A crowd of mourners gathered Sunday outside 146 N. 10th St. to toast farewell, as if for an Irish wake, for what may be the city’s oldest Chinese restaurant. They started queuing up under the weathered awning of the Imperial Inn well before 10 a.m., murmuring of milestones marked inside the red-carpeted dining rooms.
After more than 45 years, as it had announced, the Inn closed Sunday afternoon, soon to be replaced by a supermarket. But it couldn’t bow out without one final lunch rush, a dim sum served with a heady side dish of nostalgia.
Upstairs, away from the line that snaked down the block, Evan Liu and three generations of his family sat down for a meal in the same room where, 36 years earlier, he and his wife, Donna, had held the rehearsal dinner for their wedding.
“I am far and away the least sentimental person I know, but I was strangely saddened by this,” said Liu, a Center City lawyer and physician. “You just expected this place to be here forever, that it would continue in some form. Things change, but it was still shocking.”
Liu first sat down for a meal at the Inn hours after arriving in Philadelphia from his hometown of Pittsburgh to attend what was then called Jefferson Medical College, he and his Chinese expat parents making the four-block trek north after unpacking his dorm room. Legend has it that Kit Fon Law, one of the Inn’s four original partners, saw Liu’s parents walking in Chinatown and invited them, in Cantonese, to eat at his restaurant.
It was a seminal moment in Liu’s life, he said, leading to literally thousands of post-church Sunday lunches with his four children, all of whom were weaned on the Inn’s dim sum in utero.
This final Sunday was a call to action for the family. They had erupted in a panic Wednesday after reading a report on Philly.com announcing the Inn’s impending closure. Tears were shed. Dread set in. And, amid the torrent of emotion, a plan was hatched.
Chris Liu booked a last-minute flight from Denver, hustling to the Mile High City’s airport in the predawn hours Saturday with nothing but a backpack and a manic craving for lotus leaf sticky rice. His younger brother Robert made a bleary-eyed, seven-hour drive from Burlington, Vt., after digging his car out from under a few feet of snow.
“All of our memories lead back to here,” said Robert Liu, 26. “It’s very rare that you know a certain time is the last time, ever, that you’ll do something. None of us could miss it.”
It’s not that Daniel Law, Imperial Inn’s urbane, soft-spoken general manager, has secret recipes that trump all of his competitors'. The draw, for the Liu family, goes deeper than food.
“I’ve eaten dim sum in China; this isn’t a matter of ‘better,’” said Kirstin Liu, the oldest of her four siblings. “When I want comfort, I want this. It’s what my taste buds crave.”
Like the proverbial pots of Italian gravy that have graced Sunday dinner tables in South Philly for generations, dim sum is the connective tissue binding Chinese families. It’s a brunch-like meal delivered on carts by waiters who offer a rotating selection of small plates, including shumai dumplings, spring rolls, and a savory rice porridge called congee.
In Philadelphia, plenty of families have come to trust the cuisine overseen by Law, whose father partnered with Luis Sust, Tseng Man Tah, and Kit Foon Law to open the Imperial Inn in 1973.
On Sunday afternoon, Daniel Law held court behind the bar, scribbling totals on receipts and processing credit cards. By 1 p.m., with two hours to go before closing, he estimated his staff already had seated more than 800 people.
“It’s sad in a way, but in life everything has to come to an end,” said Law, 69. “I’ve been here 45 years. I was a teenager when I walked in, and I leave it as a senior citizen.”
From his vantage point, Chinatown has changed with the proliferation of dessert shops and small-plate takeout joints, the blurred lines of newer restaurants that offer dumplings alongside sushi and sashimi. If he could start over, he said, he’d add a few “fusion” items to his own menu.
But he has no complaints. He promised his wife a long-overdue vacation to Cancun.
“I just want to thank everyone for the support,” Law said. “We had good days and we had bad days, but no matter what, we always had support.”
Kit Foon Law had been the face of the restaurant, its majordomo, until November, when he died at 94 after putting in a full day’s work. Regulars felt like members of his family — Donna Liu said he would regularly serve them fish and noodles when he knew they were celebrating their anniversary, symbolic dishes wishing them good health and luck.
Debbie Law, Foon Law’s granddaughter, arrived Sunday as a customer at the restaurant where she grew up, but ended up being roped in to help hustle plates to and from the kitchen. It was, she said, “what my grandfather would’ve wanted.”
“It’s surreal to be here, I can’t believe this is happening,” she said as she stole a quick break, glancing over the Inn’s packed second-floor banquet room. “Hearing this place has touched thousands of families, it just makes me proud.”
To hear some who stood in line Sunday tell it, it was a place where families started. Mike Black proposed to his wife, Anna Cho, in the first-floor dining room, enlisting the aid of the servers and bartenders. The couple returned Sunday with their two kids to say goodbye.
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of people with similar stories: adults returning with their children for the chicken and broccoli they’d eaten with their own parents, couples reliving first dates, a nervous energy pulsing through them all as they jockeyed for one final cup of tea, one more glance at the faded backlit pictures of Taoist temples.