“Does it feel like Jing Fung for you is here?” It’s one of the first things Truman Lamm orders, standing in the restaurant’s new, smaller dining room on the edge of Chinatown and Soho. Nearby, two stone dragons and a golden phoenix—previously located at the entrance to a dim sum restaurant and on the second floor, respectively—act as a reminder of their four decades on Elizabeth Street. “It’s not really a party hall, but we want people to still feel like they’re in Jing Fung,” he says.
Almost a year after Jing Fong permanently closed the dining room, the popular dim sum spot will be back on December 8 at 202 Center Street, between Hester and Grand Streets. The restaurant, considered the largest dim sum hall in Manhattan’s Chinatown, now operates from a much smaller space, with much of the menu and furniture remaining the same, but the outside signage has been modified slightly to match the new digs.
“The sign was saying ‘Great Jingfong Restaurant’ in Chinese,” according to Lam, the 37-year-old owner of the restaurant, who is a third generation. “We have the same sign here, but we’ve removed the word ‘big’.”
At around 100 seats, the new restaurant isn’t tiny, but it’s a far cry from its previous 800-seat home on Elizabeth Street. What used to be a multisensory dining experience, perhaps for hours on end—arriving early, or waiting in lines fit for Disney; take the elevator upstairs; Watching dim sums roaming the room – now mostly about food.
“I’m a little nervous,” admits Lahm. “Did people come to Jingfung for the food, or because the ambiance is too great?” He’s about to find out.
Jing Fong will be open for takeout and delivery to begin, as the kitchen staff – nearly all of whom worked at the restaurant’s previous location – settle into the new space. Lamm says indoor dining could follow as early as next week, although dim sum carts are not initially expected. “We want to make carts somehow, but given the size of the space, we’re not sure if that makes sense yet,” says Lamm.
The dim sum cart team at the restaurant might come back to Earth in a limited fashion — “maybe three or four of them,” he says — and maybe only on weekends.
For now, dining will likely look more like dinner at Jing Fong on Elizabeth Street, where customers who ordered menus and har gao orders were steamed on demand, rather than plucked from mobile carts. The restaurant’s menu of crispy chicken and fried noodles has remained mostly the same, although some items have been tweaked in an effort to “update” this latest version of the decades-old establishment, according to Lam.
“We’re not trying to be a high-end restaurant,” he says. “We’re still acting casual, but we’re trying to move forward in that direction without being arrogant.” A short list of new dishes – crispy crab rice, silken tofu with eggs – are geared toward sit-down service, while some items, including the lava cakes, now dyed black with squid ink, were modified ahead of opening.
Jing Fong, which opened in 1978 and moved into his former two-story home on Elizabeth Street in 1992, has been largely recognized as the largest dim sum hall in Manhattan’s Chinatown. When the sprawling room wasn’t full of diners seated at round tables sharing dumplings and roast duck, the space was often used to host weddings and large events. The restaurant’s size owes in part to its citywide reputation, according to Lamm, along with its downfall during the pandemic.
A month before the coronavirus was discovered in New York state, Lam remembers going upstairs and counting 36 customers in Jingfong’s 794-seater dining room. “I had more employees there than customers that day,” he says. It was decided to close on weekdays as a cost-cutting measure and only open on weekends. When former Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that gatherings of more than 500 people were banned a month later, “that was the case,” Lam says. The restaurant closed its dining room on March 10, 2020.
Before the closure, Jing Fong’s union employees protested the restaurant’s closure, and demanded that owner Jonathan Chu find a way to keep the Chinatown establishment open. Nearly a year later, they continue to congregate outside the Museum of Chinese in America, across the street from the new Jing Fong, where Chu sits on the board of directors.
“Jingfong’s closure highlights the displacement pressures experienced by many older commercial and residential tenants in Chinatown and the Lower East Side,” 318 Restaurant Workers’ Union said in a statement addressing the opening. “For this very reason, the former workers of Jingfung will remain in the picket queues as long as the Zhou family reopens the Jingfong dining room.”
Lam said the popular Chinatown restaurant left about 130 workers in total after closing its Elizabeth Street location, about 70 of whom were members of the 318 restaurant workers union. He plans to hire about 15 union employees when the restaurant opens for indoor dining, given its small size, he said.
The Center Street space, once home to Chinese Red Egg, appeared on Lam’s radar last year, before he made the decision to permanently close Jing Fong. (The restaurant’s smaller Upper West Side location has remained open through most of the pandemic.) “Some might argue this doesn’t count as Chinatown,” Lamm says of the Center Street restaurant, but it’s close enough. There are still a lot of Chinese walking around here, and that gives us better access to Soho customers and tourists.”
Jing Fong is open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.