With live entertainment and crowds flowing out the door, this past weekend the North Riverside restaurant Chef Shangri-la celebrated its 30th anniversary. A veritable local icon, the Tiki restaurant is one of the last of its kind in the Chicagoland area.
But while most can recognize the Tiki figure from the sign at the corner of Desplaines Avenue and 26th Street, and many have sampled their mai-tais or signature Dr. Fong drinks, few know about the other-worldly inspiration that pushed owner Susan Fong to open “The Chef,” as regulars call it, in 1976.
“My mother had passed away in 1971, and one night a few years later she came to me and said, ‘I found a restaurant for you, not too far from my cemetery,'” Fong said. “At the time, I didn’t have a job and was staying at home, and I knew that wasn’t right for me. I know American people don’t believe in this sort of thing, but I listened.”
Although Fong and her husband, Paul, had worked in restaurants throughout Milwaukee and Chicago since the late 1960s, they had never owned their own restaurant. Fong said she knew the restaurant business was risky, but, spurred by the strength of her vision, decided to take the chance. She went through the classifieds-the only part of the paper she could read at the time, she said-found that the building at Desplaines Avenue and 26th Street was for sale, and offered up the title to her house as a deposit.
“I was not worried about it not going well,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m still young, I’ll have a chance to do it again.'”
Apparently, though, mother knows best.
At the anniversary celebration this weekend, which featured the Florida-based band the Haole Cats, Fong said more than 100 people packed the bar and dining room each night.
According to Duke Walker, a self-proclaimed “Tiki enthusiast” who helped Fong organize the event and attended both nights, there were people there from as far away as Ohio, and on Saturday there were lines stretching out the door.
Saturday night featured a special presentation by Walker and his wife, Amy, to Susan and Paul, who worked up until a few years ago as the restaurant’s chef, of a Tiki statue and plaque thanking them for all they’ve done for the community.
Walker, who along with Amy has written the book “Tiki Quest,” said The Chef has become a beloved part of the Tiki fan community in Chicago, partially because authentic Tiki restaurants have become so rare.
“When I moved to Chicago in 1996, there were still about eight of these place open,” he said. “But we’ve seen so many close.”
Fong said she chose to incorporate a Tiki theme into the restaurant because one of her grandmothers had been Hawaiian and also because she grew up on a farm in China, where her family built everything from bamboo. She said she wanted to bring that atmosphere into her restaurant.
Fong said it was regulars like the Walkers that made her enjoy the restaurant business. She said she loved being able to interact with so many different people every day in such a busy environment.
“I like to work, and here we’re busy all the time,” she said. “And I like to see all the people every day.”
Sitting in a booth of the restaurant on Monday afternoon, Fong reminisced over the many changes she’s seen in the past 30 years-the people who have come and gone, the changing neighborhoods, and the many other competing restaurants that have opened and closed.
She’s also seen her family come and go from the restaurant-in addition to Paul, Fong’s children all spent some time working at The Chef, but she said they’ve now all grown up and moved on to other careers. She can’t see herself leaving her restaurant anytime soon, though.
“I’m going to put more time in, and keep going,” she said. “I would still like to try another 30 years.”