Christmas: The busiest day at Seattle’s oldest Chinese restaurant
Christmas is days away, but Gordon Chan is already fielding calls for Christmas takeout orders at his dad’s Chinese restaurant, Tai Tung. For some, Chinese food and a movie are just as much of a Christmas tradition as Santa Clause and stockings.
“Christmas is pretty hectic,” Gordon Chan said. “Already we’ve got 20-some-odd reservations and it’s just gotten busier over time. Last year, we had a line that was probably an hour, two-hour wait. There seems to be a bigger influx over the last two years in regard to the number of customers.”
He says Christmas is actually the busiest day of the year at Tai Tung.
“It didn’t use to be, but now it is for sure,” he said. “Mother’s Day used to be, by far, our busiest day. Gradually, over the last decade, Christmas has overtaken it significantly. And actually, Christmas Eve is probably the second busiest day of the year now.”
Tai Tung: A Christmas tradition
I would argue that Chinese food and a movie used to hold court as a stereotypical Jewish tradition. From childhood to adulthood, I’ve spent many Christmases with chopsticks in hand. Last year I even lit my menorah in my regular Chinese restaurant, while Jews one table over sang Hanukkah songs.
But just like Gordon, I’ve also noticed that lines have gotten longer and longer on Christmas — and I know all these people aren’t Jewish. So who are they? With at least a thousand new people moving to Seattle each week, my guess is there are a lot of Christmas orphans not making it back home to be with their families.
“That’s part of the history [of Tai Tung],” said Gordon. “When we first started here, there were a lot of people who came here; immigrants from China who were trying to make it better for their families. So they came [to Tai Tung] and they were by themselves.”
Tai Tung is Seattle’s oldest standing Chinese restaurant, still located in its original building on South King Street in the International District. Gordon’s great-grandfather opened the restaurant in 1935 and today it’s run by his father, Harry Chan.
Harry Chan says Bruce Lee was once a regular; one of the cooks was his roommate for two years.
“When he came here he just wanted to sit down at the corner table,” Harry said. “Right now we dedicate it to him. His favorite dish was oyster sauce beef with rice.”
For most Americans, Christmas Eve and Christmas are days spent away from work. But when do the Chans get to take their vacation?
“We are open 365 days a year,” Gordon said. “Part of owning a Chinese restaurant is that we are open and accessible for people. So the question of when we actually have our holidays, and Christmas in particular, we make it work. For example, today I’m going to my in-laws for Christmas dinner, so we kind of adjust. For the gifts with the grandchildren, my dad will come home after we close after 10 p.m. or midnight [on Christmas Eve] and then the kids, because they’re excited, will open gifts then. Or we’ll do it early in the morning before the restaurant opens.”
The one exception over the 82 years the restaurant has been open was several years ago when the business right next to Tai Tung caught fire on Christmas Eve.
“That night, we were forced to evacuate and close down the restaurant,” Gordon said. “It was the first time ever that we had Christmas Eve and also Christmas Day together as a family. At home, as opposed to the restaurant. A little sad because we had reservations lined up. We enjoy serving the people, providing them the food on Christmas Day when a lot of other places aren’t open.”
Gordon’s childhood was spent within the walls of Tai Tung. He started working the register when he was just 6 years old, sharpening his social skills while serving customers sidled up to the counter.
“Back then, we opened at 9:30 a.m. and we closed at 3:30 a.m. in the morning. We’d do that whole full shift sometimes in the summer. Not often — I know I got all the child labor law people right now listening to this!”
This Christmas, Gordon’s children — the fifth generation of Tai Tung — will be helping out at the restaurant. Three generations of Tai Tung family will be working together, serving other multi-generational families who have been regulars at the restaurant for decades.