When Chinatown institution Plum Tree Inn permanently closed its doors in July 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, longtime Chinatown residents and hospitality veterans chef Yi Long Yu and his wife, Wen Yu, wanted to keep the restaurant’s 40-year-old traditions alive. After carefully monitoring the pandemic’s progression for nearly a year, the couple finally signed the lease on 913 North Broadway this past June (along with two silent business partners) and opened Broadway Cuisine in the former Plum Tree Inn space in late August.
The Yus hope to continue Plum Tree Inn’s legacy as an easy option for weekday lunches and a dependable destination for group dinners in Chinatown. “Plum Tree Inn has been in business for quite some time, so its closing was, like, losing another resource, another food establishment where families can get together,” says Wen, as translated by her daughter, Michelle Yu. “We want to be able to continue that — that’s how Broadway Cuisine came about. Hopefully we can be a restaurant where families can have dinner and serve the community so that Chinatown can be lively again.”
News of Plum Tree Inn closing last summer sent shockwaves through the Chinatown community. Though shuttered storefronts have grown increasingly common in recent years as the neighborhood experiences immense social and economic challenges because of gentrification, the pandemic exacerbated the already dire situation. Plum Tree Inn’s closure hit particularly hard for the Yus given its significance in the community and the couple’s personal history with the restaurant. Yi Long cooked for a short stint in the restaurant’s kitchen when it was still operating from its original location on the far end of Hill Street. Wen worked as a cashier in the building on Broadway prior to Plum Tree Inn taking it over in 2007; it was called Gourmet Carousel back in 1998 and served dim sum on carts. The Yus dined at Plum Tree Inn for both casual meals and celebratory multicourse banquets over its four-decade run.
Now in their late 50s, the Yus are embarking on a bold and largely unplanned venture during a tenuous time. However, the importance of providing a critical service to their community and assuring that Chinatown remains accessible to its long-tenured residents continually motivates the couple. “There’s just not a lot of restaurants. Most of the Chinese families usually go out to the San Gabriel Valley to get their Chinese food,” says Wen. “Plum Tree Inn was really special to the community because they were able to bring Chinese food to locals, especially for those who aren’t able to go to the San Gabriel Valley, like the elderly.”
Though the Yus immigrated from China a decade apart — he in 1982 and she in 1992 — their lives in Los Angeles followed parallel paths. Upon arriving in LA from Guangdong Province, both lived in Chinatown and found jobs in Chinese restaurants. While he spent his days wrangling searing-hot woks, she kept to the front of the house working as a server or cashier. The couple married in 1989, settled in Chinatown, and raised two daughters. More recently, Yi Long spent a decade as the head chef at Chinese-American restaurant Bamboo Cuisine in Sherman Oaks, while Wen worked the front of house at dim sum spot Golden Dragon Restaurant in Chinatown for 13 years. Broadway Cuisine is the first restaurant that the couple own and operate together.
Los Angeles’s Chinese restaurant scene has evolved since Plum Tree Inn debuted in 1979. Most notably, the epicenter of Chinese restaurants shifted geographically from Chinatown to the sprawling suburbs east of Downtown in cities like Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Rowland Heights. The popularity of ornate banquet halls that can seat hundreds have declined and given way to humbler dining rooms intended for everyday meals. Hefty menus that span the cuisine’s greatest hits, like the one formerly served at Plum Tree Inn, have slimmed over time and been replaced by more regionalized offerings. Along the way, Angelenos’ tastes have changed, with appetites for Sichuan cooking and dim sum feasts now rivaling that for kung pao chicken and fried rice.
With its 6,000-square-foot dining room and 242-item menu, Broadway Cuisine feels a bit like going back in time. Head chef Yi Long executes a long list of Cantonese classics and Chinese-American staples along with former Plum Tree Inn cook Manuel Sanchez Lee. Organized by type of protein (seafood, beef, poultry, pork), with separate sections for noodles and rice, the menu follows the classic Chinese restaurant template. The robust offerings, which are informed by the Yus’ extensive restaurant know-how, are meant to satisfy both “American tastes” and “Chinese tastes,” and include Chinese-American hits like egg foo yong, chop suey, and moo shu pork, along with the Plum Tree Inn’s signature Peking duck. Lunch specials are offered on weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and include a small bowl of soup and steamed white rice.
Also available is a handwritten menu of “classic traditional Chinese dishes” intended for those who can read Chinese (or are dining with someone who can). The dozen or so homestyle dishes hail from Guangdong Province and include Taishan cauliflower prepared with pork jowl, Japanese mushrooms with tofu, a beef and daikon hot pot, delicately steamed chicken with ginger and green onions, and seasonal greens like snow pea tips and ong choy. There is something for everyone on Broadway Cuisine’s menu and a full alcohol license is slated for the coming months.
Inside the sprawling space, the Yus reshuffled the 300-seat dining room and added a few upgrades including karaoke machines in the private dining suites. The couple believe there is still a need for this kind of large-scale, old-school Chinese restaurant and are eager to serve not only their immediate neighbors, but tourists and Downtown workers, too.
While it’s too soon to tell how business will fare at Broadway Cuisine in the coming months and years, the restaurant’s purpose has never been clearer — even with just a month of operating under its belt. When the elevators at nearby Cathay Manor — Chinatown’s first federally subsidized senior citizen housing project — ceased to operate for nearly two weeks in early September, the Yus marched up 15 flights of stairs to deliver 300 meals to the elderly residents living at the 273-unit development. As longtime Chinatown residents and newly minted business owners, the couple felt responsible for taking care of their neighbors during a moment of crisis. Though Broadway Cuisine’s solvency and longevity is up in the air, the Yus’ deep sense of duty to the community will continue to be the restaurant’s driving force — it’s here to serve Chinatown.
Broadway Cuisine is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.