A few Saturdays ago, I was surprised to find at least a dozen people milling around outside Nom Wah Tea Parlor, taking pictures and waiting for tables. On any other weekend, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Nom Wah, which celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year, has bragging rights as the oldest restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Situated on Doyers Street—a boomerang-shaped block once known as the Bloody Angle, for its history of gang killings—the dim-sum parlor is one of the neighborhood’s most popular destinations, especially among tourists, who line up for dumplings and “OG” eggrolls. But I was there just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking over the news, and Sinophobic paranoia was threatening Chinatown businesses across the country.
The persistence of the crowd was likely due to the media savvy of Wilson Tang, Nom Wah’s forty-one-year-old proprietor, who had been drumming up attention on Instagram. “There is no coronavirus bs here,” Tang captioned a post in February. “#Supportchinatown.” This wasn’t the first time the fate of the restaurant had been uncertain. Tang’s uncle Wally started working there in 1950, as a sixteen-year-old Chinese immigrant, and bought it in 1974. But by the time Wilson, a telegenic former investment banker, took over, in 2010, it had fallen into decline.
Wilson upgraded the kitchen and transitioned from cart service to a made-to-order à-la-carte menu, but he also preserved the dining room’s dated diner décor and the once red awning, which had faded to a dusty pink. Nom Wah became retro-chic—the perfect location for a Met Gala pre-party, in 2015 (the theme was China), and an Instagram darling. In the past four years, Tang has opened two outposts in Manhattan, one in Philadelphia, and three in Shenzhen, China.
On Sunday, March 15th, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all New York City restaurants to cease service, with the exception of takeout and delivery. By that point, several of the city’s dim-sum parlors had closed of their own accord. When I spoke to Wilson the following morning, he told me that he would offer takeout and delivery from the Nolita location but not from Chinatown; many of his employees there, he explained, are Chinese-Americans who live in intergenerational households and are fearful of spreading the virus to relatives. In Nolita, his staff is much smaller and skews younger and more diverse. The revenue from to-go orders wouldn’t even cover the labor it would take to fulfill them, but it was a way to use up inventory and “to wind down slowly and stop the bleeding.”
Nom Wah has seen an uptick in sales of merchandise and gift certificates since the shutdown, but that won’t help much, either. Still, Tang is better poised to weather the current moment than many others in the restaurant industry, which is in a state of panic and despair. In New York, restaurants are often forced to operate on razor-thin margins; without government assistance, many of them may never reopen. Tang’s uncle owns the building on Doyers Street, so he doesn’t have to worry about getting kicked out for failing to make rent. Taking his lead from “the big dogs,” like David Chang, he planned to pay his salaried employees at least through April, and his hourly employees at least through the end of the week. After that, he said, “we’ll play it by ear. We’re in survival mode.”
Asked about his neighbors in Chinatown, he sounded surprisingly optimistic. Small immigrant-run businesses tend to be “very resourceful and resilient,” he said. “They don’t have debt and they’re living within their means.” Nom Wah has survived for a century. The outposts in Shenzhen, which were closed for six weeks as the Chinese government fought COVID-19, reopened recently, and, so far, business hasn’t been bad. “Confidence in dining out is slowly building there,” Tang said. “Things are improving week by week.” ♦
Source: Thanks https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/30/the-oldest-restaurant-in-manhattans-chinatown-faces-the-coronavirus-shutdown