Sup. Peskin tells Far East Cafe owner to 'hang in there' for relief

Help may be on the way for one of San Francisco's oldest restaurants. The owner of Chinatown's iconic Far East Cafe was planning to shut down permanently Dec. 31, because of the challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

But on Wednesday, District Supervisor Aaron Peskin pleaded with the restaurant owner, Bill Lee, not to close just yet. The supervisor said he's working on a $1.9 million relief plan to specifically help Chinatown's struggling restaurants. 

The normaly bustling district is unnaturally quiet, especially considering it's just days before Christmas.

"I'm worried about Bill Lee and the Far East hanging on," Peskin said at a news conference staged in front of the restaurant. "We have an imperative to do that together. So without saying too much more, Bill, I besiege you, and your investors, and your landlord, to hang in there a little bit longer." 

Lee, shrugged his shoulders and appeared to laugh modestly from behind a mask at Peskin's suggestion. 

"We keep losing money each day. All our shareholders have a few meetings. We decide to close down the end of this month," Lee told KTVU.

Word of the eatery's closure broke this week in the Chinese community Wind newspaper. They reported Lee had grand plans for the restaurant's 100th anniversary, but cannot survive on takeout alone. 

Far East Cafe opened at 631 Grant Avenue in 1920 where it has served dishes including Peking duck, wonton soup, and other favorites. 

If passed, Peskin's relief plan, which he introduced Tuesday, would pay Far East Cafe and other restaurants to cook meals for older adults and low-income families living in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels as part of Chinatown's Feed + Fuel program

"Chinatown has been particularly hard hit," said Peskin. He said racism against the Chinese and blaming them for the coronavirus at the beginning of the pandemic, hurt businesses early on.

"As you can see, it's dead," said Eva Lee with the Chinatown Merchants Association.

She said in the eight-block stretch of Grant Avenue, from Bush to Broadway streets, only 45 stores are open out of nearly 200.  

"This is the worst in my lifetime I've ever seen," Ms. Lee said.

At Imperial Palace, a dim sum restaurant at 818 Washington Street, the owner's son, Gibson Yee, said the relief program may help keep his family's restaurant open.

A holiday season with no social gatherings means no income.

"We're hanging by a thread now. So if that thread is broken, we can be the next Far East," Yee said.

At iCafe, owner Hanna Zhang said she can't keep her doors open for much longer. She said she used all of her savings to pay rent and other bills.

"This is not the silver bullet. This is just designed to have folks hang on until we recover," Peskin said.

Merchants said business is down by 90% compared to pre-pandemic times, but that the relief may help them weather the storm. 

Peskin hopes to fast track the legislation and have the relief program underway by next month.

 KTVU's Amber Lee contributed to this report.