Once upon a time, according to the late great British Comedian, Benny Hill, there were two China-men… now look how many there are! Well, believe it or not, once upon a time there was only one Chinese restaurant. And you know how this story ends!
Apparently the first US Chinese restaurant was opened in 1849 in San Francisco. Chinese food arrived in America in the mid-1800s with laborers imported to work the California gold rush. These early Chinese restaurants were called “Chow Chows”.
By the 1890’s, Chinese restaurants had opened in big cities on both coasts. Most early Chinese immigrants were from Canton, in southern China, and brought that city’s cuisine. As Chinese cooks adapted to their new land, they came up with new dishes, including chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young, and the fortune cookie.
Chinese restaurateurs, aware of how intimidating the new cuisine could be, encouraged ordering “family style” and devised the “one from Column A, one from Column B” system to simplify selection. Chinese restaurants also welcomed blacks and Jews when other establishments shunned them. Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant is still a tradition for many American Jewish families.
Kosher Chinese restaurants, sporting names like “Cho-Sen Island“, “Glatt Wok” and “Shang-Chai”, serving dishes like Matzoh Foo Young started opening up to cater to those who keep a Kosher diet. It has been speculated that East European Jews, themselves marginalized, flocked to Chinese restaurants as a way of forging a new, modern, identity—as a way of becoming American
According to Chinese Restaurant News, there are now more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonald’s franchises — nearly three times as many in fact.
So yes, once upon a time there was one Chinese restaurant. Now you’ll find one, depending on where you live, in every town, and sometimes many on the same street!
Humbly submitted for your consumption,
—Mee Magnum (“Chop! Chop!”)