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Eat & Drink

The China House gets a makeover and the House of Chan endures on Eglinton

Posted by Rick McGinnis / March 29, 2010

China House TorontoOne of Jonathan Wise's earliest memories is running across the bridge by the entrance to the China House near his Forest Hill home and throwing a penny in the water. That bridge is still there, as is the papier mache tree in the dining room and the iconic neon sign, which is good, because Jonathan -- just returned to Toronto with his wife after 25 years working in the luxury hotel business -- is the new owner of the China House.

Every city probably had a version of the China House -- a mid-century modern take on Chinoiserie, with cocktail lounge curves painted lacquer red, murals of dragons and courtesans on the wall, keyhole doors and a sign in bold calligraphy strokes, lined in bright neon. The China House has it all, though according to Wise, most of it needed a good clean after 52 years in business.

China House Restaurant Toronto"This is it, baby," Wise says with obvious pride. "I would never be able to afford to redesign or copy this. It's impossible. It's a priceless room - you could not replicate it, and if you did, it wouldn't have the same patina or warmth or authenticity."

Chinese restaurants don't look like this anymore; for higher-end, sit-down eateries, the aesthetic is slicker, in a style that references minimalism and post-modernism. (The recently renovated Garden Gate -- aka "The Goof" -- in the Beaches is a fine example.) The style is pan-Asian, drawing on Japanese designers like Issey Miyake, Wong Kar-Wai films and Haruki Murakami novels, whereas old school places like the China House were products of a different world -- Charlie Chan films, Pearl S. Buck novels and the "green lady" paintings of Vladimir Tretchikoff.

China House Restaurant TorontoFor some reason, the stretch of Eglinton between Bathurst and the Allen Expressway has been kind to Chinese eateries like this, and while Jonathan Wise works to restore the China House, House of Chan just a block east has been doing business for 55 years, moving from traditional Americanized Cantonese food to steakhouse years ago, on a whim of its second of just three owners.

House of Chan menuHouse of Chan manager Peter Pau has been here for 30 years, and produces a menu from its earliest days, when the phone number had two letters and five numbers. Most of the specials, priced at between $2 and $3.50, aren't on the menu anymore -- dishes like Lichee Gai Kew ("baby chicken cubes with lichee fruit.")

Tastes have changed, he says. "Consumers are getting very smart. They know that North American Chinese food is not authentic Chinese food." He can't explain, however, why the two restaurants have survived, even become venerable, on this affluent, mostly Jewish, midtown strip, though he imagines that it goes back generations. "I think they grew up with it down in Kensington Market, with the Chinese nearby on Dundas," he muses, adding that this is just a theory.

House of ChanBack at the China House, Jonathan Wise says he doesn't intend to radically change the menu, beyond adding more vegetables, bringing back dim sum, putting healthier oils in the deep fryers, and banishing MSG. He knows that the ambiance of a place like the China House is priceless, and wants to provide service that's up to that standard, but judging from the reactions of regulars after being closed for just a few days, he's certain that the place could run for another 50 years. "I think people in Toronto are very supportive of things that are iconic, traditional, have historical relevance, and it's like the Field of Dreams thing - they ache for something historical."

China House Restaurant Toronto

Discussion

18 Comments

ian milne / March 29, 2010 at 11:15 am
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Great post... It truly is a gem of a room.
DS / March 29, 2010 at 11:41 am
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I hope the neon out front gets resurrected!
S / March 29, 2010 at 12:40 pm
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Many years ago, friends from out of province wanted a good steak in Toronto. They thought I was joking when I brought them to the House of Chan. They loved the steaks and have made a point dining there when visiting Toronto. Great service too.

Preserving China House makes so much sense. The interior is indeed worth saving as it has so much character. A new menu will bring in former diners and new ones too. Congrats to the new owners!

Great story.
Bubba / March 29, 2010 at 12:41 pm
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These are great places and should be preserved!
Yes / March 29, 2010 at 02:07 pm
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Two institutions that I hope will stick around forever. Good story.
MelS / March 29, 2010 at 02:52 pm
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So many times I've walked by this place. Next time Ima stop in!
Jeremy / March 29, 2010 at 06:24 pm
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Drive by every day on my way up to Vaughan via the Allen. This article has inspired me to try both.
Ken Wong / March 29, 2010 at 09:02 pm
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Thanks, Jonathan, for preserving it. A very important part of Toronto history!
mr. hood / March 30, 2010 at 03:51 am
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house of chan is awesome, got that old school feel to it right up to the coat check when you walk in!

love that place and all of its glory, share steaks rule 72oz steak for everyone!

china house is ok,
mr.miner / March 30, 2010 at 11:03 am
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thank u mr.hood.
Jackie / April 18, 2010 at 11:58 pm
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I decided to go to china house to check out the new changes.
cosmetic: the inside is brighter, you can see some minor changes (I did not check out the bathroom)

food: I am going with the old saying, if it is not broke do not fix it. well, guess Wise never heard that since the change caused the food to be flavorless, portion size became very small & removing of some of my fav dishes.

I do not know what Wise's background is but he in our time there,he gave preferred treatment to his friends (in the time sitting there: he had competed about 3 bottle of wine & pushed his friends to the front of the line for seats and he would pull waiters from table to go pay attention to them.)

In essence, we got ignored, our food was room temp, we got the wrong dish, had to ask for our pops about four times and had to remind them about half our order.

but we were not the only one, the table next to us, also took forever to get a table, then forever for the order to be taken.

It made me mad that he would ignore the normal customer

They place also was under staffed since our waiter was so being pulled so many places he was shaking.

yes, I understand some growing pains have to occur but really, he should have just come in cosmetic changes and just left it run on its own since what he is doing might kill the place.

I will go back and try it again, in a 3-6 months when the things have settled down but at this moment it is not the same.

I love the place I have so many memories of going there is why I am so critical of it.
Mark / May 1, 2010 at 09:34 pm
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I have been going to the House of Chan for five years now, any they have yet to disappoint. I have gazed over at China House many times over the years, but the dismal exterior has always turned me away. To tell the truth the two restaurants never seemed comparable. While Chan has always been a high class restaurant, China House has always seemed like a place to take your blind grandmother (however I had heard that the food was decent). Once I heard of the new ownership and caught a glimpse of the newly renovated China House I decided it was definitely time to give the place a try. My girlfriend and I decided to spend our thursday date there. When we first walked in we were very impressed with the the decor, however, that was sadly the end of our enjoyment. The service was slow, and the the food was tasteless. I'm a person that prefers quality to quantity, and unfortunately China House provided neither. The portions were far to small and the flavor was nowhere to be found. The overall experience was disappointing. The worst thing about the whole situation is that I didn't give my business that night to Chan which has been so great over the years. Chan has and will continue to be my "restaurant to impress."

THANKS CHAN

Louise / December 30, 2010 at 01:41 pm
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I have recently started going to China House and yes there were some growing pains in the beginning but since then, we have been back 4 times and had great service and really good food.

We seem to get there a lot on Thursday nights which is Jazz night and a great night out from the kids.
Mark / December 30, 2010 at 10:24 pm
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China House is no doubt a nice restaurant, but it will never compare to House of Chan.
andree / July 7, 2011 at 05:18 pm
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I guess its inevitable that people would compare the House of Chan to china house but they are two completely different chinese restaurants and the truth of the matter for our family is that we prefer China House for many reasons:
1. Kitsch - walking into china house is like walking onto a movie set of how an authentic chinese restaurant (in north america) should be.
2. Food - Overall the food is super tasty and the lobster is excellent and affordable. Much more affordable and just as good as House of Chan.
3. Jazz - The jazz that we have been fortunate to catch there has been incredible. I don't know a lot of other Chinese restaurants that offer Jazz nights...
4. Overall value - You get a way better bang for you buck at China House.

So root-a-toot-toot for China House!

Ian Milne / July 8, 2011 at 01:21 am
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Andree, odd that you should root for China House today - the announcement of it's closing was posted in the Globe And Mail today.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/china-house-dining-room-closed-by-condo-build/article2088777/
M Murphy / April 28, 2012 at 11:55 am
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I grew up right across the street. Our family had been going to China house since Alec opened it. He and his family were very nice people...always warm and friendly.... I have very fond memories of everyone who worked there and my favorite waiter was "Stanley"......as a little boy growing up he always had a joke and kept everyone laughing. One of the nicest people I have ever come across in my life , and Im 50 now. Thats a long time ago. lol All the staff at China House and House of Chan were the nicest people . My mother always preferred China House, so we mostly went there to dine. But everyone always knew that China house and House of Chan were the best places to go for a very enjoyable dinner and evening out. I hope all the past owners,employees and their families are doing well.

Thank You for the fond memories

M Murphy
Murphy's Hardware
Marc Bernstein / December 4, 2013 at 02:29 pm
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Jonathan Wise ruined China House.
He turned it into a cheap,unfriendly place,the food was barely a shadow of what I remembered,take out was very poor.
Too bad,but Mr Wise never cared about long time patrons of China House,which is why it closed.

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