I first learned about the Chinese Rathskeller from my friend Randall Quan after noticing the restaurant’s menu on his table. Randall’s great grandfather, Quan Wei opened the restaurant at 45 Mott in 1939 where it stood for 40 years. “Rathskeller,” the German word for a tavern below street level, was a nod to Wei’s old employers, a German couple who ran an export business in China. After his death in 1943, his son, Randall’s grandfather, Quan Chew became the proprietor.
During my research and discussions with Randall, it became apparent that the Chinese Rathskeller played a role in multiple, intertwined stories of migration, food, and the built environment. The restaurant is, of course, crucial in the history of the Quan family, and their lives and livelihood. This story, however, is best left for Randall to tell, a project he is already undertaking. The Chinese Rathskeller was also part of food culture in New York City and — judging from the number of appearances it made in The New York Times food section in the 1940s and 1950s — a favorite of former food editor Jane Nickerson (a topic which will be addressed in Part II). Additionally, it was a long standing figure in the cityscape of Chinatown, its presence documented in photos and mentions.
Family photos of Quan Chew shared by Randall offer a glimpse into the lives of the Quan family and life at the Chinese Rathskeller. In a snapshot from the 1940s, Quan Chew stands smiling outside the restaurant, a handful of staff members behind him and a few others to the left. In another from the 1950s, he sits with three customers in a booth, the table full of serving platters and dishes.
Moving from Randall’s family photos, intimate and personal, to photojournalistic images of Mott Street, wider in vista and broader in subject, I noticed that the Chinese Rathskeller’s signboard was an ever-present feature of the streetscape.
Standing almost two stories high and cantilevered outward from the building’s facade, the sign not only announced the restaurant’s location, but most likely oriented residents, visitors and tourists alike, anchoring their mental geography as they moved down Mott or turned south from Bayard or north from Pell.
Anyone who has lived in New York City for any amount of time can sincerely say: I remember when this was another store, another restaurant, something all together different. In this common utterance buildings become material and commercial palimpsests, and everyday landmarks—whether individual, familial, or communal—are scrapped and reconfigured. The built environment changes and historical traces are steadily buried, our personal memories of physical streetscapes, so integral to a sense of space, are altered or lost all together.
After The Chinese Rathskeller closed 1979, Hunan House took over the space an occupied 45 Mott for twenty years. After that, 45 Mott has housed Green Tea Café upstairs and Galaxy 45 Karaoke bar below. Currently Cha Chan Tang is at street level, and Andy’s Pool Hall downstairs. The sign still remains attached to the building, but now announces the business at 39 Mott Street, Chung Chou City.