The West Lake Restaurant: Chinese Way Before It Was Cool

Today, Westport is awash in Asian restaurants. There’s Little Kitchen, Tengda, Rainbow Thai, Matsu Sushi, Shanghai Gourmet, Tiger Bowl, Westport Chinese Takeout, and probably others I’ve missed.

In the 1950s, though — and continuing for more than 25 years – our choices were limited. There was West Lake and Golden House.

Golden House was located in Compo Shopping Center — where Little Kitchen is now, interestingly.

West Lake was on Main Street, near the Post Road. Today it’s a retail outlet. But for many years, Westporters thought it was one of the most exotic restaurants around.

The West Lake restaurant (left) in 1976, a year after it closed. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

The West Lake restaurant (left) in 1976, a year after it closed. The stores next to it — Liverpool and Welch’s Hardware — are also long gone. The Westport Y’s Bedford building is on the opposite side of Main Street. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

West Lake lives on in memory. Now — thanks to Elizabeth Lee (granddaughter of the owners) and her cousin Beverly Au — it also lives on in a website.

West Lake Restaurant is a fascinating look — in words and photos — at long-gone Westport. It describes its founding in 1950 by Eddie and Frances Lee, as the 1st Chinese restaurant in Fairfield County.

West Lake, circa 1965.

West Lake, circa 1965 (back view, from Parker Harding Plaza).

West Lake took over the bankrupt Talley-Ho Tavern, which featured a grand piano with lounge singers. Because Parker Harding Plaza had not yet been built, a dock ramp led from the back door straight down to the Saugatuck River.

The Cantonese menu was “probably too far ahead of its time,” the website says. “When the cheaper and more common Chop Suey and Fried Rice style competitors opened, many patrons went to them.” (In deference to diners who did not eat Chinese food, in the beginning West Lake served steak and potatoes.)

The regulars came every week or so. Eddie Lee knew them all by name. Famous regulars included Paul Newman and Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas. Mariette Hartley was a hostess there, while a student at Staples. She told Frances Lee, “I’m going to be an actress!”

The Lees met at NYU. Eddie majored in banking and finance. They married in 1930. He climbed the banking ladder, in the US, China and Hong Kong. In 1942 the Lees and their children were repatriated to the US in a diplomatic exchange.

But Eddie could not find a job in banking. After working for a tool company, he opened his restaurant in Westport.

Eddie Lee with customers. A brave woman gingerly tries chopsticks.

Eddie Lee with customers. A brave man and woman gingerly try chopsticks.

The average chef lasted 8 months, the website says. Though the waiters and waitresses stayed much longer, there was a rapid turnover among the cooks and dishwashers. They spoke only Chinese, and rarely mixed with Americans.

They lived above the restaurant, in barracks. “Every bed seemed to have a tiny nightstand with a fancy camera,” the website says. “They toured the country by working in a different Chinese restaurant every 6 to 9 months, sending home money to their families in China, and taking pictures of their travels.”

West Lake was open 7 days a week. Though it closed in 1976, it had something in common with its Asian cuisine successors: December 25 was one of its busiest days of the year. Even in the 1950s, Jews ate Chinese food on Christmas.

 

33 responses to “The West Lake Restaurant: Chinese Way Before It Was Cool

  1. Sharon Paulsen

    How cool is that! (for lack of a more original reaction, given I’m only a few sips into my morning coffee).
    Love these historical posts Dan!

  2. I recall they used to celebrate a great Chinese New Year menu in the early 70′s, it was my introduction to multiple courses: mostly food and a little cultural education.

  3. Chou Chou Merrill

    My Father owned Jewels By Jason, on Main Street. We went out to dinner at West Lake once or twice a week when I was growing up. I was around 5 when we started to. My Mother would exchange a few words with Mrs. Lee in Chinese, having lived in Shanghai for 11 years. The Lees were perfect, patrician hosts. To this day I can memory-taste the little bowl of “fried noodles” on the table which kept a little girl quiet. I was allowed to go out to the park next door (alone !) and watch people as we waited for our meal. Their Shrimp with Lobster Sauce is STILL the dish I judge all others’ by,

  4. JP Vellotti

    Great post. What I can’t believe (and just learned) is that West Lake closed in 1976, yet I can vividly recall going there for my first Chinese food with my grandparents. I had the “PuPu platter” with the little butane pot to heat up the skewered items. My grandparents were more “traditionalist,” ordering the Egg Foo Young and Shrimp with Lobster Sauce.

    The inside seemed so formal to me: white table cloths, waiters with half-jackets, and squishy, vinyl-covered booths with brass tacks. Maybe it was just so different, I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t fancy by today’s standards.

    They say food is one of our most powerful memories. That must be true, because in 1976, I was only four years old!!

    JP

    ps — if Westporters want to “relive” the West Lake experience, my best recommendation is a little hole-in-the-wall in NYC’s Chinatown called the Nom Wah Tea Parlor. The owners haven’t changed a thing and it’s basically West Lake circa-1950s.

  5. Rhoda Berke

    My fondest memory is Westlake’s Peking Duck. First, they came out with the whole roasted duck to show you. Then came the pancakes with the skin, scallions, hoisin sauce,etc. which was prepared “table side” by the waiter and then…they served a second course made with the rest of the duck with vegetables. I have never had it served that way by any restaurant since….simply the very best.

  6. Ernie Lorimer

    Closed in ’76? There must have been a successor that then opened in the same spot. I didn’t move back to Westport until ’79. We were going there into the ’80s–I remember seeing Newman and Woodward there–until it was closed by the Health Department for having disconnected the hot water, IIRC.

    • Denise Ewing

      Ernie-

      Based on your time-frame, you may be remembering Little Kitchen’s original location, which was only two or three doors down from where West Lake had been. But Little Kitchen truly was a little place, so there wouldn’t have been much of a dining room to speak of – a couple of small tables max!

  7. Ray Abramson

    I learned how to use chopsticks by watching a famous director (who’s name escapes me this morning) use them. I have a faint memory of the river out back.

  8. Gerald L Manning

    I worked for a short time at West Lake. I was a busboy and dishwasher. I think I was 15 at the time. (That would have been 1959; e-GADS!).
    I didn’t stay long. Wasn’t fast enough, I guess. Nice people. I think I went from that job to working on a garbage truck for Albert Cuseo the following summer. Now THAT was an experience! Hot summer days and garbage cans. A perfect percolating mix. Made the uneaten food from West Lake cleanup look like a picnic!

  9. Mr. Lee hired me as the dishwasher in 1967, after my family dined there enough times for him to know our names, which wasn’t all that many times. Mr. Lee was impressed with my football and high school political endeavors, always asking how they were going. I really loved earning my gas money in that kitchen! It was my first real job and my first real exposure to another culture. The Chinese cooks fascinated me with their incredible stories of immigration, hardship and wild nights in NYC on their day off. I ate VERY well, mostly the barbecued ribs that the cook offered often. I learned how to make eggrolls and how to work hard, exhausted by night’s end. Most patrons parked in back, so most nights in 1967-8, you could see my beat-up old TR-3 parked by the kitchen door on Main St. The oak soy sauce barrel that Mr. Lee gave me, just like the one that we bleach-soaked the tea cups in before washing them, was my Norfolk Island pine’s pot through many moves. Thanks for the memories!

  10. #Flashback!

  11. Can I say how in love I am with this post! Nothing still tastes like West Lake’s eggrolls and bbq’d spareribs. Let alone the steaming dishes with the silver domes on the top. Love the photo of West Lake on the corner with the scary park we were never allowed to walk through — can take me right back to a summer’s eve (after a day at Compo BEACH). Off to the library with my parents as my dad was getting his masters at NYU so free time was spent often at the library and then West Lake. Thanks for yet another walk through the golden years of Westport. (ps, I did rebel and prefer Golden House for a few months only for it’s red and gold decor and dragon art around the restaurant.) I quickly came back to my senses – - West Lake.

  12. Connie Atkinson Holberg

    Both my older sister and I worked there – I was a hostess when I was 15 (i.e., underage). My sister waitressed and had to know how to yell the orders in Chinese to the cooks. There was one that used to wave a big knife around when he was annoyed…… I remember pouring water for Joanne Woodward and her daughters once.

  13. Sandy Soennichsen

    It was a great place to take a date, meaning it was cheaper than a lot of other restaurants. And it was an introduction to chinese food. However, that pic tagged West Lake circa 1965 has to be much older, In 1965, the year I graduated from Staples, West Lake was in and looked like the other pic above.

    • Elizabeth Lee

      Hi Sandy, Could it be that the top picture is the Main St. view and the circa 1965 is the rear / Parker Harding Plaza view?

  14. Connie Atkinson Holberg

    I think the second picture is the back door

  15. Carl Volckmann

    The picture of the three diners evoked another memory– the memory of when we used to get “dressed up” to go out to dinner– note the suits. sport coats and dress! Today, anything goes.

  16. Linda hudson

    Westlake was a favorite of mine for lunches when I worked at Remarkable Book Shop ’76-’82. Met my husband at Remarkable and we had our rehearsal dinner at Westlake on August 1 1980! Let’s check those dates…

  17. Karen Bulakites Gibbens

    We would drive in from New Canaan for take out every once in a while, but when we stayed with my father on the weelends we would pick up dinner there. Dad knew what to order and the food was wonderful. WestLake was down the st from Bill’s Smoke Shop so I bet grandpa Bill knew the owners.
    I miss good egg rolls, out here they call them spring rolls. The noodles tasted like they were made righ there. I miss good resturants like that here in Ca.

  18. In 1973 we moved to Westport in part because we heard they had great schools. Also at that time, someone told me that you can judge a town’s school system by the presence of Chinese Restaurants. That educational theory was spawned by the fact that Jewish people fostered strong education and Jewish people liked to eat “Chinese”. Driving around Westport that first day made us fall in love with the place, but spotting West Lake was all the confirmation I needed that the schools must, indeed, be excellent, as well.

    • Not Hunter Wilson's Mother

      This is the strangest comment ever read. Please let it be a joke.
      - Nancy Hunter Wilson

    • Not Hunter Wilson's Mother

      Since no one seems to get a joke these days, I must ask, on a serious note, how did the idea of school “excellence”, something Westporters are so proud of, work for you?

      • I must admit when I heard the theory it was a joke. I believe George Carlin. But, unfortunately, like many jokes of questionable taste, it stuck with me. On that first day visiting Westport, and seeing West Lake it came back to me. To answer your question about the school experience….it has served my children very well and so far the same for my grandchildren. I am sure there is no correlation to the availability of Chinese/Asian food.

  19. Don Willmott

    I never set foot in West Lake once because my family was a Golden House family. Why that was the case, I’ll never know!

  20. I too remember West Lake being open beyond 1976. In 1979, having moved back to Westport after college, I rented an apartment on the top floor of the building that West Lake was in. I have vivid memories of the chinese workers sitting in their barrack-like rooms with the doors open– they never seemed to leave the building and worked all the time. I worked at Alternatives which was just across the Post Road so I had a very short commute! It was though most certainly 1979 and ’80. I also liked being reminded of Liverpool – I was a huge fan of that store and shopped there as a clothes loving kid in the early 70s.

  21. Georgia Rojas

    I’m pretty sure it was open till at least the mid 80′s because I remember going there with my high school boyfriend and I graduated Staples in 1986.

  22. I also kind of remember it being open past 1976 as well. I remember going back for a visit in the fall of ’79 right after I moved to NYC and remember seeing it there and open for business — I don’t think my memory is gone yet. Wish we had gone there instead. But I couldn’t say for sure. Someone else could.

  23. Sharon Paulsen

    Is this not the location where the Town Squire Diner was later inhabited by??

  24. Chris Carusone

    I remember West Lake well. My mom worked there for a few years.
    . When she had a “good ” night for tips, she would bring home an order of pork spare ribs for my two brothers and I . Oooooh so good . One day, one of the workers named Jimmy hit her in the elbow with a tray. Chipped a bone, he did. Mom ended up needing surgery. One of her customers gave her this golden ceramic angle candle holder for Xmas one year. Although Mom is no longer with me, that angel candle holder is .

  25. Gary Singer

    Thanks again, Dan, for the memory. No other Main St. establishment (not even The Ships) personifies the “good old Westport” as does West Lake. Always a big smile and welcome by Ed Lee, impeccably attired. A dinner at Ed’s was the prize my sons earned for . . . well, actually for no particular reason except that’s where they begged to go.

  26. Dieter Stanko

    Think I can add something here. Those who are remembering a post-1976 Chinese restaurant may be thinking of Peking Inn, which had a Main Street entrance into the early 80s, as far as I recall. The Town Square Diner, meanwhile had a back entrance at PHP at about the same time. I believe PI closed before Town Square.

  27. I am pretty sure Dan is correct as far as when it closed. I remember Silver Ribbon opening where West Lake was. Thanks for that link, it brought back memories with all the pictures. I remember when the back door looked just like those pictures. I still have an old siphon type seltzer bottle I found by the back door in the trash.
    My friends and I used to hang out in that “scary park” and we would pan handle money to buy egg rolls and white rice before any of us actually were old enough to get jobs…