Excerpt from ‘Lost Restaurants of Baltimore’: Jimmy Wu’s New China Inn

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Two years ago, fellow food writer Suzanne Loudermilk and I set out on a journey to explore the stories behind the beloved restaurant’s of Baltimore’s past–places that were once hot spots but, over the years, shut their doors for one reason or another. The result was “Lost Restaurants of Baltimore,” which includes the tales of 35 of the most iconic restaurants from Baltimore’s past, from those that came and went in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to those that closed their doors just a few years ago.

Baltimoreans are a notoriously nostalgic bunch, so convincing local restaurant owners, chefs, wait staff and guests to share their memories was a fun experience. We heard stories of favorite dishes, of wild nights in kitchens and of famous faces in dining rooms. We include those stories–and more–in the book.

Below, we’ve shared one chapter from the book, the story of Jimmy Wu’s New China Inn, a N. Charles Street destination from the late 1940s through the early 1980s. Like many of the restaurants featured in the book, the New China Inn’s story has a little bit of everything. Inside the dining room, Jimmy Wu’s inviting personality was a dominant force, while outside the restaurant’s walls, Baltimorean’s tastes and attitudes rapidly evolved.

Jimmy Wu’s New China Inn
Chinese Food to Savor

According to an old tale, one night, in 1941, Jimmy Wu was dining alone in the China Inn, where he had just become a partial owner. After eating his meal, he opened a fortune cookie to find a promise: “You will have a long and successful life in Baltimore’s Chinese restaurant business. And you will be thought of fondly for it.” This story, which was shared by Baltimore Sun reporter and local historian Gilbert Sandler, might be too perfect to be true, but, even if it’s a nothing more than a tale once told by an aging restaurateur, it’s appropriate.

Jimmy Wu—whose full name was James Lem Fong Wu—was a Cantonese immigrant who moved to the United States when he was 14. Upon settling in Baltimore, Wu’s father worked in restaurant kitchens before opening an import shop on Mulberry Street in the city’s original Chinatown neighborhood.

Wu’s first foray into the restaurant business was in Chinatown proper—the area around Park Avenue and Mulberry Street. After graduating from City College high school in 1933, Wu began waiting tables at the China Inn, and, in the early 1940s, he became a partner in that establishment. Along the way, he got married to a woman named Jean, and, together, they had four children. In 1948, Wu opened a place of his own—the New China Inn—a few blocks to the north of the original China Inn.

Located on N. Charles Street near 25th Street, Jimmy Wu’s restaurant occupied several row houses. Inside, it had multiple dining rooms; some were formal and slightly over-the-top, and some were less so. The dining rooms had names like “Forbidden Quarters” and “Longevity Room,” and the decor included Chinese lanterns, scrolls and a green and red color scheme. Compared to other Chinese restaurants around town, Jimmy Wu’s was considered nicer, a place where customers didn’t feel out of place if they dressed up to dine. Of course, that was back when “a Chinese restaurant was considered swanky if the waiters didn’t wash down the Formica tabletops with the leftover tea,” Baltimore Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large mused in a 2003 column.

The drinks at Jimmy Wu’s were fun and tropical—the cocktail menu was pages and pages long—and if the food wasn’t always adventurous or perfectly prepared, at least it was predictable and comforting. “That was one of the first places I ate Chinese food,” recalled native Baltimorean Meg Fairfax Fielding. “It was so old-school Chinese. I’m sure it was really Americanized Chinese food, and I’m sure no Chinese person would recognize it now!” The service at the New China Inn was generally known as good, and Jimmy Wu himself was a standout. Even in the last days of the restaurant, he was a presence in the dining room, making his way from table to table, greeting guests.

Jimmy Wu’s was also the first Chinese restaurant to be reviewed in the Baltimore Sun. “This may not be the best Chinese restaurant,” wrote critic John Dorsey, “but it’s certainly the most popular.” Everybody may have gone to Jimmy Wu’s, but that doesn’t mean that it was taken seriously in the same way that American or French restaurants of the day were. That review didn’t run until 1971, more than 25 years after the restaurant opened.

In terms of food, Dorsey’s feedback was mixed. He said he liked the shrimp toast (“delicate and delightful”) and the egg rolls (“not too heavy”) but called the spareribs “inferior” and was disappointed to discover that they were pork ribs, not beef. He got some pushback, though, from Jimmy Wu’s fans. In the weeks after the review ran, the Letters to the Editor section was packed with people offering their own, more positive, take on the New China Inn’s food (and their less-than-positive thoughts about Dorsey’s expertise). “What kind of expert is your critic? A gourmet he is not,” wrote Elisabeth R. Gladding, a Baltimorean who described herself as an “enthusiastic customer of the China Inn since its founding.”

The restaurant ran frequent ads in The Sun that would raise eyebrows in modern times. Today, some of them would be perceived as outright racist; for example, a 1949 ad for Christmas dinner including the words, “Jimmy Wu says, ‘Melly Klistmas.'” Similar jokes were carried into the restaurant as well. A 1975 Sun restaurant review mentions that one of the bartenders was called “Won Long Pour” and that language like “Velly Sorry” could be seen on carry-out menus. Even then, critic Elizabeth Large called the angle “irritating humor.” Wu leaned into Asian stereotypes in his advertising, but he also touted the power of food to unite and bridge cultural gaps. “One language that anyone can understand is the universal language of good food,” said a 1947 Sun advertisement. Another ad from 1948 said, “From Shanghai to Chicago, from Tokio to Taneytown—Jimmy Wu’s New China
Inn in Baltimore is famous for fine food.”

Later, Wu opened carry-out shops on E. Cold Spring Lane and in Cockeysville. He was also an active member of the local Chinese community: He opened a Chinese language school, sponsored immigrants and volunteered with the Chinese Benevolent Association. Given the tenure of Jimmy Wu’s—it was open for nearly half a century—it’s not a surprise that diners’ tastes changed while it was in business. The New China Inn was innovative and educational in the 1940s, but, eventually, Baltimoreans grew savvier. In her 1975 review, Elizabeth Large wrote, “People are more sophisticated about Oriental food these days, but Jimmy Wu’s still does very well selling egg rolls and sweet and sour pork and chicken chow mein. Why change a good thing?” Despite this good review, by the early 1980s, the Cantonese style of Chinese cooking that Jimmy Wu’s specialized in was on its way out, in favor of the more modern, spicier Szechuan style.

The evolution in cuisine was part of a larger cultural shift, as new Chinese immigrants, many from the area around Peking, came to the United States starting in the 1970s after President Nixon opened diplomatic relations with China. These immigrants brought their cuisine with them and offered an alternative to the milder and more established Cantonese style of cooking. Initially, Jimmy Wu’s resisted the change, standing by the superiority of
Cantonese cuisine. Eventually, though, Wu caved to public opinion. In the early 1980s, he hired a Szechuan chef, Chen Kwan, and radically updated the menu. Even then, the restaurant took its conservative audience into account. “Jimmy Wu’s is a good place to start for those who want to be introduced gently to Szechuan food, who are nervous about dishes that contain whole hot peppers or who don’t think they’d like food flavored primarily with scallions, garlic, ginger and hot pepper flakes in oil,” wrote Large in a Baltimore Sun review that was published shortly after the new chef came to town. During that visit, Large noted that dining at the New China Inn “[was] a visit to the past, when Chinese restaurants were exotic, just slightly mysterious and gloriously gaudy with a touch of seediness.” At the same time, she acknowledged that Jimmy Wu’s had a reputation for serving “Americanized” cooking.

Jimmy Wu’s new focus on Szechuan cuisine didn’t last long. In 1983, the restaurant closed and a new concept, Szechuan Gourmet, opened in its space. At the time, Large called this change “typical of the city’s move away from old-fashioned food.” Jimmy Wu had a small share in Szechuan Gourmet, which was primarily owned by Paul Chao, but he had no major role in operations. For several years, Wu had suffered from health problems, and, when he announced the closing of his restaurant, he explained that, due to his age, he simply  couldn’t keep up with the work anymore. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much of an opportunity to enjoy his retirement; he died in early 1984.

Wu recognized his own impact, though. In 1982, he told the Baltimore Sun, “Life has been rewarding, has been interesting to me. And Baltimore, particularly, has been good to me. And I hope, in a way, I have contributed something to Baltimore all these years, in the way of serving people, introducing them to Chinese food, and helping to make Chinese food in the city of Baltimore.”

Reprinted from “Lost Restaurants of Baltimore” by Suzanne Loudermilk and Kit Waskom Pollard (Arcadia Publishing, 2019).

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