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.
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 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.
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.