There is some debate over which was the first Chinese restaurant to open in Dublin.
Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire in his fantastic study ‘The Emergence, Development and Influence of French Haute Cuisine on Public Dining in Dublin Restaurants 1900-2000: An Oral History‘ suggests that The Luna (11 Uppr. O’Connell St.) was “Dublin’s first Chinese restaurant” having been set up in the “early 1950s”. This information was provided by Mary Lee, a daughter of one of the four Hong Kong restaurateurs who were behind the original venture.
However contemporary newspaper articles suggest that the ‘Asia Chinese Restaurant’, 71 Lower Leeson Street, was the first of its kind to open in the city.
Patrick Campbell, journalist who used the pseudonym Quidnunc in The Irish Times, wrote on January 5th 1957:
“(of being) invited to the opening of Dublin’s first Chinese restaurant and found it in a house in Leeson Street. From the hall, it wasn’t too clear where the restaurant was situated in the house, so we opened the first door we saw, to find ourselves looking into the kitchen…”
It was noted in October 1957 that Dublin had ‘three oriental restaurants’ – the Asia Chinese, the Cathay at 19 Kildare St and the Golden Orient at 27 Lower Leeson St which Mac Con Iomaire has described as actually providing “Indian food …with Kenyan influence”. The three restaurants pulled together that month to help feed the fifty strong cast of the Chinese Classical Theatre which was in town.The Asia China Restaurant was subsequently described in December 1960 as “the first Chinese eatery opened in this town”. The article also mentioned that “Dubliners have of late shown quite an increasing preference for the delicately-cooked and served Chinese dishes, and the number of Chinese restaurants has now increased from one to three.”
I believe the other two were The Cathay and the Luna.
The former was opened in Kildare Street in September 1957 by a 30 year old Chinese businessman by the name of ‘Casey’ Chang from Malaya. After having lived in London for three years, he came to Dublin on a holiday and loved it so much that he decided to relocate here with his family. He brought over a chef and two assistants from Hong Kong and a Chinese stove, saucepans and food from London to start up the restaurant.
In another article in January 1958, it was reported that Dublin had oriental two restaurants, that being, the Asia Chinese and the Cathay. So, it would be possible to calculate that the Luna was opened sometime between January 1958 and December 1960.
Ed-meister, whose paternal grandfather helped open The Luna, has written online:
“It was established by my paternal grandfather with his business partners in the late 50s/early 60s on Dublin’s premier location, O’Connell Street. During that time, my grandfather was one of the handful of the first Chinese immigrants to Ireland. It was the first time Dubliners could savour Chinese food, and whereas nowadays it is normal fare, back then it was considered extremely exotic. Favourites included curry and ‘sweet & sour’ dishes. My grandfather told me how long queues would form outside as Irish people were tempted to try a new, exotic foreign cuisine.”
Amazingly, while it has changed name a number of times down through the years (Summer Palace being the last) it still serves Chinese (and Malaysian) food today, as Panang Malaysian, and is operated by by one member of the original family who opened The Luna.
Then in 1961, Tony Choy opened the The Universal Chinese Restaurant at 12a Wicklow Street.
The Food & Wine Correspondent in The Irish Times described The Universal in 1964 as the ‘best Chinese restaurant’ in the city and on Oct 10 1964 wrote:
(that it) is well worth the visit and an essential for lovers of Chinese food. Prices are extremely reasonable, service good and speed, and though the wine list is not a long one there are some good coarse wines to go with the meal … For out and out connoisseurs they have the strict Chinese Dinner of many dishes, which is an evening’s experience. for this you will have to phone beforehand.
Today it known as The Imperial. (Note: This restaurant closed in October 2012)
Wongs opened up its doors at 111 Clonskeagh Road in January 1961 and remained there until it relocated to 10 Chatham Street in August 1962.
Shantou-born William Wong told The Irish Press (Dec 09 1960) that he would have still been in Port Elizabeth, South Africa but for an Irish Domincan nun, Mother Lewis Bertrand of Marymount Convent. With the closing of missionary schools, Mother Bertrand, advised Wong to send his eldest daughter Ellen to UCD. She wrote home with such glowing accounts of Ireland that Wong, his wife and their five other children moved to Dublin. Wong had previously owned a string of restaurants in Port Elizabeth.
Patrick Campbell (aka Quidnunc) who seemed to a bit of a connoisseur in Chinese food at this stage wrote on Aug 18 1962:
(that) it must be about two years ago that I wrote of my delight at finding in a Dublin suburb, the best Chinese restaurant in Ireland and one that would compare favourably with any of the great Chinese restaurants in New York. The only trouble was that, being situated in Clonskeagh, it wasn’t always convenient to get to and, since it was rather small, it was usually advisable to book in advance … (but) from now on, he will be operating in what used to be called The Warren, in Chatham Street serving a double life cuisine (of) European food on one floor and his suburb Chinese specialities on another.
Pagoda Restaurant, 30 Wicklow Street, was opened sometime in 1961 but was put up for sale in October 1962 after it was accused of being in breach of hygienic regulations.
Kum Tong, 43 Grafton Street, opened around 1962 and was often included in Guide Books to Ireland. It closed in April 1971.
It was mentioned in a Sunday Independent article (Nov 18 1962) that at one time, recently enough, there were seven Chinese restaurants in Dublin but that three had closed leaving only Wongs, Luna, the Universal and Kum Tong.
Why was this, the journalist asked.
Mr. Wong complained that the Irish were too conservative in their food choice while the manager of the Universal said that the Irish had different eating out habits. “Here they lunch out on weekdays and are seldom seen in the evenings or weekends”. On the other hand, the manager of the Kum Tong blamed the high import duty on some of their food, especially Chinese dried mushrooms, for being an influential factor.
The article said that most of Dublin’s new Chinese population live in rented houses in Ranelagh, Rathfarnham, Templeogue and that they were “naturally, the (most) steady discerning costumers at the Chinese restaurants”.
The Shangai Restaurant, 34 Upper O’Connell Street, was established sometime in the early 1960s and was put up for sale in early 1963 after some sort of legal dispute.
Chopstick, 60/61 Dame Street, was opened in November 1964 and though after a rename to ‘Fans’ only closed its doors in 2011.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the Irish public’s tastebuds widened – more and more Chinese restaurants opened.
Some worth mentioning are the Lotus in Dun Laoghaire (opened 1971), the Sunflower on O’Connell St (early 1970s), the New Universal Chinese Restaurant on Middle Abbey St (1970s - scene of a bloody Triad street battle in 1979 which left two dead), Kingsland on Dame Street (1980) and the China Sichuan in Kilmacud (1985).
What’s your first experience of having Chinese food in Dublin?