Tuesday, December 9, 2014

After 42 Years, Berkeley’s Taiwan Restaurant Is Closing

By Luke Tsai
Tue, Dec 9, 2014 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Beef noodle soup. - TAIWAN RESTAURANT
  • Taiwan Restaurant
  • Beef noodle soup.
The sign for Berkeley’s Taiwan Restaurant (2071 University Ave.) reads, “Since 1972 Same Chef.” That’s a claim that very few Bay Area dining establishments can match in today’s high-turnover restaurant scene, in which staying in business for even four years — much less forty — is cause for celebration.

It’s a minor miracle, then, that the restaurant’s distinctive pinkish-purple facade has held court — more or less unchanged — just off the corner of University and Shattuck Avenues for as long as it has. But the family-run Berkeley institution’s long run is finally coming to a close. According to the Lin family, who owns it, Taiwan Restaurant will close at the end of the year due to their inability to secure a long-term lease with their landlords.

Jason Wu, a third-generation member of the Lin family who helps manage the restaurant, said that when his grandfather, Shui-Kung Lin (the aforementioned chef), and great-uncle first opened Taiwan Restaurant in the early 1970s, not only was it the first restaurant in the area to serve Taiwanese specialties (e.g. beef noodle soup and, on weekends, soy milk and Chinese fried doughnuts), it was one of the first Chinese restaurants of any type in that part of Berkeley.

Now nearly eighty years old, Lin still works in the kitchen every day, and three generations of Lins comprise nearly every member of the restaurant staff.

click to enlarge TAIWAN RESTAURANT
  • Taiwan Restaurant
Despite the proliferation of other, often fancier, Chinese dining options in the area, Wu said Taiwan Restaurant continues to do brisk business after all these years. He explained that the restaurant is especially popular among UC Berkeley’s various Asian student organizations, which often book the space for fundraisers and other special events, and Cal alums, who return to the restaurant years later with their kids.

The building was purchased by Berkeley-based Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services last year, and, according to Wu, the company was unwilling to offer Taiwan Restaurant a long-term lease, even after the owners said they’d be willing to pay market value. Wu said the company told him that their long-term goal was for the space to house a more upscale, contemporary restaurant.

As of this posting, Gordon Commercial didn’t respond to phone calls and emails, but according to the property’s LoopNet posting, plans for a “dramatic renovation” include combining the Taiwan Restaurant space with the retail space next door to create a reconfigured 4,000-square-foot restaurant with a rear patio and the prospect of a full liquor license.

Taiwan Restaurant’s last day of business will be December 31. In the meantime, Wu said that his family hopes to eventually move the restaurant to another location nearby, but that they’ll probably take a breather before they start searching in earnest.

For longtime customers like Miranda Ewell, the move — if and when it happens — will likely be bittersweet. In an email, Ewell said Taiwan Restaurant was her favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese eatery — for its “dingy, unreconstructed surroundings” and “delicious Taiwan specialties.”

As Ewell said about the restaurant’s impending closure, “It will be a great loss to the community, to the old gentlemen who meet there regularly for lunch specials (cheap! companionable!), to Chinese families, and all the rest of us in the ’hood who eat there regularly.” 

(Update: Gordon Commercial's John Gordon subsequently told Inside Scoop, "It was their decision to leave, and ultimately it was more of a real estate thing: the building is pretty dilapidated, it’s in really bad shape and needs a lot of work. ... Downtown Berkeley is changing.”)

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