Tag Archives: West Lake Restaurant

Friday Flashback #59

Last week’s Friday Flashback featured the Tally Ho restaurant. Located near the intersection of the Post Road and Main Street, the popular American restaurant closed shortly after the 1950 photo was taken (click here to see).

In its place came West Lake: Westport’s 1st Chinese restaurant. At the time, that cuisine was considered exotic.

Last week’s photo showed the Saugatuck River lapping against the back of Tally Ho.

A few years later, the river was filled in. Parker Harding Plaza — quickly dubbed the Harder Parking lot — was created.

Here’s the rear entrance to West Lake. The brick building to the right housed the Westport Library (today, it’s Freshii and Starbucks).

As for the 3-story Main Street building whose back we see in this image: It’s still there.

But it’s hidden by new construction.

 

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.

 

Looking Back At Frances Lee

A recent post about long-ago downtown Westport included a photo of West Lake restaurant.

Located at the head of Main Street, next to the old library park, West Lake served Chinese food when that was the epitome of foreign cuisine.

Main Street 1976, by Fred Cantor. West Lake (left) had just closed.

An alert “06880” reader wanted to learn more. Several Google searches later, he found a long blog posted soon after Frances Lee’s memorial service.

Frances and her husband, Edward Wonkai Lee, opened West Lake in 1950. They operated it — very successfully — for the next 25 years.

Frances Lee died on December 6, 2009 — 2 days after her 101st birthday.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, she graduated at the top of her class at Manhattan’s Julia Richmond High School in 1926. Frances earned an accounting degree with honors from New York University in 1930. She was of one of very few Chinese-American women of that era with a college degree.

Frances and Edward married in 1930. They raised their family through the Depression and World War II, and survived the vagaries of life in the United States and China during the 1930s and ’40s.

In China, she was secretary to the President of Lingnan University in Kwangchow (Guangzhou), and served as a translator-interpreter at the U. S. Consulate in Hong Kong until she and her family were repatriated in 1942.

In 1950 the Lees opened West Lake. The rest is Westport history.

Frances Lee, at the Westport Golf Range (driving range and mini-golf). It’s now the site of the Regents Park condominiums, near the Pier 1 shopping center.

From House Of Morgan To Abe Fortas

For the past few days, “06880” readers have had fun with photos of Main Street taken from the 1930s through ’50s.

Alert reader Fred Cantor sent along this photo he took in 1976. (That spot seems to be a perpetual photographer’s paradise.)

West Lake — at the time one of Westport’s only “foreign” restaurants — had moved in next to the park.

Liverpool — a hippie clothing store — replaced the long-departed Kiddie Lane and House of Morgan.

But Welch’s Hardware was still there.

Welch’s was more than just a long-lived hardware store. At least twice, it popped up in national magazines.

On March 16, 1946 it was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos took a few liberties — he added a floor, for instance, and the “US 1” sign points the wrong way — but Welch’s was the model for what the magazine called “Hardware Store at Springtime.”

And in 1968, Supreme Court judge (and part-time Westport resident) Abe Fortas had just been nominated by President Johnson to be Chief Justice. Fortas would later withdraw due to ethics problems, but on July 5 — almost exactly 45 years ago today — Time magazine opened its profile on him this way:

“Will you trust my judgment, Mr. Fortas?”, asked the salesman at Welch’s Hardware Store in Westport, Conn. Dubiously, the Chief Justice-designate of the U.S. fingered the new, chemically treated dustcloth, examining it carefully by sight and feel. Finally, aware perhaps that this was a matter beyond his competence, he concurred with the clerk’s opinion.

Tramping around the narrow streets of Westport, accompanied by TIME Washington Bureau Chief John Steele, Fortas was enjoying the scruffy anonymity of any other summer refugee from the city. In baggy grey pants, a flame-red cardigan sweater, scuffed brown shoes (one with a tongue missing) and…

Can you think of any other Main Street store that received national attention like that? And no, the Gap, Banana Republic and Pottery Barn don’t count.