Ah Fong's was a weekly ritual for my family growing up. We would frequent the Beverly Drive location between Nate n' Al's and Toy Mart. It had a deep, long staircase, and as little girl my parents walked me down those steep steps. My dad used to tell me we were actually walking down to China, and I believed him! It was my first taste of Chinese food and where I first learned to use chopsticks.
424 Beverly Drive
Ah Fong's had a mysterious vibe with its deep, dark, jade color interiors and dimly lit. The Sunset Blvd location did a lot of take-out to residents of Laurel Canyon, and it's where Lenny Bruce and his wife Honey used to have their late Sunday night dinners. Errol Flynn often dined in the kitchen with the main chef. The Hollywood location stayed open until 3 am to accommodate those who worked long hours in the film industry and entertainment business. That made Ah Fong's extremely popular with the Hollywood crowd. It was frequently mentioned in Army Arched's column and Johnny Carson often gave away 'dinner at Ah Fong's' as prizes to members of the audience on his show. He would quip, "You'll take one bite and say, 'Ahhh, Fong!'"
At the Beverly Hills location we'd see Jack Lemmon, Danny Thomas, Robert Wagner & Natalie Wood, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Steve Allen, Sonny Bono, George Hamilton, to name a few I remember.... I also distinctly remember seeing Gary Coleman ordering spare ribs and being as polite as one could be. My parents would often go with Morey Amsterdam who always preferred to sit in the smaller room with booths on either sides. We once sat directly across the way from Fred Astaire! Below is a photo of that room.
Los Angeles Magazine archives
Perhaps the celebrity clientele had something to do with it being owned by actors. Ah Fong's was owned by Benson Fong and his wife, Gloria, also know as "Maylia". Fong was an actor before he became a restaurateur. He had not intended to be either. His acting career began in the way they used to happen - with the wave of the magic pen of a talent scout who had found the right look for Charlie Chan's No. 2 son in the series starring Sidney Toler. Fong was randomly approached while bagging groceries in 1943 at a supermarket in Sacramento by an executive and Paramount Pictures and asked him if he's like to appear in movies.
Owner Benson Fong was character actor and founder of the well-known Ah Fong’s restaurants
Fong was also offered a 10 week contract for $250 dollars a week. That seemed like an extreme fortune for Fong and he accepted quickly. He first appeared onscreen in Charlie Chan at the Opera as an extra. He returned to the series and is best remembered playing Number Three Son Tommy Chan opposite Sidney Toler in six Charlie Chan movies between 1944 and 1946, replacing Victor Sen Yung's Number Two Son, Jimmy. He also appeared in a film called China staring Loretta Young and Alan Ladd and went on to appear in over 200 films as a character actor. Other notable films that include Charlie Chan and the Secret Service, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and two movies starring Agnes Moorehead, Dragon Seed (1944) and The Left-Hand of God (1955). He also appeared in a Perry Mason episode called "The Case of the Caretaker's Cat" and TV's Kung Fu (1972) along side David Carradine and the reunion television movie (1986).
He might have continued with only one profession if it had not been for Gregory Peck. After they completed Key's of the Kingdom, Peck's first role, he suggested they start a restaurant. Fong acted on the suggestion, although he decided not to risk his friend's newly earned money, and opened the first Ah Fong's on Vine St., where all the action was in 1946.
In 1950 he moved to Sunset Blvd & Laurel and opened locations in Beverly Hills in 1953, Encino in 1963, and just before Christmas, he opened a fourth location in Anaheim.
Photo taken from Ed Ruscha's 1966 self-published book Every Building On the Sunset Strip.
Sunset and Laurel in the 1970s. Back when Greenblatts was on the corner where the Laugh Factory is today. When this location closed, Greenblatt's moved in. (Sadly, we lost Greenblatt's too recently)
Ah Fong's in Beverly Hills.
Benson Fong was one of the first to realize that the way of life in Los Angeles was to be elegant casual, but his restaurants were not formal. They were somewhat Cantonese, somewhat Polynesian, but mostly what one would expect from a smart young American-born Chinese actor, who wanted a place where his working friends could relax and be comfortable -bearing in mind that these were not ordinary run of working friends.
The Menu was a listing of Cantonese dishes such as Shew muy, Beef Su Chow, Dim Sum, and Penang fried rice, which was served with nine different vegetables, water chestnuts, pine nuts, and sweet raisins which all added up to an exceptional dish. The Pork Ah Fong, (a personal favorite), was sliced extra thin. I remember it tasted extra crispy around the edges. I would dip it in a wild plum sauce. They also had two egg dishes I loved: Yangchow Eggs, basically strips of barbecued pork, assorted veggies, mixed into an egg mixture and cooked in a bowl which was inverted onto a plate. Drizzled with hoisin sauce....yum! Cashew Eggs was the same, topped with cashews. And who could forget the fried wantons served the second you sat down. Too bad I wasn't old enough to consume a Mai tai, but a Shirley Temple went just fine with Shrimp Foo Yung! Damn, I miss that food.
Check out a scan of their menu below from the Vintage Los Angeles archives. At this very moment I'm craving their Beef Soo Chow!
In Encino, the Jackson Family lived around the corner and all the boys would come mostly to order food to go. I'd see Michael playing with his friends in the neighborhood. June Allison was a regular in Encino. So was Robert Conrad, David Carradine, Jodi Foster, Rob Lowe, Dolly Parton, Melissa Gilbert, Cheryl Ladd, I remember serving them all.