Long before “Silicon Valley” defined our region, when the roads leading to the then-sleepy town of Los Altos were mostly two-lane, an ambitious young man from Taiwan, Lawrence C. C. Chu, had a dream. He wanted to open fast-food Chinese restaurants to compete with the popular McDonald’s, but also admired the style of the upscale Asian restaurant where he had worked while going to college—the original Trader Vic’s in San Francisco.
In 1970, along with fiancée Ruth Ho, Chu opened a tiny takeout shop in a former laundromat at the intersection of El Camino Real and San Antonio Road. “We both struggled working long hours, but were rewarded when customers enjoyed our 12 menu offerings and left with a satisfied smile,” he recalls. “Some said they liked my food, but would prefer to enjoy it in a larger sit-down family restaurant with more ambiance and a broader menu.”
Chu also realized he enjoyed presenting foods reflecting his Chinese background and culture to his patrons and dropped the fast-food idea. Chef Chu’s—as both a culinary and cultural experience—opened in larger quarters at the same intersection and was immediately welcomed by the growing number of Chinese food fans in the Bay Area. By the late ’70s, his family had also expanded—the Chus have five children, including son Jon M. Chu, the prize-winning director of the 2018 breakout hit Crazy Rich Asians.
This year, Chef Chu celebrates the 50th anniversary of that day he and Ruth opened their modest little restaurant. As with past celebrations of each decade in business, an open house has welcomed generations of his faithful followers—often nearing 1,000. And for a February 9 celebratory event, he chose the Los Altos History Museum to benefit from the evening’s proceeds, in gratitude to the Los Altos community that has been instrumental to Chef Chu’s longevity. He nods to the museum as a local landmark dedicated to educating generations about the area and the individuals who have built it into what it is today.
To call Chef Chu’s a landmark is also fitting. CNN named Chef Chu’s among the nation’s best Chinese restaurants and it received the Legacy Award from the Chinese Restaurant Foundation, recognizing it as one of the longest continuous standing Chinese restaurants in America. And on March 28, Chu and son Jon will be honored by the Chinese Historical Society of America at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco.
For the past 20 years, Chu has been especially happy working hand-in-hand with his son, Lawrence Jr., he shares. Together they strive to create a welcoming experience for guests, and their mantra is to maintain consistency to make their foods fresh, healthy, and exciting by introducing new dishes regularly. “When one has come through our door, everyone, young or old, receives a friendly greeting, generally from one of our family members or long-time staffers, many of whom have greeted customers for over 25 years,” Chu explains. “Secondly, we have developed a menu to please all segments of the local community, whether with Western tastes or ethnically Chinese. We like to share our knowledge of Chinese history, culture, and cuisine when presenting our dishes.”
In addition, Chu himself offers wildly popular cooking lessons and authored a cookbook, Chef Chu’s Distinctive Cuisine of China, to share the dishes his clientele enjoys.
When one enters Chef Chu’s, the entrance hall is lined with awards and photos of celebrities and government officials who have enjoyed its cuisine this past half century, along with an average of 600 daily diners. And of course there’s a big movie poster of Crazy Rich Asians on prominent display. There is still plenty of wall space left, and no doubt many successful years ahead to fill it.
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