Shun Lee or Not Shun Lee? For Chinese Food Lovers, That Is the Question.
Shun Lee or Not Shun Lee? For Chinese Food Lovers, That Is the Question.
Shun Lee 98th St (top photos), which recently opened on the Upper West Side, is more casual than the popular Shun Lee Palace, which displays photographs of its celebrity guests.
An identity crisis involving a vaunted Chinese restaurant and the New Yorkers who love it strikes the Upper West Side.
By Katherine Rosman
Photographs by Justin J Wee
April 7, 2023
The text message from Danny Cramer’s mother to the family group chat arrived with urgency. “Look what’s going into the empty storefront at 98th and Broadway,” she wrote, punctuating her sentence with chopsticks, fortune cookie and noisemaker emojis.
“Whoopee!!!” Mr. Cramer’s Aunt Julie replied. “Wowwww,” Uncle Frank added.
The occasion appeared auspicious: A new outpost of Shun Lee, New York’s storied Chinese restaurant, had arrived. Mr. Cramer, 28, has been enjoying special occasion meals since he was a child at Shun Lee, a brand so embedded in the cultural history of the city that Shun Lee matchbooks dating to the 1960s are part of the permanent collection at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.
Mr. Cramer, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, arranged to schlep 40 minutes on the subway to his childhood apartment on the Upper West Side to order takeout.
But for Mr. Cramer’s family, as for other Shun Lee fans, elation quickly turned to confusion and even anger. The new Shun Lee is not the same as the venerated Shun Lee Palace, in Midtown, or Shun Lee West and Shun Lee Cafe, near Lincoln Center.
Though the Upper West Side Shun Lee is nearly as pricey as its forebears, its décor is less remarkable, and the service not nearly as doting. Most unforgivably, to Mr. Cramer at least: The menu at the Upper West Side Shun Lee, called Shun Lee 98th St, had no sign of some of the restaurant’s signature dishes, such as Ants Climb on Tree (stir-fried minced beef and cellophane noodles).
Where did this Shun Lee get off calling itself Shun Lee?
Mr. Cramer wasn’t the only suspicious Chinese food devotee in the neighborhood, and a cascade of drama followed.
News tips were leaked to the local press (email subject line: “Shun Lee 98th St — A FAKE”). There were whispers of potential lawsuits. Conspiracy theories and online debates ensued.
The intensity of the reaction, including his own, has surprised Mr. Cramer. “I definitely didn’t have ‘Shun Lee whistle-blower’ on my bingo board for this year,” he said.
‘A Deep, Emotional Connection’
Shun Lee West has long drawn celebrity diners. Here, filmmaker Ang Lee (center); his wife, biologist Jane Lin; screenwriter James Schamus (in bow tie); his wife, novelist Nancy Kricorian and their families share a meal in 1994.Credit…James Keyser for The New York Times
To understand how opening a new restaurant in a city of about 23,000 restaurants could blow up into an emotional imbroglio, it helps to know the entwined and intense history of Chinese food and the Upper West Side — particularly among the Jewish residents who have made the neighborhood home for generations.
“The Upper West Side is a ground zero of American Chinese food innovation,” said Jennifer 8. Lee, a former New York Times reporter and the author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.” She gave examples like Empire Szechuan’s Misa Chang, who helped to revolutionize food delivery in New York by coming up with the idea of slipping menus under apartment doors.
The connection between the Jews and the Chinese, Ms. Lee said, dates back more than a century, when they were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in New York, and Chinese restaurants provided a place to dine on Sundays and Christmas. As many in the Jewish community rose into the upper-middle classes, Shun Lee became a favored place for celebratory, upscale meals. The name, she noted, means “smooth success” or “swift success.”
“There is a deep, emotional connection to these restaurants,” she said, “and especially to Shun Lee.”
The Shun Lees date back more than 60 years. There was a restaurant bearing that name at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue and another at 91st Street and Broadway. A Chinese chef, T.T. Wang, worked at both establishments, and in 1965 he opened Shun Lee Dynasty on Second Avenue, with its upscale dining room and formal service.
Mr. Wang brought dishes to Midtown Manhattan that went beyond Americanized Cantonese cooking, introducing influences from different parts of China: Yangzhou, Shanghai and Sichuan. Shun Lee Dynasty “was considered the first to have a revolutionary impact on Chinese restaurants throughout the United States,” Craig Claiborne, The New York Times restaurant critic, wrote in 1983. “It was also the first Chinese restaurant in New York to be given four stars — the highest rating — by The New York Times.”
The restaurant’s manager was Michael Tong. He and Mr. Wang opened Shun Lee Palace in 1971 on East 55th Street, extending the reach of the high-end Chinese restaurant dining experience. It was followed in 1981 by Shun Lee West on West 65th Street; Shun Lee Cafe arrived next door in 1987.
Mr. Tong became the main proprietor of the restaurants. The restaurants flourished as celebrities, theatergoers and power-lunchers ordered chicken in lettuce wraps, and families planned special meals to celebrate b’nai mitzvah and birthdays, and to convene on Christmas.
Chicken With Three Different Nuts
Clockwise from top left: Shu mai from Shun Lee Palace and from Shun Lee 98th St; Beijing duck from Shun Lee 98th St and from Shun Lee West.
On the Upper West Side, word of a new Shun Lee was reported in January 2022 in The West Side Rag, a popular blog that has been covering community news since 2011. “We were all very excited to see a Shun Lee was coming to the neighborhood,” said Claudia Brown, a longtime resident. “Our only question was: How long is it going to take to open?”
It was nearly a year before a sign was mounted on the corner of Broadway and 98th Street. It said “Shun Lee Cafe,” using the same font and logo style as the longstanding Shun Lee restaurants. (Later, the management changed the name to Shun Lee 98th St, though the sign remains.)
It was in January of this year that Danny Cramer and his mother ordered a meal to go from Shun Lee 98th St. Because this Shun Lee didn’t have his favorite dish, Chicken With Three Different Nuts, they ordered fried pork dumplings and General Tso’s chicken.
The food was standard Chinese fare, he said, and the bill was expensive. It took only a few bites before he realized something was off. “I thought, ‘This can’t possibly be the same Shun Lee.’”
He looked up the phone number of Shun Lee 98th St and was perplexed to see that it wasn’t listed on the official Shun Lee website. So he called Shun Lee West.
Mr. Cramer said that the employee who answered the phone told him that the longstanding Shun Lees were upset with the Upper West Side Shun Lee, and they were consulting lawyers.
“It didn’t sound like I was the first person to call,” Mr. Cramer said.
Later that week, Mr. Cramer met up with a childhood friend and the friend’s relatives, including Ms. Brown, near the corner of West 98th and Broadway.
The Browns had just dined at Shun Lee 98th St and were also underwhelmed, Ms. Brown said in an interview. The décor was not what they had come to expect from a Shun Lee, and the service was terrible, she said.
Mr. Cramer told the Browns of his family’s experience, and he shared what he had been told when he called Shun Lee West.
Ms. Brown decided that this was information the neighborhood should know, so she emailed The West Side Rag.
Under the subject line “Shun Lee 98th St — A FAKE,” Ms. Brown wrote: “We were very skeptical about the new Shun Lee on Broadway — good food but really bad service and poor décor.” A friend, she added, “cut to the chase” and called Shun Lee on 65th Street and was told by an employee that they might be taking legal action.
The tip landed in the email inbox of Scott Etkin, who helps cover the openings and closings of local businesses. He called Shun Lee 98th St as well as a new Shun Lee Cafe that had recently opened on Third Avenue. “I felt like I was getting the runaround,” he said in an interview.
He also called Shun Lee West. The person who answered the phone told him the restaurant had sent a cease-and-desist letter to Shun Lee 98th St, he said. Later, Mr. Etkin wrote, “It appears that two imitation Shun Lee restaurants have opened,” adding that the new “restaurants use the same font and logo in their signage as the original Shun Lee, but they do not have the ornate interiors that Shun Lee is known for. These two locations do not appear on the Shun Lee website.”
Speculation ran rampant in The Rag’s comments section. “There is definitely much more to this story,” one reader surmised. This turned out to be an astute observation.
Jerry Jiang, the manager of Shun Lee 98th St, could not stomach the bad press. “We had to fight back,” he said, sitting at a table near a window with Peter Ye, the marketing manager of Shun Lee 98th St, as they discussed the situation.
The restaurant was a legitimate Shun Lee, and he had the receipts to prove it. They had even enlarged a boilerplate licensing agreement that gave the restaurant the legal right to use the name and displayed two copies in the windows facing Broadway and another in the restaurant’s reception area.
They also shared images of the agreement and The West Side Rag article on the Nextdoor neighborhood app. “For recent article about ‘Shun Lee Brand’ Stuff, please check this agreement,” the caption read. “We have the right to use the brand name.”
The Nextdoor post incited a wave of angry comments. “How is buying the right to use the name the same thing as being the same company?” one person wrote.
Bob Adler, a retired adman, summed up the situation. “People,” he wrote, “have lifelong expectations about Chinese restaurants.”
‘Does This Restaurant Belong to You?’
Andy Ho started working for Shun Lee Palace as a waiter in 1995. Now 63, he is the general manager of both Shun Lee Palace and Shun Lee West. Recently, he gave a tour of Shun Lee Palace’s dining room, as uniformed waiters scurried about, writing down lunch orders on slips of paper, using pencils to form tidy Chinese characters. He interrupted himself to greet a customer by name, leading him to his regular table. Then Mr. Ho showed off the wall of photographs of celebrity diners. Billy Joel, John Travolta, Joe Torre.
Like most restaurants situated in or near Manhattan’s commercial districts, business at the Shun Lees suffered during the pandemic. Though the restaurants’ to-go business has surged, at Shun Lee Palace on a recent Monday, only eight guests were there for lunch, in a dining room that seats 125.
Mr. Ho had agreed to meet with a reporter to try to dispel the confusion. “Customers have been calling,” about Shun Lee 98th St, he said, asking “‘Does this restaurant belong to you?’” They have “a lot of questions,” he said. “The food is different. It doesn’t come from Shun Lee.” By this he meant Shun Lee Palace, Shun Lee West or the Shun Lee Cafe on West 65th Street.
The confusion was understandable. On Friday, just a few days before, an employee at the Shun Lee Cafe on West 65th Street told a reporter that the Upper West Side restaurant had nothing to do with the others and that lawyers were getting involved.
But that same day, Mr. Ho said that no lawyers were involved and that, in fact, his boss — Bin Hu, a Shanghai businessman who had bought the Shun Lee restaurants in 2015 — had approved the use of the Shun Lee name by Shun Lee 98th St. “It’s a mess,” Mr. Ho said.
Three days later, Mr. Ho was more sanguine. “I talked to my boss over the weekend, and he said customers will know the difference, they will know the real Shun Lee.”
The idea to expand the reach of Shun Lee, to take advantage of low rents brought on by the pandemic, came from Sean Li, an accountant for Mr. Hu’s Shun Lee restaurants. Mr. Li suggested that they seek locations close to where Shun Lee diners live and provide a more casual experience.
But by July 2022, Mr. Hu decided he did not want to be involved in the new restaurant on the Upper West Side. He agreed to license the Shun Lee name and logo to Shun Lee 98th St at least until July 2023.
Clockwise from top left: Orange beef from Shun Lee Palace and from Shun Lee 98th St; steamed pork buns from Shun Lee 98th St and from Shun Lee Palace.
As proudly as Mr. Ho had shown off the aging celebrity photos in the established Shun Lee Palace, Mr. Jiang, the manager of Shun Lee 98th St, a few days later pointed to framed images set on each table that direct customers to post reviews on Yelp, Google and Facebook.
Mr. Jiang said that he and his management team were working to save the Shun Lee brand from obsolescence. “Their Yelp ratings are bad,” said Mr. Jiang, who pulls his hair into a ponytail and wears eyeglass frames without lenses.
Mr. Ye, the marketing manager, showed off stacks of customer surveys, many from satisfied diners. He took this job after initially being hired to try to get the staff of the older Shun Lees to modernize — through social media, computerized point-of-sale systems and customer surveys. “They didn’t want it,” Mr. Ye said. “They want to keep everything the same.”
The trouble is, many Shun Lee customers seem to want that too.
When Mr. Li and Mr. Jiang opened the new Upper West Side restaurant, they thought its name would be its greatest strength, Mr. Li said. Now they worry that the high expectations of New Yorkers could be Shun Lee 98th St’s downfall.
“It’s not what we expected,” Mr. Li said. “We may change the name.”