(cross-posted at UnTapped New York. Thanks to Michelle Young for the photos.)
For more than thirty years, the Silk Road Palace was a cornerstone of Upper West Side nightlife, a place so draped in legend that newcomers were shocked to discover it was real. An innocuous Chinese restaurant at first glance, the Road was glitz, grit and swagger- free boxed white wine flowing for hours, as dozens of rowdy denizens launched into their Amsterdam Avenue nights. Last October, devotees were shocked to see the Road’s doors shuttered without warning. Even as a clone-like operation, the West Lake Palace, steps in to take its place, the House that Frank Built will be missed for its epic memories.
I probably dined at the Road more than 600 times, beginning in 1999. In our high school circle, the Road quickly established itself as the ultimate pregaming locale, allowing us to get dinner and all the booze we needed for $12- the cost of an entrée, tax and tip. Patrons waiting to be seated could drink outside, fake IDs were barely necessary (chalking would suffice) and friends would stop by for impromptu toasts. The wild illegality of the operation hardly bothered the NYPD, who had a police station around the corner and often stopped by for dinner.
There were, of course, some house rules. A short, bespectacled man, Frank exuded authority, and ran the small, crowded restaurant like an epic Tetris master, wheeling tables and chairs every which way as he peered down his notepad to seat the next set of customers. There was nothing that he liked less than a party of 10 informing him that they had become a party of 8 or 12, throwing off his grid. Over the years I mastered knowledge of own friends’ flakiness to provide Frank an accurate figure. After an incident where my buddy Nick was caught filling his water bottle with boxed wine after ordering a $2 spring roll, Frank imposed a one entrée per customer requirement. Tabs were paid in cash only, probably for tax purposes.
An ode to Frank:
Frank made this guy sign a contract before he sat down making him promise to behave. The contract read: If I am loud, I promise to leave. I sincerely promise to try my hardest to be the best customer. 3/23/2007
As our drinking prowess increased during our college years, the staff would take to “blitzing” us, plopping Sesame Chicken and Beef with Broccoli on our tables minutes after we were seated. We learned to order odd dishes like Prawn and Chicken Curry to throw off the blitz, and to move food between dishes so the staff couldn’t clear the table and serve us our bill- our “trench warfare” tactics.
These minor skirmishes aside, Frank and his staff were true to their promise, filling endless carafes of boxed wine- while we waited to be seated, before we ordered, as we ate our meals, while we paid the check- and usually a bonus two carafes after we’d already paid. These two hour dinners would be joyous affairs- boat races and birthday songs, mandatory toasts for first time Roaders, taunts and drinking contests with rival tables of Columbia, Fordham and NYU students.
As the years went by, our relationship with Frank thawed, then warmed. I picked the Silk Road as my birthday dinner spot seven times in the last ten years, and Frank would always be ready with a small cake and candle. I’ve introduced over 100 people to the Road, a fact Frank silently acknowledged when we’d shake hands and smile at the end of every meal. Last I heard, Frank was spotted out in Flushing, plotting his next move. Contrary to popular theory, the West Lake Palace isn’t the same restaurant with a new name. It’s a new restaurant. Frank is not running the show. It is not the Silk Road Palace.
Indeed, there is nothing like the Silk Road Palace. I sought out the long-fabled “Indian Silk Road Palace”, only to discover that it merely offered a discounted glass of wine as part of a dinner special. On the Chinese side, the Hunan Cottage on 77th street theoretically offers the same deal, but it prides itself on class, and has a distaste for boisterous groups. The Pearl on 99th street has low quality food and low quality service. They want you in and out quickly, even with no one waiting for your table.
Some thought the Silk Road’s demise was over the City’s new health code inspections, and others believed it was a police bust over underage drinking, but the most plausible explanation is that like hundreds of New York’s great institutions, it fell victim to commercial rent increases. How the landlord expects another Chinese restaurant to do better, I do not know.
We paid our first visit to West Lake Palace (named for a historic Chinese imperial retreat) at 8pm on a Friday, an hour later than we would have risked at the Road. Astonishingly, the place was empty, and our table for 12 was quickly seated as we waited for more than half of our group to arrive, unthinkable in the Frank Era. Frank insisted on having the full party present or else losing your place in line, a system that I battled for years by manipulating our group size, placing coats on vacant chairs and ordering food for people still on their way. We were reassured however, because the place looked exactly the same as we remembered.
West Lake endorses the free boxed wine concept, though it seemed to do so begrudgingly, providing the dozen of us only two carafes at the outset. As the meal went on, they got the message, and soon it felt like old times again, the little fridge door swinging open for ever more Franzia. The prices have gone up, particularly on seafood dishes, many of which are now over $15. Silk Road/Westlake meals are always presumed to be family style, and the bill at Westlake came out to $18 each, $3 more than the highest we’d ever paid at the Road.
We managed to get a two table boat race with our new friends at the table over:
In 2005 I was at a fancy West Village bar, hitting it off with a girl who seemed to share my love for the Silk Road. I told her I went there at least once a month, which impressed her mightily. She countered that she had spent a whole summer there, which struck me as odd, if not awesome. It turned out, of course, that I was talking about the dingy restaurant, and she about the transcontinental road that took Marco Polo to China. So it goes. There will be a time, however, when, like the Central Asian route of old, Frank’s Silk Road Palace, the capitol of great pregaming times, will formally pass into legend, a place you can physically visit, but never again truly experience or know.
West Lake Palace
447 Amsterdam Avenue at 81st Street