for breakfast or for some Chinese food for lunch or dinner. The chicken fried steak with green chili sauce comes highly recommended. And you can the see by my photo below that it hasn’t changed much in 70 years. I love the original vinyl booths and the lunch counter with jaunty red, white, and black stripes and a green Formica top to match the tables.

 

photo by The Jab

photo by The Jab

 

Of course if you’re going to the Grand Canyon, and can afford it, you should stay in one of the historic lodges for a few nights. But you may also enjoy saving a bit of money by staying a night or two in the charming, historic Monte Vista Hotel in happening downtown Flagstaff. And don’t miss the animated neon signs on Route 66 and around town!

 

 

 

Grand Canyon Cafe
110 E Santa Fe Ave, Flagstaff, AZ 86001
(928) 774-2252
Open Mon-Sat 7:00am-9:00pm

 

Empress of China, San Francisco

I don’t visit touristy Chinatown in San Francisco very often, but once in a while I like to go there on an afternoon and explore, preferably on a rainy day when the streets are wet and fewer people are out. One of my favorite rest stops is the bar at the Empress of China, especially for Happy Hour, which offers half-priced appetizers and cocktails daily from 3:00pm – 6:00pm.

The Empress of China opened in 1967 in a modern office building designed by the architectural firm of John Carden Campbell and Worley K. Wong and built on a hill so the restaurant and bar have sweeping views of Chinatown, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill from its large plate-glass windows. While waiting for the elevator that takes you from the lobby to the bar take a look at the many photos of celebrities who have dined there in the restaurant’s heyday of the 1960s and 1970s.

Empress of China interior, San Francisco, 2004

Empress of China bar, photo by Telstar Logistics

As you can see the bar has a very nice 60s feel to it, and with the views it’s a wonderful place to relax over a $5 Mai Tai (albeit a sweet pineapple 1970s version) during Happy Hour. The restaurant itself has a very different look, though an amazing one. Interiors are reproductions of the styles of decorating that was popular during the Han Dynasty of around 200 B.C.

Portion of 1970s menu from the archives of the National Museum of American History

Empress of China dining room postcard

Not much has changed since this vintage postcard photo was taken. Only the furniture is different. You can this one and other rooms in the photo gallery on the restaurant’s web site. Since I have not dined there in many years I can’t offer a review of the food. I know it’s fairly expensive, but probably worth it for the atmosphere and views, especially at night. Give this place a chance for dinner sometime because it’s almost a miracle that a place like this has survived so long in a city like San Francisco that has so much creative and inexpensive Asian food.

Empress of China
838 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 434-1345
Open for lunch M-F 11:30am-3pm, dinner M-F 5pm-10pm, Sat & Sun 11:30am-10pm
Bar open 3pm-10pm, Happy Hour daily 3pm-10pm