Like others before him, Bay Area restaurateur George Chen laments that Chinese cuisine isn’t taken more seriously in the U.S. “People have seen the same dishes for almost a century,” he points out. “Italian food has evolved so much from the old days — why not Chinese food?”
Chen is set to address this question in a big way with his next project, China Live, a 30,000-square-foot cafe, restaurant, bar and retail concept opening early next year in San Francisco’s historic Chinatown. The place sounds epic: Think Eataly, but for Chinese food. China Live will initially sprawl over the first two floors of former 1,000-seat dim sum hall Golden Mountain, on Broadway near Columbus Avenue, eventually adding a fourth-floor bar.
New York–based design firm AvroKO (known for projects such as Saxon & Parole and Gotham West Market in New York and Faith & Flower restaurant in Los Angeles) is creating the space, using materials that include Shanghai-made bricks and reclaimed elm sourced from China. A friend with a textiles degree from Yale is designing hip uniforms using classic materials such as indigo.
Two entrances are planned for the ground floor, one leading to a café area serving traditional Chinese teas, along with coffee, breakfast items like the savory crepes known as jian bing, and Chinese doughnuts, plus other snacks. The other will open onto a retail space specializing in unique Asian pantry items, including a dozen-plus soy sauces and organically grown California rice, along with spices, hard-to-find produce, books and cookware. A food hall with stations offering noodles, charcuterie, steamed dishes and other foods, prepared in full view behind glass walls, will occupy most of the ground floor.
Chen and his culinary team are importing many of the cooking stations from China, and he’s particularly excited to bring in the ceramic ovens known as wa guan tang, which the restaurateur describes as “kind of like Chinese tandoori ovens. They cook at a low temperature in a concave shape,” he explains. “You can roast; you can double boil soups. You’re getting that essential flavor; you’re getting that clear consommé broth without clouding up your stocks. In China, they’re usually used in more rural areas, where they have semi-open kitchens and there’s no hooding.”
On the second floor, Chen will flaunt the culinary skills he’s picked up on many recent jaunts to China and over a 30-year restaurant career that has included the James Beard–nominated Betelnut and mini chain Long Life Noodle Company, both now closed. China Live’s showcase restaurant, Eight Tables by George Chen, named for the Chinese lucky number, will offer eight-course tasting menus skewing both “classic” and “adventurous” to diners who reserve one of the restaurant’s eight tables.
Instead of the shared dishes we’ve all come to expect at Chinese restaurants, Eight Tables will present individual courses on custom-made china by the French company Legle, with new utensils for each dish. “It’s based on more of a banquet style of eating that was prevalent in China as far back as the Song dynasty, when people didn’t eat family style so much,” explains Chen, who is keenly interested in the history of Chinese imperial cuisine.
Whether diners opt for the classic option, which will cost around $175 a head, or the $225-ish-per-person adventurous menu, featuring ingredients like sea cucumber, fish maw, abalone, bird nests, snow frogs and exotic mushrooms (but no shark fin), they’ll enjoy a first course of “nine essentials flavors” that Chen has identified in Chinese cuisine, one-bite tidbits that will change seasonally.
“It will be some of the best high-end Chinese anywhere, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai,” promises Chen, who laments that the recently released Michelin guide didn’t give stars to a single Bay Area Chinese restaurant (unless you count Corey Lee’s Benu). “I have chefs coming from Shanghai and Taiwan to work under me. I will be wearing chefs’ whites and cooking,” he says.
The service will also set Eight Tables apart from most Chinese dining experiences. According to Chen, “It will be like coming to my home. We’ll push the bar cart up to you and make you a drink. Think Chinese traditional imperial-style service, with a lot of hands-on and some tableside service.”
Eight Tables will have an entrance from Kenneth Rexroth Alley at the back of the building, evoking a bit of that gritty Chinatown glamour from the days when stars like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin frequented the hood for its then-swinging nightlife. The front of the second-floor space, overlooking Broadway, will house a cocktail bar AvroKO is designing as a sort of retro-futuristic take on a classic Shanghai watering hole — Blade Runner meets vintage Shanghai, as an employee laughingly described it on my recent hard-hat tour. Behind that will be the Gold Mountain Lounge, serving as both overflow bar seating and a private event space. Eventually, a “sky bar” will open on the fourth floor, offering bottle service with a view.
China Live doesn’t have a dedicated cooking-school space, but the plan is to offer plenty of educational opportunities: Recipes from the café will be posted online, and there will be cooking demonstrations and tastings. “People are familiar with the ma,” says Chen. “It’s one of the distinguishing features of Sichuan cuisine.” (Think of ma la, that addictive spicy tingle induced by the Sichuan peppercorn.) “There are 30 different types of peppercorns, if you go to the Chengdu markets,” Chen points out. “We’re going to have different peppercorns that people can try. It’s going to be like Pop Rocks on their tongue.”