For nearly 50 years, the six-story building at 838 Grant Avenue has been one of Chinatown's most iconic buildings—recognizable down the block for its high, hand-painted lettering that announces Empress of China.
Since 1966, the Empress held court for San Francisco foodies and visiting celebrities in its famed restaurant; most especially, its top-floor banquet halls were regularly filled with the weddings, holidays, and occasions of the neighborhood's Chinese families.
Shuttered in 2014 and empty throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Empress has returned to her throne this month with the much-anticipated opening of Empress by Boon, a grand and respectful restoration of the iconic restaurant, helmed by Michelin-starred chef Ho Chee Boon.
The elevator trip to the upper level restaurant provides just the right amount of expectation to deliver a real wow moment when the doors slide open, revealing a 7,500-square-foot space dressed lavishly in opulent colors, textures, and patterns.
One of Empress of Boon's three spacious dining rooms, designed by the U.K.'s Atelier LLYS.(Photography by Sarah Chorey)
Malaysian-born Boon, who spent 30 years opening Hakkasan restaurants around the globe as the brand's international executive chef, tapped U.K. design firm Atelier LLYS to "bring the restaurant back to its former glory and pay homage to the special place it held in the hearts of the community," he says. This meant keeping the original layout and its iconic antique woodwork including the old pergola, which now frames a stylish tea lounge with seating in shades of purple leather and lots of gilded accents.
Teetotalers should steer clear of the U-shaped, marble-topped bar where sultry red lighting and plush leather stools beg you to stop for a Nanjing Cocktail of duck fat–washed Knob Creek Rye, Sichuan bitters, and plum before settling in at your table in one of three distinct dining rooms. Wherever you sit, you can expect rich embellishments such as teal-painted lattice dividers, geometric tilework, ethereal abstract paintings, and views of Chinatown, Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill, and Russian Hill.
The manifestation of the chef's dream restaurant ("I have wanted to open a restaurant under my name in San Francisco for a long time," he says), Empress by Boon has opened with an affordable, $68 five-course prix-fixe dinner but has plans to offer a la carte options soon. Either way, you'll get the flavor of modern Chinese cooking in dishes such as Iberico ham soup dumplings; crispy prawns with wasabi and pineapple; and lotus rice. But do save room for dessert.
Sophisticated sweets here are the work of pastry chef Rory MacDonald of Manhattan's Chanson Patisserie and late-night Thyme Bar (he is also formerly of Hakkasan and Gordon Ramsey at The London Hotel, and has staged at The French Laundry). You won't want to miss the creamy egg tart, accented on our visit with fresh summer strawberries and rhubarb.
"We surprise and delight our guests with our mix of ingredients, says Boon, who combines Cantonese culinary techniques that preserve the natural flavors of food with seasonal, organically grown produce from the restaurant's own farm in Gilroy.
All these elements combine for an alchemical experience that we expect will book out well in advance for parties and special occasions.
"Our team was honored to take on the responsibility of restoring not only important original interior design details," says Boon, "but the vital role Empress of China played in the community as a place to celebrate and gather with loved ones."
Photography by Sarah Chorey
Empress by Boon doesn't serve any ordinary soup dumplings. These morsels are stuffed with juicy Iberico ham, and come in a course of three small bites.
// Empress by Boon, 838 Grant Ave. (Chinatown), theempresssf.com