The Glamorous Chinese Restaurant That’s Served the Art World for 50 Years

Julia Fiore
Jul 19, 2019 6:43PM

Andy Warhol, Portrait of Michael Chow, 1981. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of MR CHOW.

Fifty years ago, on Valentine’s Day 1968, a new restaurant opened its doors in London’s posh Knightsbridge neighborhood. With its French decor, Italian waiters, and Chinese cuisine, Mr Chow was unlike any fine-dining establishment the city had seen, even in the happening cultural center of the Swinging Sixties.

Its first patrons were stunned to enter a sophisticated and modern space with white walls, green-tiled floors, and elegantly arched ceilings. They were seated in minimalist Art Deco furniture among works by the day’s leading stars: David Hockney, Allen Jones, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Blake, and Richard Smith.

Ben Buchanan
E. Saltzman, Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Leroy Nieman, Snow Pea Art at Mr. Chow, NYC, 1985, 1985
Tanya Baxter Contemporary

“Mr Chow is not just a restaurant,” gallerist Jeffrey Deitch remembers in his essay for the commemorative book Mr Chow: 50 Years, published last year by Delmonico and Prestel. “It is an immersive aesthetic experience, fusing art, architecture, performance, and culinary innovation.” Over the past half-century, Mr Chow has grown to include locations in New York (East 57th Street and Tribeca), Los Angeles County (Beverly Hills and Malibu), Miami, and Las Vegas. (Outposts in Mexico City, Kyoto, and Seoul have since closed.)

Its success has much to do with its mingling of food, art, and high society; the tradition of welcoming artists and its popularity as a venue for exhibition opening celebrations has made it a hot spot for creative luminaries from Andy Warhol to Lady Gaga. “Mr Chow has become a cultural institution,” Deitch writes. “Every artistic generation has been part of the scene at Mr Chow. Indeed, more connections have been made there than in most art galleries.”

Winter mobiles by Richard Smith in Mr Chow’s 57th Street location in Manhattan. Photo by Sharon Leger Gottula of Image Light Group. Courtesy of MR CHOW.

The expanded dining room of Mr Chow in Beverly Hills, California, 2006. Photo by Sharon Leger Gottula. Courtesy of MR CHOW.

The restaurant was the passion project of Michael Chow, who is today, at age 80, one of the world’s most recognizable and glamorous restaurateurs and art collectors. Chow was born Zhou Yinghua in Shanghai, the son of renowned stage actor Zhou Xinfang. Due to mounting political tensions in China, Chow left Shanghai by boat alone in 1953 to attend boarding school in England. He never again spoke with or saw his father—who was later imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution—but remembers his last words of advice: “Wherever you go, always remember you are Chinese.”

Chow trained in art and architecture at Central Saint Martins and worked, with modest success, as a painter in his twenties. The prejudice he encountered as a Chinese artist in London, and the need to earn a decent living, inspired a career change. “Since all things Chinese are great,” he writes in 50 Years, “I appointed myself as cultural ambassador.”

Andy Warhol, Michael Chow, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Basquiats mother and friends, 1984. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of MR CHOW.

Back in 1968, Deitch recalls, “Chinese cuisine in the West was associated with cheap and noisy restaurants in Chinatown.” The restaurant bridged the then-sizable gap between East and West. Even with its name, Mr Chow endeavored to raise the profile of Chinese cuisine with “the elegant style of its presentation.”

Deitch first dined at Mr Chow’s East 57th Street location in New York in 1984, at a Mary Boone fête for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s exhibition opening. “It was like a reverse stage,” he writes. “From the bar one could look down on the glamorous crowd, and the crowd below could look up at the luminaries seated at the prestigious mezzanine table.”

Julian Schnabel, Portrait of Michael Chow, 1984. © 2018 Julian Schnabel/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of MR CHOW.

Over the decades, Michael Chow has been captured by many of the artists he’s hosted at his restaurants, and has become a celebrity in his own right. It’s a tradition, and almost a right of passage, for of-the-moment artists to make his portrait. Figures from Hockney to Warhol to Jonas Wood have translated his trademark mustache and impeccably tailored suits (and, in later years, round, black-rimmed glasses) according to their unique artistic visions.

Peter Blake was first to create Chow’s portrait, in 1966. In response to Chow’s directive to make him a painting about racism, Blake portrayed him in yellow-face, as the menacing manager to the Chinese and Italian wrestlers that flank him.

Archival photography of Mr Chow, Beverly Hills, with a checkered marble floor inspired by Rudolph Valentino’s dance floor. Photo from Mr Chow Enterprises Press Archives. Courtesy of MR CHOW.

Over decades of friendship, Julian Schnabel, a regular at Mr Chow in the 1980s, has painted not only Chow himself, but also his wife and children. His 1984 portrait of Chow, covered in the artist’s typical smashed plates, includes dishes from the restaurant. (Original art extends beyond Chow’s personal collection: The restaurant’s plateware once sported a logo by Cy Twombly; Warhol designed the chopstick paper wrappers; and Hockney’s 1969 portrait of Chow featured on the matchbox.)

For his own 1973 take, Mr. Chow L.A. (a reproduction of which appeared on the reverse side of the matchbox), Ed Ruscha took on an expansive definition of portraiture. Chow requested that the artist baste the background of his canvas in soy sauce. But after months of waiting for the finished product, the frustrated restaurateur called up the artist. As Chow remembers it, “Ed, with a melancholy voice, said, ‘Soy sauce just won’t dry.’ Hence, an important scientific discovery was made: soy sauce never dries.” In its place, Ruscha used egg yolk for the ground and painted the letters of the titlewith “an assortment of delicious vegetables. The picture is good enough to eat,” Chow writes.

Perhaps the most lifelike depiction of Chow is one of the most recent: a 2014 wax portrait by Urs Fischer. The work—titled his given name, Zhou Yinghua—debuted in Chow’s home country, in the exhibition “Voice for my Father” at the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art in Beijing. The realistic sculpture resembles an effigy, and when the wax figure was lit on fire during the show, Chow writes, “everyone was excited to watch me burn.”

Yet Mr Chow and its creator have remained as popular as ever all over the now-international art world. Chow’s glamorous vision is today furthered by his three children who are jet-setting art patrons and models, and also help run the restaurants (his son Maximillian Chow oversees the Mr Chow corporate office). At 80 years old, the family’s patriarch, however, has returned to a long-shelved dream: He’s begun painting again after 50 years.

Julia Fiore