Wong Kei Restaurant – A Chinatown Legend
Published 12 January 2010
If you have ever wandered around Chinatown looking for a decent place to indulge in your favourite far eastern delicacies, you may have come across a little known restaurant called Wong Kei. Seating approximately 500 and spanning four floors, it is one of the biggest in the UK. In addition to the decent sized, reasonably priced portions and its wide ranging menu of mouth watering meals, this restaurant is most memorable for its large and busy team of waiters and waitresses who have a tendency to provide one of the rudest standards of service you are likely to encounter.
In fact their reputation has gathered a cult following, with the regulars endearingly coming back just for the experience.
Upon entering you are swiftly asked “how many?” in a speedy Chinese accent (heaven forbid if you should miss-hear and ask to repeat themselves) and they will either reply “upstairs” or “downstairs” according to the size of your group. During a recent visit, a friend, inexperienced to the Wong Kei system, failed to find the stairs in the first instance and turned around to the waiter for clarification on what exactly he had meant by “upstairs”. To his shock the waiter bellowed back “Upstairs! Upstairs! Don’t you understand English?!?”.
If you are eventually sent upstairs the whole series of question and answers begins again with a new member of staff on each floor. Once they kept sending me “upstairs” at every floor until there was no more “upstairs” left! This has become somewhat of a favourite catchphrase with the regulars and you can even buy the infamous black and red Wong Kei T-shirts, as worn by the staff, with the phrase “Upstairs – Downstairs” printed on the back.
It is advised that you sit on the table you are told to sit at, even if that means sitting with random strangers. This however is part of the whole Wong Kei experience and you can find yourself getting into fun and interesting conversations with people from all over the world. Once seated you are swiftly brought a complimentary tin pot of hot Chinese tea as you peruse the menu. Top tip: if you happen to run out of the tea during the course of your meal, simply leave the lid off the teapot and a waiter will come along with a fresh pot almost immediately.
The food will usually be copious and delicious, brought out on plastic Wong Kei plates and bowls along with a pair of chopsticks and a soup spoon (I have yet to pluck up the courage to ask for a knife and fork, but my chop stick skills have improved tremendously as a result). This is definitely not a place to go if you are expecting plush gourmet fine dining. The disposable paper table coverings and plastic crockery altogether adds to the informal, cheap, quirky and fun atmosphere. You can get a filling meal such as beef in black bean sauce and ho fun noodles for around £4.20. Set meals for two people can start from around £7. However, like many other establishments around Chinatown, cards are not accepted and only cash is accepted for settling the bill.
The restaurant’s cult status was cemented in the times when staff would actually shout at and harass unsuspecting customers during their meals in an attempt to speed up their eating. This was on the grounds that there would usually be a long queue of diners all waiting to get in for the experience. But alas, these busy days have disappeared and as a result service has become tamer in comparison. To get a taste of these good old days and certainly a taste of decent, reasonably priced Chinese food, Wong Kei is well worth a visit.
Cuisine: Quick authentic Chinese food
Price range: £10 for a big meal for two
Address: Wong Kei Restaurant, 41-43 Wardour Street London, W1D 6PY (location map)
Nearest tube stations: Leicester Square Tube Station (8 minutes walk), Piccadilly Circus Tube Station (6 minutes walk)
Telephone number for booking: +44 020 7437 3071
Website: no official website
Article written by Andalib Karim.