Kathy Chin Leong
The Empress Returns: Chinatown’s Legendary Icon Transformed, Slated for June Opening
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
The question is: Will Chef Ho Chee Boon be able to pull it off? Will he be able to recreate the glory days of the Chinese banquet era in Chinatown? This June, Empress by Boon will debut, not just as another restaurant, but as a glamorous culinary destination with thoughtfully curated, contemporary Chinese entrees presented on hand-crafted earthenware.
The international chef and part owner (with several investors) seems to have spared no expense. The restaurant owns an organic farm in Gilroy for exclusive use. Boon appointed a London interior design firm to commission custom furnishings, artwork, paint colors, and tiles. Even the choice of restroom mirrors have been labored over.
To enter, guests board the elevator to the top level, Floor 5. Upon stepping out, visitors enter another world with contemporary Chinese motifs mixed with ancient relics. Anchoring the center is a show-stopping wooden octagonal pavilion, a lounge and bar, and a dining room with private spaces for groups.
Empress by Boon occupies the space of the legendary Empress of China which closed after 48 successful years. Until now, the 7,500-square-foot entity has sat empty on Grant Avenue since 2014. The original Empress hosted celebrations and family association dinners for nearly fifty years. In the downstairs lobby, the previous owners posted black and white photos of movie stars, politicians, and celebrities who wined and dined there. At least 500 could be seated comfortably in one banquet room. Large events would be reserved at least one year in advance. My baby sister Sally celebrated her big night at the Empress, truly the most prestigious hotspot for marriage festivities in Chinatown in 2001.
For Bay Area Chinese, the Empress of China pulsates with memories of red egg and ginger parties, graduation celebrations, and too many weddings to count. My friend Tyler and his new wife Annie booked their banquet at The Empress with hundreds of well wishers in attendance. That summer night in 1988, we experienced an earthquake right there on the fifth floor. I remember distinctly that we were sitting by the window. We saw and heard the panes rattle. After awkward laughter from all the guests and following the second after shock, we relaxed and raised our glasses, toasting Tyler and Annie with a hearty, “Yum bui!”
I recently met Mr. Boon, an international chef with Michelin-starred credentials. He’s opened fine dining establishments in New York, Moscow, Bangkok, and London. He has concocted meals for the president of China and his peers. This new restaurant will feature a rotating menu, serving up fresh and seasonal entrees, he explains. Empress by Boon will have access to a private farm in Gilroy for produce.
While the new Empress will support banquets in its downstairs facility, guests can choose to go off-the-grid when it comes to tradition. Typical Chinese banquets feature giant platters of food, served family style, with specific dishes for good luck. According to Boon, guests can opt for an American dining style with individual plated courses delivered by the wait staff. What? No jockeying for the last cube of beef steak in the center of the lazy susan?
Boon also notes that another banquet option features dining stations with chefs positioned at each one. For instance, the Peking duck area will have a chef slicing the duck while the dessert chef at another station will be dishing out sweet treats.
The new enterprise was originally set to open in 2020, but the pandemic put everything on hold until now. Ready to serve is a professional team of staffers including a general manager, a full-time pastry chef, events coordinator, wine expert, bar manager, to name a few. Before it offers a la carte entrees, the restaurant will begin with a prix fixe menu at $68 and up. With an enticing wine list and signature cocktails, Empress by Boon intends to also lure in professionals who want to get a drink after work hours. “I want to provide a positive contribution for the people of this great city that I love so dearly, and those who visit San Francisco for work or leisure,” said Chef Ho in a recent press release. “Cooking for people brings me the most joy in life, and I’ve missed it dearly this past year. I can’t wait to share my vision and to bring new joy and excitement to Chinatown and the Empress.”
Empress by Boon is located at 838 Grant Avenue (between Washington and Clay streets).
Reservations can be booked via OpenTable or by calling 415.757.0728.