When lockdown relaxed, I began lurking again in Wong Kei in London’s Chinatown. Midweek, mid-afternoon, downstairs, alone – much as I have done for the past 25 years.
For a while in the mid-noughties, I converted to Leong’s Legend – yes, other Chinese restaurants are available in this square mile – but Wong Kei always stands a revisit. It has existed for so very long, and fed so many, that it is less of a restaurant and more part of the capital’s folklore. Everyone, so it seems, has a story about this gargantuan space on Wardour Street – tales from the 1980s, the 1990s and so on.
Sprinkle the name Wong Kei into a chat, and folk seem to whiplash back to simpler times in their personal histories, to when they were single or dating, when Friday nights in Soho always involved some crispy duck served over rice or dry fried beef ho fun in this multi-floored canteen, all served by staff who would abruptly chivvy diners along, and who would bicker among themselves, and sometimes even physically fight. Whether these scraps ever actually occurred, I have no proof, but it all adds to the legend. The staff here certainly put up with no nonsense about requests for a nicer table, or not to sit communally, or for a fork, or trying to pay with anything but hard cash.
We used to eat here before going to the Wag club on a Friday, and if you were lucky, you’d see Steve Strange totter past while you were slurping your wun tun soup. Whenever I tell people that Wong Kei is much more affable and sleepy these days, they seem quite disappointed. The fact is the modern day Wong Kei competes with so many other large operations that they’re just not turning tables as quickly as they used to. Along Gerrard Street these days, waiters stand outside restaurants armed with menus, luring in tourists with money-off deals, which I don’t recall happening even 12 months ago. Chinatown is certainly scrabbling to stay upright in a London depleted of tourists.
All this makes the atmosphere at Wong Kei all the more dreamy. Plus, the staff nowadays are teenagers in T-shirts who’ll even acquiesce if you ask nicely to sit downstairs and will serve your food on semi-pretty, plastic, branded plates. Pleasingly, that’s where the changes end. Wong Kei did close in 2014 for a grand overhaul, but to my mind this amounted to little more than applying 10 litres of marigold to brighten the downstairs ladies’ loo. Wong Kei will never be lavish or ornate. If you want to spend £57 on a duck, be called madam and feel the three-ply softness of quilted bog roll, please head to Hutong in the Shard.
Of an afternoon, Wong Kei is steeped in a peaceable semi-silence of scraping bowls and gossiping grans. I worried that recent times might have put the older generation off eating in Chinatown, but these people are made of stronger stuff. The staff served me a large plate of soft, sticky-skinned aubergine with sliced fish over rice. The fish is wrapped in batter, the aubergine rich and meaty.
I’m a huge fan of the deep-fried bean curd, pleasingly bland yet fluffy on the inside, scorched on the outside and carpeted in fierce chilli and minced garlic. The ma po bean curd with beef is also heavily decent, the stewed brisket beef hot pot dependable, while the Hong Kong-style pork chop seems as popular now as it was in the 1990s. And Wong Kei’s menu remains a broad church: deep-fried intestine, bitter melon and stewed ducks’ webs sits close to lemon chicken and Singapore noodles. Service is always super-rapid and dishes always turn up far too hot to start eating straight away. And that’s a line I’ve not written about any restaurant in more than 20 years.
On the day I returned to Wong Kei, after six months away, there were reports that the ravens at the Tower of London had begun to stray because of boredom, which was a jolly news snippet, but also a portent for societal meltdown, with Tower Bridge crumbling next before the monarchy topples. On the ground floor of Wong Kei, I took a pew and poured tea, ordered bean curd, some aubergine and extra dry noodle in oyster sauce, plus some takeaway cold roast duck and soya chicken on rice for Charles for when he got home from work, as well as a chow ho fun mixed seafood.
“Can I keep hold of the menu?” I asked the waitress, who immediately went to take it off me. “No, you can’t – you’ll get it dirty,” she said, snapping it away in a delicious burst of semi-rudeness. That made my day. The world might be sliding to hell in a handcart, but my beloved Wong Kei is alive and kicking.
• Wong Kei 41-43 Wardour Street, London W1, 020 7437 8408. Open all week, 11.30am-11.30pm (10.30pm Sun). About £10-15 a head, plus drinks and service.