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Brandon Jew’s New Lounge Revives a Chinatown Relic: The Big Banquet Hall

The forthcoming Moon Gate Lounge will offer a new twist on an endangered dining style. 

Chef Brandon Jew on the balcony of Moon Gate Lounge, his new bar and banquet hall.

 

Long before the three-story building at 731 Grant Avenue was transformed into Mister Jiu’s, an instant darling of the San Francisco food scene that netted Chinatown its first Michelin star last year, it was home to the Four Seas banquet hall. Jeannette Dare, 71, still remembers the excitement of the wedding feast that she and her husband, Roland, held at Four Seas in 1970 for upwards of 650 guests. There was the elegance of the high-ceilinged space, the clatter-clatter-clatter of clinking teacups, and, of course, the procession of exquisite dishes: real shark’s fin soup, Peking duck, and succulent little roast squabs served with garlic salt. “Everybody,” she recalls, “was having a ball.”

Four Seas presided over the heart of Chinatown for more than 50 years, until it closed in 2014. But now the kind of refined Chinatown banquet hall that Dare describes has pretty much disappeared, as the neighborhood’s longest-running restaurants have shut down, one after another, and the business of high-end banquets has largely moved to the San Mateo and Santa Clara County suburbs. That ebb tide may be about to reverse itself, though, thanks to an influx of ambitious projects, including George Chen’s $20 million China Live complex, with its banquet space accommodating up to 180 guests; the Yeo family’s planned reopening of California Street’s historic Cathay House this fall; and a highly anticipated expansion of Mister Jiu’s, which in coming weeks will bring back a little piece of the old Four Seas in the form of Moon Gate Lounge.

Perhaps no one embodies the new Chinatown aesthetic better than Mister Jiu’s chef-owner Brandon Jew, whose bold reimagining of the cuisine of his Bay Area Chinese American upbringing has brought national recognition and a sense of glamour back to the neighborhood. Jew envisions Moon Gate Lounge as more bar than restaurant—the 5,000-square-foot space upstairs from Mister Jiu’s will be headlined by a menu of craft cocktails, biodynamic wines, and updated takes on classic dim sum (for instance, a version of the fried, glutinous dumpling known as ham sui gok made with pork trotters). But there will be banquets, too. Customers will be able to choose between a custom tasting menu, a more traditional family-style banquet, and even a buffet-table setup. Part of the space will be partitioned off as a 60-seat private dining area, but hosts who book the entire upstairs will be able to seat as many as 120 guests—maybe not the 500-person blowout of Chinatown’s past, but still a step toward restoring what Jew calls the neighborhood’s golden age.

Jeannette Dare’s wedding banquet at the old Four Seas in 1970. Pictured here is Patrick Dare, the groom’s brother.

Photo: Phiz Mozesson

It wasn’t so long ago, really, that there was a big banquet hall on seemingly every corner in Chinatown and the whole neighborhood buzzed each weekend with massive, raucous celebrations. There was Gold Mountain, which closed in 2011; the iconic Empress of China, whose sweeping sixth-floor views were shuttered in 2015; New Asia, the site of who knows how many banquets thrown by political power players, set to be converted into affordable housing in a few years; and, of course, Four Seas, where Jew remembers attending his own uncle’s wedding banquet. When he was a kid growing up in the Sunset district, Jew and his family would descend on these Chinatown landmarks once or twice a year for red-egg-and-ginger parties, the lavish celebrations that Chinese families throw to introduce their month-old babies, replete with roast suckling pig and dyed eggs that the hosts hand out to friends and family for good luck.

For April Chan, a graduate of the food studies program at the University of the Pacific, where her research focused on San Francisco Chinatown history, there’s no replacing that old-school, “ratchety” Chinatown banquet experience. “You want the old Chinese grandmas who are in their Sunday best, but it still looks like pajamas,” she says. “You want this massive assault to the senses. You want to see wall-to-wall red carpet with gold trim.”

It’s likely that Moon Gate Lounge won’t offer exactly that experience. Jew has preserved one of Four Seas’ original murals, and he’ll have round tables fitted with lazy Susans available for banquet customers who’d like that option. But the setting will almost certainly be more luxurious than Four Seas’ was, at least in its twilight years. And the food will be Jew’s food, not the more conventional Cantonese standards favored by his predecessors. He plans to do a version of Four Seas’ signature fried chicken, but with poussin raised on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley, served with a salt-and-pepper mix for dipping. It’s an old-school dish made new. “When you get a juicy chicken, and the skin is just super crispy and caramelized, it goes back to this technique that I’m really excited to have people experience again,” he says.

Jew hopes he can bridge the gap between the traditionalists and a new generation of Chinese Americans who share his aesthetic and food values—and who might not previously have considered a Chinese banquet for their special celebration. This year, Dare and her husband celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary at Mister Jiu’s and loved the beautiful, inventive cuisine. The type of old-style banquet she enjoyed at Four Seas is a thing of the past, she says—and that’s OK. “You have to move with the times. You have to bring in the new generation.”

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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