Alan Yuen never thought he'd be on his hands and knees installing hardwood floors. Nor did he think he'd be buying produce at 8 AM and slaving over a hot wok well into the evening. But when his father, Yup Chi Yuen, died five years ago after running Friendship Chinese Restaurant in Logan Square for 18 years, Alan had a restaurant to save.
"I grew up in the kitchen of my father's restaurant, and as a child I really hated it," he says. "I went to college to get out of the business and was traveling through Asia working when my father passed. I returned for the services, and when my brothers wanted to sell Friendship, something just hit me and changed everything. I couldn't bear to see his hard work and good Chinese cooking just disappear while more China Buffets pop up everywhere. And I didn't want my mother to see that the moment he left, everything was put on the auction block. I decided I wanted to keep my father's dream alive."
Alan, a former art director and advertising executive, also saw an opportunity for change. "When I looked at the food business, I didn't like what I saw for the Chinese," he says. "What they care about is not quality but profit margin. It's not really their fault--they're first generation and just trying to save up a little money to make a life for themselves. But I want to change what the general public expects from a Chinese restaurant: so-so food, not-so-good service, and dreary decor."
Yup Yuen left Beijing for Chicago in the 70s, and as many Chinese immigrants did he soon set up a small restaurant serving the Cantonese dishes most Americans were familiar with. "It was a pretty typical chop suey house," says Alan. "Pretty much a dump, with cheap chairs, peeling floor tile, unpainted walls. But my father didn't believe in advertising or decor, he just said, 'Good cooking, reasonable prices, people will come.'"
They did come, and Friendship became a neighborhood favorite, a dependable choice for pork fried rice, wonton soup, an egg roll. The menu changed little over the years.
When Alan took over in 1998 he read any food publication he could get his hands on and sampled the work of local chefs ("Everyone from Roland Liccioni of Les Nomades to Tom Hope of Roy's has inspired me," he says). He gave the Peking duck a French touch by adding orange juice and Grand Marnier to its oyster-soy sauce and put a calamari starter, chili-crusted shrimp, and a few more vegetarian dishes on the menu. He replaced the vinyl flooring with wood, the glaring fluorescent bulbs with dimmed teardrop lighting, and the cracked vinyl booths with colorful cloth-covered banquettes. But his original vision of what a modern Chinese restaurant could be has only recently been realized, with the introduction of a five-course, $39 tasting menu that will be served every Friday and Saturday starting November 28. Alan says a typical menu might include lobster soup, five-spice dumplings, and Hong Kong steak, followed by wok-tossed ginger scallion lobster and a choice between the equally delicious tofu creme brulee and tofu cheesecake.
Alan has also reinstated a tradition from when he first took over the place--the Dinner Show. It began when Alan noticed that some of the restaurant's older cooks would listen to the same cassette tape each night in the kitchen. He asked what they were listening to and learned it was the cooks themselves playing traditional Cantonese music. He decided to sponsor a monthly event that featured a six-course meal followed by a musical performance. It was a hit with diners, but when the musical chefs retired four years ago, the Dinner Show left with them. Alan called them up this past spring and asked them to return for their monthly cooking-and-music gig. The next Dinner Show is scheduled for November 1; they'll be held the last Saturday of every month thereafter. Dinner starts around 7, and the whole thing costs $28.50.
"The chefs come and do the night because of my father, because of loyalty to what he started," says Alan. "The funny thing is, I think my dad always knew that I would continue this business, even when I said, 'I'm never coming back, forget about it.' And now I see why he did it, now I even enjoy it--everything from having to be here at 8 in the morning to talking to the customers at the end of dinner. And when they ask, 'Was that your father who ran the restaurant before?' I say, 'Yes, and I'm running it now.'"
Friendship Restaurant is at 2830 N. Milwaukee, 773-227-0970.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.