Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the DC area, with multiple Chinatowns across the region and a plethora of carryout joints. But a century ago, Chinese food was more of a novelty here.
Hong Kong Restaurant in Congress Heights, once the only Chinese restaurant east of the river. Photo from the collection of Jerry McCoy.
The city’s first Chinese restaurants opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1890s, according to local historian John DeFerrari, author of the recently published Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC: Capital Eats. He cites a 1903 Washington Times article that described Chinese restaurants as a fad among the city’s “smart set,” who liked to go “slumming” in DC’s small Chinatown at 4th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, now home to the National Gallery of Art.
Within a matter of decades, says DeFerrari, their numbers began to grow. In the 1920s and 1930s, neighborhood Chinese restaurants began appearing all over the city, serving dishes like chow mein and chop suey. Since Chinese restaurants traditionally didn’t serve alcohol, they were particularly well-suited to weather the Prohibition era.
But you couldn’t find them in every neighborhood. East of the Anacostia River, perhaps the only Chinese joint was the Hong Kong Restaurant at 3109B Nichols Avenue SE in Congress Heights.
It is unclear when the restaurant opened and when it closed, but it was around long enough to appear in a postcard. “Its style as seen in the old postcard is typical of restaurants of the 1930s and 1940s,” notes DeFerrari. The address shown says Nichols Avenue, which became Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in the 1970s.
It is within reason to speculate the restaurant was open into the 1950s, before the neighborhood desegregated. During that era, the streetcar ran up and down Nichols Avenue from Anacostia, a white neighborhood, through Hillsdale/Barry Farm, a black neighborhood, to Congress Heights, then a white neighborhood. As the only Chinese joint east of the river, the Hong Kong was likely a destination for many residents there.
Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue is home to convenience stores, liquor stores, mobile phone providers, offices for contractors and social services, a car-wash, an athletic footwear store, and a weekly newspaper, along with the well-known Player’s Lounge.
Meanwhile, the weather-beaten storefront remains, the restaurant is long gone, replaced today by a dollar store advertising Newport cigarettes for sale and letting customers know that it accepts EBT and food stamps.