When some friends visited me in New York City, they wanted to go to Chinatown for dinner, and so, we did, heading to Mott Street, the so-called “Main Street of Chinatown.” Nothing appealed to us there, and so we began to check out the little streets that branch out from Mott Street.
Although Manhattan Island is known for its orderly grid of streets and avenues, on the southern end of the Island (“downtown”), reflecting the earlier settlements, streets do not follow that pattern. Greenwich Village even has a street, Waverly Place (which lost an e when it was named for Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Waverley), that crosses itself.
I cannot remember why we chose the restaurant that we finally entered. It had a bar, but we would not be having alcoholic drinks, because (at least in the 1970s, when I lived there) the restaurants in Chinatown typically did not have licenses to serve alcoholic beverages, but men (yes, just men) in the neighborhood had little lockers in the restaurants where they would leave their own bottles.
We were shown into a small room with the typical paper lanterns and given extensive menus. As we perused them, finding things that we had never heard of, a group of Hispanic blue-collar workers were seated. Just as we ordered, a party of four very white people arrived. The men were in tuxedos; the women were in gowns that served as backdrops for downright gaudy displays of jewelry.
We all ordered, we all sipped tea, and at each of the three tables, conversation was low. The food was served on enormous platters. We had ordered four dishes for the three of us; we could have gotten by with two, but we happily passed our platters around our table, expressing amazement at the size and quality of the servings and the low prices.
I do not remember who first did this, but someone at one table commented on a dish on another table. I do remember that whoever had the dish passed it over to the other table, and then, instead of three parties of strangers trying not to disturb each other, we became a rather rowdy bunch at a family dinner. Dishes were passed from table to table, and praise was heaped onto the cooks. I almost expected them to join us, perhaps pulling out a bottle from behind the bar.
Things were good enough without that. We ate; in fact, we pigged out. I never heard where the elegantly dressed couples were going or whether the workers had just finished or were about to go to their jobs. It was as if nothing outside that present moment, in that little room, mattered.
We ate until we could eat no more, paid, and faded back into the night, three separate groups again.
I shared the experience with a friend who lived in the city, and twice he joined me as I returned to Mott Street and wandered down the side streets looking for the wonderful restaurant. For years now, I think of it as Brigadoon Chinese Restaurant, materializing only once a century in the fog that fights with the streetlights at the intersections of Mott Street and its side streets, because I never found it again.
You can find an index to all my unforgettable New York City stories, “My Experience of Unforgettable New York City,” here.