San Gabriel Hotels Usher New Phase in Chinese Dining

David R. Chan

Kung Pao Prawns. Photo by Opal.

Hotel dining isn’t generally an interesting topic of discussion. With a few notable exceptions, people dining in hotels usually don’t want to bother to look for someplace to eat after a tiring day of travel. Meanwhile, hotels are sometimes not particularly keen to operate on-premises restaurants, particularly if they don’t have conference facilities, but do so grudgingly to offer an option for weary guests.

In the context of Chinese-American communities, hotel dining has been historically non-existent because in Chinatowns new and old, hotels themselves have been largely non-existent. While Chinatowns have been a tourist attraction for well over a century, few tourists desired to secure rooms there. Those few lodging facilities that did open in Chinatowns during the 20th century were largely independent motels without many amenities, such as the Royal Pacific Motor Inn in San Francisco Chinatown and Moytel in Los Angeles Chinatown. With the plethora of local Chinese dining opportunities only steps away, the motels did not need to offer on-premises dining.

In the late 1960s, the Holiday Inn (converted to a Hilton in 2003) which opened on San Francisco’s Kearny Street made for an interesting exception. Even though it was physically located in Chinatown, the parcel of land on which the hotel was built was previously the site of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice and city jail, so it wasn’t functionally a part of Chinatown. When the hotel opened, it was christened the Holiday Inn Financial District, without reference to its Chinatown location. The hotel has never had a signature Chinese restaurant, still lacking a Chinese food option to this day.

Photo by Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

The third floor of the hotel contains the Chinese Culture Center, headquarters of the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco. The center was built as a concession to the local Chinese community who ardently fought the development of the hotel, believing the site should specifically be used for public housing or social services. Even after the Holiday Inn was completed and open for business in the 1970s, I still remember seeing red stenciled silhouettes of the hotel with “End The Inn” plastered all over Chinatown.

In the intervening decades, hotel chains largely avoided Chinese-American neighborhoods. Even with the suburbanization of these communities, full-scale, branded hotels were nowhere to be found in places like the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese residents depended on motels and smaller hotel brands to fill the lodging demand. It wasn’t until 2005 that the Hilton Los Angeles/San Gabriel opened, giving the region its first branded international hotel chain.

While the Hilton did include an on-premises dining facility, Trinity Restaurant, it didn’t add much to local Chinese dining. Trinity did not serve Chinese food at all during the week (only a pricey weekend Chinese buffet) and sat mostly empty — not surprising given its location at the epicenter of Chinese dining, Valley Boulevard. These days, Trinity Restaurant does offer a modest weekday Chinese lunch buffet, but like many hotel restaurants, it acts mostly as a default option for tired tourists.

For more than a decade, the Hilton Los Angeles/San Gabriel was the only international hotel chain in the San Gabriel Valley. Suddenly, however, hotel chains are moving into the area, triggered by a surge of tourists from Mainland China. Over the past year, a Holiday Inn in El Monte and a Sheraton in San Gabriel have opened; a Courtyard by Marriott in Monterey Park and a Hyatt in San Gabriel are under construction, and a Doubletree in Monterey Park is ready to break ground.

As part of company protocol, all of these international hotel chains will offer on-premises restaurants. But based on the initial two openings, these hotels will for the first time add to the local authentic dining stock of the Chinese community.

For example, the Holiday Inn El Monte, the first of these hotels to open, tapped an existing local Chinese restaurant, Tasty Choice, to anchor its dining options with a restaurant called Tasty Dining. Having a hotel establish a new branch of an existing Chinese restaurant isn’t a new idea; it’s been done numerous times by Las Vegas casino hotels, with success stories such as K & J Kitchen in the Rio, as well as stunning failures, such as Sea Harbour in Caesar’s Palace. Tasty Choice is one of the few Wuhan-style restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, a cuisine known for dry pots (hot pots without the broth) and hot dry noodles. The existing Tasty Choice, situated in one of the numerous Valley Boulevard strip malls, is not especially renown. Tasty Choice has labeled the new Tasty Dining location, admittedly rather upscale, as its “Flagship El Monte” location, which is quite humorous to Los Angeles oldtimers like me, since the only thing El Monte was previously known for was El Monte Legion Stadium, legendary site of Latino rock concerts in the 1950s and 1960s.

Photo by Opal.

Likewise, the Sheraton Los Angeles San Gabriel Hotel, the next to open, has clearly shown its intention to take Chinese dining seriously. Initially, the Sheraton was to be the site of the first U.S. branch of Ba Shu Feng, a famous Sichuan-based Chinese restaurant chain. Indeed, when the hotel opened earlier this year, the hotel’s website still implied that Ba Shu Feng had opened with it, and you could walk into its brightly lit, elegantly furnished dining room. In fact, Ba Shu Feng never materialized. But a few weeks ago, Opal, an upscale Cantonese restaurant, opened in its stead. The initial reviews have been outstanding, with its Peking duck already proclaimed by some to be among the best in the area. Combined with its large, beautiful dining room, Opal is likely to become an upscale destination restaurant of which the San Gabriel Valley can be proud.

With so many Chinese restaurants already in the San Gabriel Valley, it would not have surprised me to see these new hotels fade into the background without impacting the local Chinese restaurant scene. But it seems that these international hotel chains see value in adding to the scene with their own high-profile Chinese restaurants. “We know we are in an Asian community with many restaurants; however, Chinese food is a very generic term,” Sheraton Los Angeles San Gabriel Hotel general manager Wanda Chan told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “You see a lot of Chinese that is actually Shanghainese, Szechuan, the different types of Chinese food, but we found that Cantonese food, in particular, is very hard to find in this community at this level.”

I’m excited to see what the next hotel openings will bring.

"San Gabriel Hotels Usher New Phase in Chinese Dining" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.