Peony Seafood Restaurant general manager Ming Zhu stands in a completely empty private banquet hall separate from the main hall. Peony is currently surviving on selling take out food only. Nov. 16, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Back in early February, as the Year of the Rat scampered in, the delectable dim sum morsels at Peony Seafood Restaurant delighted almost 1,000 diners every Saturday and Sunday. The huge space (at 10,450 square feet, Peony is the only “banquet hall” sized restaurant in Oakland Chinatown) was filled with the exuberant din of families seated around large tables celebrating Chinese New Year, while smartly dressed servers wheeled carts laden with almost 200 different items, including favorites such as: shrimp dumplings, BBQ pork rolls, roast duck, and sweets with a sense of humor, like molded coconut bunnies and custard buns with cute pig faces, all handmade in Peony’s kitchen.

One month later, everything came to a crashing halt. General manager Ming Zhu had been following the news from China and anticipated what was coming. When one of the three Princess Cruise ships with an early outbreak of the coronavirus docked in the Port of Oakland, and its command center took over the Oakland Marriott hotel, only blocks away, Zhu preemptively closed Peony on March 9 to protect his staff and customers. Not only did he lose all his dim sum and dinner business, but he also had to cancel hundreds of community events, including three months’ worth of Chinese New Year parties, plus scores of wedding celebrations. 

For 20 years, Peony, on the top floor of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza on Ninth Street, has been the heart of Oakland Chinatown and played host to all its special occasions. Now the cavernous dining room is eerily empty, its sparkly chandeliers dark, and 60 tables wait patiently, wearing their red table skirts and yellow tablecloths. Giant flower paintings adorn the walls and a pair of large marble statues, a chicken and a peony, silently stand guard. A large blue tank still holds live Australian rock cod, lobster from Boston, and local crab for Peony’s fresh seafood specialties, which are now only available to go.

Peony Seafood Restaurant

Location: 388 Ninth St. Suite 288, Oakland, CA 94607

Hours: Monday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m. and Friday–Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m., closed on Tuesday.

Phone: For to-go orders, call (510) 286-8866

The more than 80 employees at Peony were almost a family. Zhu had gathered 10 of the best dim sum chefs, two BBQ chefs and 10 other chefs who specialized in steaming, roasting, braising, frying, and wok cooking. They and the servers, hosts, and cleaners used to work six days a week to satisfy customers, who often brought visiting friends and family from around the world. Sadly, Zhu had to lay off his whole staff when Peony closed in March. But on May 4, he reopened for limited take-out service, offering 33 of the usual 200 dim sum selections, plus several lunch and dinner options—a sliver of his former business. In this way, he could rehire his employees to work one or two days a week, instead of their previous six. 

“Peony is, without a doubt, my favorite dim sum restaurant,” says Carolyn Phillips, local author of The Dim Sum Field Guide and several other books on Chinese cuisine. “The dim sum chefs are dedicated and trained in the old ways, yet they are also inventive. And Zhu is too modest about his efforts to produce the highest quality,” says Phillips. “Take their har gow, for example, the shrimp are large, sweet, and crunchy. Why is it so good? Because Zhu uses only wild-caught shrimp. He has an almost Alice Waters level of dedication to sourcing good ingredients. Peony is the place I bring visiting gourmets, who are always blown away. If it closed, it would leave a real hole in the Chinese food scene.”

The front entrance of Peony Seafood Restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown. Nov. 16, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Peony’s delicious dishes are not the only thing that community members are missing now. Lisa Li, an insurance specialist who works at the Oakland office of AAA, has been coming to Peony for 20 years. “There is a void in my heart,” she says. “It’s not just the food, it’s the interactions. As a popular hub for the community, I always run into people I know there, friends, clients. I miss catching up with old friends and meeting new people.” Li also regularly organized evening events in Peony’s private dining rooms for two local organizations.

Currently, the ample kitchen is not completely empty. Peony’s dedicated chefs are still making fresh food for to-go orders. Plus, they now offer frozen versions of Peony’s dim sum varieties with instructions both in English and Chinese. These easy-to-prepare-dishes just need to be steamed for 6-12 minutes, depending on the variety. Most of Peony’s 33 dim sum selections can be bought frozen, including har gow, siu mai, Berkshire pork dumplings, BBQ pork buns, Chui Chow meat dumplings, and sticky rice in lotus leaf. Also available frozen are chicken feet and beef tripe, which are popular dishes among its regular Chinese customers. Prior to the pandemic, Zhu offered the frozen dim sum only occasionally. Now it has become a major part of the business.

Peony now offers 33 dim sum items for takeout. Photo: Anna Mindess
Peony now offers 33 dim sum items for takeout. Photo: Anna Mindess

Peony’s location, tucked away on the second floor of the Renaissance Plaza, does not lend itself to foot traffic. Many of its regular customers have been supportive during the pandemic, says Zhu, but it’s not enough. Limited take-out orders cannot sustain the 450-seat restaurant. “It’s the end of the rope,” says Zhu, who fears that he can only survive another two or three months in the present situation.

He is not alone. The coronavirus has been devastating for Chinese restaurants around the country. In New York’s Chinatown, one-third of the restaurants have closed permanently, including several legacy mom and pop places that were well over 50 years old. Multi-award-winning cookbook author, Grace Young, who is affectionately known to thousands of followers as the Stir-Fry Guru and the Wok Therapist, is trying to spread awareness of this dire situation. Young grew up in San Francisco and now lives in New York City, where she has been chronicling the disastrous effects of the coronavirus not only on New York’s Chinatown but also around the country. In March, she discovered that nationwide, 59% of independently owned Chinese restaurants had ceased credit and debit card transactions, implying that they had permanently closed. By April, 233,000 Asian-American-owned businesses had shut down.

In October, in an effort to spread the word and enlist support from people across the country, Young started a campaign in conjunction with The James Beard Foundation with the hashtag #SaveChineseRestaurants. “It’s an Instagram challenge,” she says, “where we ask people to post a photo of their favorite dish from a local Chinese restaurant and challenge their friends, family, and followers to do the same.” Tag your post @beardfoundation, and they will repost the best photos.

Restaurant manager Happy Wu hurries through the empty main banquet hall at the Peony Seafood Restaurant. Open for 20 years and under current management for the last 7 years, the restaurant is struggling to stay on its feet through the pandemic. Nov. 16, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland’s Chinatown, which was settled right after the Gold Rush in the 1850s, is one of the nation’s oldest. “Chinatowns are great centers of Chinese cuisine and culture and they are also historic immigrant communities, which gave immigrants an opportunity to get a foothold in this country,” says Young. “San Francisco, New York, and Oakland Chinatowns also provide super-fresh, high-quality, and affordable produce. These businesses are pillars of the community. And each time we lose one of them, it erodes our ability to support immigrant communities.”

“I think anyone whose shop or restaurant is open right now is a warrior,” says Young.  She wants the community to rally with their support for restaurants like Peony, and not by just ordering take-out once a month. “They need us for repeat business,” she says. “That would make a huge difference.”

“I am a cookbook author,” says Young. “So, I always want people to be cooking at home, but because of the situation, when I order take-out, I also pick up something for friends who are sheltering in place, and I feel like I’m giving double support. At a restaurant like Peony, dim sum is an art form, and dumplings, made by specially trained chefs, are the most labor intensive of all.”

“My greatest fear,” says Young, “is that in the future, when we want Chinese food, we’ll be forced to eat at Chinese restaurant chains. That’s why it’s so important to protect and support our precious Chinese eateries now.”

Although Ming Zhu might be feeling close to the end of his rope, he also has a plan. Before joining Peony, Zhu trained as a chef and had experience working in fast food as well. One solution he came up with for Peony is to get his food out to as many people as possible. So, it now offers party trays that feed 8-10, or larger sizes up to 15 or 30 people.

Peony’s frozen packaged dim sum, party trays and individually boxed meals are new offerings that the restaurant is trying to stay in business. Photo: Anna Mindess

Another offering is reasonably priced, individually boxed meals, such as: a BBQ pork rice bowl for $5, or a chicken, rice, and vegetable box for $10. Zhu has already filled bulk orders for Kaiser Medical Center, Asian Health Services, and Oakland Pharmacy, among others. He figures that if the Peony chefs can box up lunches and dinners of its delicious food to sell in quantity at a low price point to large organizations, schools, and businesses, it could bring in enough money so that Peony can stay in business until the dining room can fully reopen and the carts of steaming dumplings and buns can delight diners once again. 

Anna Mindess has two professions. She is a freelance journalist who focuses on food, culture, immigrants and travel. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, and Berkeleyside. In 2018, her essay about 1951 Coffee Company was awarded First Place by the Association of Food Journalists. Anna also works as an American Sign Language interpreter and is the author of Reading Between the Signs, a book used to train sign language interpreters around the world.