How Chinese Restaurants Conquered Christmas
In 2019, the year Keegan Fong opened Woon, he decided he would close the HiFi restaurant on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. When he reopened on December 26, he was slammed for four straight days. Many of his Jewish customers asked, "Why weren't you open on Christmas?!" That was when Fong realized how important the ritual of eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas was, and not just for Jews.
The tradition probably originated in Manhattan, where Jewish and Chinese immigrants clustered in neighborhoods near each other. Rabbi Joshua Plaut also theorizes in his book, A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis The Season To Be Jewish, that because neither culture celebrates the holiday, they're "outsiders" on Christmas" so there's an inherent affinity there. Plus, Chinese restaurants tend to stay open every day of the year, holidays be damned. Whatever initially drew diners to Chinese restaurants on Christmas, they've become a beloved destination for holiday feasts on both coasts, and everywhere in between.
Henry's Cuisine in Alhambra is one of those Chinese restaurants that seems like it never closes. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the restaurant had stayed open 365 days a year since debuting in 2014.
"Before the pandemic, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, one table can do four rounds [of seating]," says Henry Tu, one of the restaurant's founders. During dinner service, which ran from 4:30 to 11 p.m., each table was turned over roughly every 1.5 hours for a new party.
He thinks that because Henry's Cuisine has a higher price point compared to other Chinese restaurants in the area, it does better around the holidays than on other days. "On holidays, people don't care about spending $30 to $50 more," Tu says.
Genghis Cohen on Fairfax was opened in 1983 by Allan Rinde, a transplanted New York Jew who missed the kind of Chinese food he had grown up eating. The spot earned a loyal following among people who felt the same way. When Marc Rose and Med Abrous took over the joint in 2015, they knew to expect the holiday crowd.
"Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we make the joke that it's our Super Bowl. It's extremely busy, and people rely on us to be there for them," Rose says. At Genghis Cohen, both dates are hopping for dine-in and takeout. Christmas Day probably sees a bump in dine-in reservations.
"People make reservations almost a year in advance. When they walk out of the restaurant on Christmas Day, they make a reservation for the next year," Abrous says.
Last year was probably the first Christmas in Genghis Cohen's nearly three decades of existence that the dining room wasn't open, although they still did a brisk business in takeout and delivery.
"It was hard to gauge how much business we would do and, quite frankly, we were somewhat overwhelmed because there were so many people who were trying to pick up and deliver," Rose recalls.
Despite the pandemic, other Chinese restaurants were also slammed with takeout orders last Christmas. Chef Lupe Liang, the owner of Hop Woo in Chinatown (not to be confused with Hop Woo in West L.A., which Liang opened but later sold), recalled they were almost as busy during the 2020 holiday season as they had been in previous years. Fong, who now keeps Woon open on the holiday, also confirmed that last Christmas was the busiest night the restaurant has ever had. "We had pre-orders pretty much every five minutes from open to close," he says.
Going out for Chinese food on Christmas may have started as a New York Jewish tradition but it has crossed cultures. The large portions and shareable dishes at Chinese restaurants are great for gatherings. Genghis Cohen's No Name Duck and the whole lobster at Henry's Cuisine are favorites among holiday diners. At Hop Woo, customers come for the eight-course turkey feast, which Liang has been serving for more than a decade during the holiday season. Featuring noodles in turkey soup, turkey curry and minced turkey in lettuce cups, the meal feeds up to 10 people. At $158, that's a good deal.
The owners of Hop Woo and Henry's Cuisine's say they see more non-Asian customers around Christmas than they do the rest of the year, but that doesn’t mean only white customers are showing up. They also serve a significant number of Chinese, Korean and Latino diners during this period.
"We see many of our long-time customers during this time," says Nick Chang, the Vice President of the Phoenix Food & Dessert chain, which has a number of full service restaurants and dessert shops, from Garden Grove to Rowland Heights. "Some of them have even made it a family tradition to dine with us on Christmas, which makes it more important that we stay open for the holidays."
"Over the course of a hundred years, now we don't feel like it's a specific cultural thing tied to Jewish people or New Yorkers for that matter," Rose of Genghis Cohen says. "We feel like it's become almost an American way of Christmas. If you're not with your family, not having a big gathering inside your house, you go out to eat. And Chinese American food, specifically, has become synonymous with that day and how people celebrate."