After reading about the renovation of the 90-year-old Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Chinatown's Doyers Street, I went in for a meal with great trepidation. How many times have we seen the character of a beloved, decades-old restaurant destroyed by new owners in their zeal for wealth, acclaim, and the chance to civilize a piece of the city's untamed soul?
I am very happy to say this is not the case at the newly reopened Nom Wah.
Wilson Tang, nephew of long-time owner Wally Tang, has achieved what few, if any, young New York restaurateurs scarcely dare to envision--the faithful updating of a landmark that not only preserves the soul of the place, but provides a fresh atmosphere in which that soul can expand.
What was recently a haphazard space, where bags of rice slumped on the floor and flies buzzed in the air, now makes sense. The tables, chairs, and booths seem to be the same as before--still patched and listing--but they are orderly.
The china dishes aren't the old dishes, but they look like they could be--and not like new dishes trying to look old. The tables are covered with plastic red and white checkerboard cloths that you'll remember always having been there, even though they weren't. The same plants stand in their pots, only now they've been watered and stand taller.
The tea tins that for eons stood stacked on shelves are still there, but now they've been dusted and shined. The walls have been painted and decorated with framed newspaper and magazine clippings, along with photos, from the restaurant's history. There are no hipster faux-Asian posters on the walls.
It's all a warm, and better lighted, embrace of everything that came before. Even their Facebook page celebrates the place and its history.
The waitresses are Chinese and speak little English. Many of them are well past 25 years old. None of them are blonde girls from Wisconsin in ironic leg warmers, and none are mustachioed Williamsburg guys in ironic Charlie Chan t-shirts.
As for the food, I don't really care about food, but I can tell you that I ate it, enjoyed it, and didn't feel ripped off by the price. The menu exhibits no pretensions about being "artisanal" and makes no boasts about creating "exciting riffs" on the classics. These are the actual classics. A spring roll is just a spring roll--it's not Pistachio-Infused, "Hand-Rolled," nor Stuffed with Fresh Maine Lobster and Duck Confit, and it certainly isn't Drizzled with anything citrusy, truffly, or olive oily.
Nom Wah's authentically welcoming (and affordable) atmosphere attracts a diverse clientele. I saw many tables full of young and old Chinese people, a large African-American family, a couple of white Midwesty tourists in their 70s, some Upper West Side-looking ladies (the older, Jewisher kind), and maybe half a dozen bespectacled Brooklyn sorts.
Nobody was screaming into a cell phone. No music was being piped in. The newly installed TV was thankfully turned off.
It feels like some wonderful, alternate, former New York in this place.
Once inside, you won't want to leave--and nobody will push you out. Wilson Tang and his employees encourage you to linger, take your time. There is no hurry here. Tang is eager to ensure your happiness and visits every table. If you tell him you love what he did with the place, he will proudly beam.
The new Nom Wah is what you hope for every old New York restaurant. It shows what could have, and should have, been done for the Fedora and Minetta Tavern, for the Beatrice Inn, and too many others. It's what I pray could happen for Manganaro's. It's in league with Eisenberg's, where the new owner's touch was light and cautious, filled with love for history and respect for continuity--along with good business sense.
For everyone who insists that places like Nom Wah need to "change with the times" in order to survive, here is your answer for how it can be done. This is what can happen when the new generation values the old, rather than being hellbent on destroying it.
Go to Nom Wah whenever you need to have your faith in this city's future restored. (And pray it stays this way for a long time.)