Chinatown’s New Culinary Destination is the Essence of Old Gold MountainAuthor:Annette Hanami
It may have been serendipity that brought the perfect space for the new 20,000 plus square-foot Chinese culinary destination China Live to creator and founder George Chen, not only for its prime location, but for its legacy as the former Gold Mountain Restaurant. Since the 19th century, Chinese have called San Francisco Old Gold Mountain because the city was built on the prosperity of the Gold Rush. Today, this native son of San Francisco and Co-Founders Cindy Wong-Chen and Managing Partner Richard Miyashiro want to lure visitors to the richness of Chinese cuisine but in a uniquely San Francisco way, the Chinatown way. The team hired James Beard award-winning design and concept firm AvroKO to help realize the vision, taking them on an inspirational tour through China which is captured in these images.
Chen wants visitors to explore real Chinese food in all its glory from the visceral experience of a market-restaurant to the elegance of fine dining. Chen has wanted for years to have a market-restaurant that is common throughout Asia, eateries that are literally in the market and draw upon the flavors of the local ingredients, as well as attract the curiosity of adventurous eaters. Think of having sushi for breakfast at Tsukiji Market or crepes in a Singapore hawker center. The China Live team wants to create that same sense of excitement and discovery of Chinese ingredients, techniques and cuisine but in a more approachable format compared to wading through the tiny stalls and unfamiliar aromas of Grant or Broadway, where language is sometimes a barrier.
To create an authentic ambiance, the team looked to China because in many ways, SF Chinatown, the country’s oldest Chinatown dating back to the mid-19th century, harkens to the old country. But the interpretation is never literal. AvroKO is brilliant at designing authentic spaces with a modern aesthetic, a process that begins with a deep respect for the history of a place. In China Live’s case, it covers a continuum of history, as they also incorporate elements of the ca. 1980s era of the current building in the design.
A Gateway to SF Chinatown
China Live isn’t meant to be a one-stop Chinese experience, it’s meant to be the first stop. As AvroKO Senior Designer Andrew Lieberman said about the design, the objective was to “create a roadmap to Chinatown. To learn here, then go off and explore.”
On the first floor, there’s a friendly cafe for coffee, teas and Asian pastries. The main spaces are a 5,000 square-foot retail market and an adjacent 155-seat market-restaurant, both designed for interactive, educational experiences. As AvroKO partner Greg Bradshaw put it, the first floor is about the “palate, the feel, the energy”, so both spaces are very open with low profile interior counters, exhibition kitchens and communal tables that create an atmosphere of transparency and dialogue.
Setting a calm backdrop against the energy of the marketplace are natural elements of wood and clay, such as use of Shanghai bricks in a range of sizes and neutral hues of blues and grays that Lieberman said was so pervasive in China. The existing concrete struts on the ceiling are being left bare to give context to the ca. 1980s building designed by Philip Choy, but in a contemporary way.
The retail side will feature unique Chinese products such as condiments, spices, produce and house-cured meats supplemented with tasting tables and trained guides to lead visitors through the nuance of say, scores of different types of soy sauce, or how green peppercorns are different than red. There are initially seven stations in the retail market but the space is designed to provide the utmost flexibility to move or add stations for seasonality or demand.
Creating a comfortable approach to Chinese food in the market-restaurant, China Live will feature five exhibition kitchens serving up the familiar and popular: dim sum and dumplings, noodles, BBQ, seafood and rice and seasonal vegetables. In addition to communal tables, there will be plenty of counter seating at the demo kitchens to observe cooking techniques up close.
Distinct Spaces, Distinct Feel
China Live won’t be one big emporium of Chinese food. The first floor is lively and interactive, the second floor, more intriguing with references to old Chinatown but with San Francisco style, a style that Bradshaw describes as “very clean, not overly-designed, …timeless.”
The second floor will contain a stylish bar, lounge and private event space, and the 40-seat fine dining restaurant Eight Tables by George Chen. References to old Chinatown in the restaurant are everywhere including the lucky number eight, the private back alley entrance and enclosed tables that recall the dark paneled booths of the old Far East Cafe. The seasonal 12-course tasting menu is modelled after the sequencing of dishes in a traditional Chinese banquet. Beyond that, the restaurant is pure San Francisco elegance with a more open design and muted palette. Chen said there would be no primary colors in the dining room interiors, “only on the plate.” The professional kitchen will be world-class, producing a bold, innovative interpretation of Chinese cuisine that is the team’s legacy from restaurants such as Hakkasan and Shanghai 1930.
A San Francisco Destination
In addition to the main China Live spaces, the team is developing plans for the rooftop which has a breathtaking, jaw-dropping 360-degree view that would make even a native San Franciscan already spoiled by gorgeous views just gasp. This space is expected to be completed 6-9 months after the opening of China Live and promises to be a destination in itself.
China Live’s location near Grant and Broadway in some ways represents a bookend to the old Chinatown Gate at Grant and Bush, creating a cultural path of Chinese experiences from then to now, to China Live.
China Live is scheduled to open February 2015 in time for Chinese New Year. 644-660 Broadway Street, SF
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