Nostalgia for Noodles: Pearl's, the Best Chinese Restaurant in New York City, Is No More!

05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Years ago, I bumped into Pearl Wong while shopping at Macy's. Even though I'd known her my entire life, I'd never seen her outside of her restaurant.

Pearl's was unique. Not only was it the best Chinese restaurant in New York City -- it had become a celebrity itself, a hotspot. But before Pearl became Pearl's, it was Canton Village, a Chinese restaurant in the theater district near Times Square. Pearl was the hostess, and her husband Jimmy manned the bar and cash register. John, who had an office upstairs, we all assumed was the owner.

Every Friday night, my grandparents held court over a hungry mob of family and friends at a huge round table at the back of the restaurant. Menus did not appear. Instead, Pearl came to the table and asked, "What do you feel like eating?" Mostly she conferred with my mother, the food aficionado. There was seaweed soup and abalone dumplings; sea bass, curried crabs and a vegetable dish with lotus root and tree fungus. Some people had favorite dishes, but most diners would leave it up to Pearl. They'd say, "I'm feeling like fish tonight." Pearl would rattle off some combination of ingredients and they'd nod, "Yes, that sounds perfect."

Sumptuous dishes arrived all night long. Finally, after fresh lychee nuts--like a pulpy grape--for dessert, we'd head out into the New York night. As we left, Jimmy Wong always gave me a triangle-shaped, peanut candy.

Then, one week, in a "Brigadoon"-like disappearance act, Canton Village was no more. John, it turned out, was not the owner but a manager and it was rumored that the Tongs, the Chinese mafia, had re-claimed the real estate.

Luckily, Canton Village was not just my family's hangout. Writers, photographers and executives from Time Inc. also called it home-away-from-home. They raised money and acquired a new restaurant space for the Wongs about a block away, and Pearl's was born. The décor was eye-popping orange and yellow. The sleek interior design was done by Irene Sharaff, a famous stage and screen costume designer, or so my mother said.

One day, Kenneth, the celebrity hairstylist, took Jackie Kennedy there for lunch to try the lemon chicken and, from then on, Pearl's was the place to be. The see-and-be-seens started having menu consults with Pearl. But, no matter, Pearl still treated us like royalty along with Richard Rodgers and Woody Allen, who came with a different tall, beauty every time. All the while, the food remained divine.

Some years later, the restaurant moved again, just a few blocks away. The architectural firm Gwathmey Siegel & Associates gave the interior a "cool, sophisticated look"--a black and grey tunnel of acoustic hell. But this didn't stop the regulars; the famous and the infamous along with the wannabees, and my family were all there. And, again, the food remained divine.

One particular night, when the clan gathered at Pearl's, the usual merriment and joviality at our table was turned up a notch. My cousin was soon to be married. As a surprise, she'd bought her husband-to-be a pair of Tiffany gold cufflinks, engraved with his initials, and she'd sworn us all to secrecy.

My grandfather liked to drink Gimlets. A Gimlet looks just like a Martini but there's a little onion at the bottom of the glass instead of an olive. At some point during the evening, my grandfather leaned over to Frank, my cousin's intended, and asked him how he liked his cufflinks.

The table fell silent. Everyone in the family stared at my grandfather in disbelief. My cousin was on the verge of tears. After a blank moment, my grandfather said, "Oh, I must have forgotten to give them to you." He put down his Gimlet, tugged ever so slightly on his shirtsleeves and revealed a pair of cufflinks emblazoned with the letter "F." He removed them with a flourish and handed them to Frank. Everyone at the table laughed, a bit nervously, and went back to concentrating on the meal.

Later, when everyone had gone off to the restroom or to retrieve coats, I was at the table alone with my grandfather. As a young boy growing up in New York City, my grandfather had fallen from a trolley car and escaped being crushed to death by a hair's breath. As a young man, he had been struck by a car but managed to roll between the wheels and got up without a scratch.

"I was walking through Macy's," my grandfather said, "and there was a sale on cufflinks in the men's department. All the 'J's and 'B's (his initials) were gone, so I took ones with an 'F'." For Frances, my grandmother's name.

Pearl retired and sold the restaurant. My mother argued that the chef was the same and the food was still good. But, I said: "The thrill is gone." And, now, Pearl's is gone, too. But, I would sell my soul to be back at our table, for even one night, with my grandfather holding court and picking up the tab.