In a city where restaurants are lucky to survive 18 months, it’s remarkable to find one that’s still thriving 85 years after it first opened its doors in 1928. The first Jimmy’s Kitchen was on the then Wanchai shoreline on Lockhart Road and served solid grub to foreign adventurers, China traders and British navy chaps pining for decent food that reminded them of home. Much as it does now, with a few nods to modern cooking. It was a scrubbed table tops and bare light bulbs sort of place, nothing like as plush as today.
Who was Jimmy?
Jimmy was Jimmy James, from a small Midwestern town and posted to the Far East with the US army. After discharge he was doing so well in Shanghai he was enlisted by the US government to be a Deputy Marshall in 1923. Jimmy was smart and a year later opened a hamburger stand on Chefoo docks, now Yantai, on the north coast of Shantung, a summer anchorage for the American navy. He also opened a popcorn stand in Shanghai. His next move was a restaurant called The Broadway Lunch in Shanghais docklands, opposite the Savoy Hotel. It soon became known to regulars as Jimmy’s, so he changed the name officially to Jimmy’s Kitchen. In 1927 he opened a second Jimmy’s on Nanjing Road East, next door to the Navy YMCA.
Jimmy’s heads south
The same year he met and teamed up with Aaron Landau, and adventurer heading south from Russia, and they agreed Aaron would open Hong Kong Jimmy’s. He did just that, in 1928, near the Seaman’s Institute and Old China Fleet Club on Lockhart Road. It moved to China Building, Theatre Lane in Central in 1934 and Aaron’s son Leo joined the business.
Jimmy’s was forced to close in1941 during World War Two when Leo was interned by the Japanese in Sham Shui Po. As soon as the invaders had surrendered at Christmas in 1945, he went straight back to restart the restaurant, with many of the original staff. If he was able to get supplies, it must have been an oasis after the ghastly hardships of the grim war years.
During the War Jimmy and his family were interred in a centre outside Shanghai, where he was put in charge of running the camp kitchen. When the war ended in 1945 he returned to running his businesses until he lost or sold them when the Communists took over in 1948. Then he returned to America to live in Dallas, where he was later credited with bringing Chinese fried rice to Texas. He died in1990 aged 88.
The heyday of Jimmy’s Kitchen was just after the war, when Aaron retired and son Leo took over the business. Leo was passionate and the restaurant blossomed. He was reported in a 1976 newspaper piece as saying: “Father always resisted suggestions of change. It was only after his death in 1948 that I gradually started adding frills to the old lady.” Aaron died a year later in 1949.
By the fifties and sixties, Jimmy’s kitchen was trendy, and a popular hangout with movie folks. Stars like Cary Grant and William Holden ate there while filming. William Holden liked the food so much he took his French onion soup with him when firemen evacuated the building during a fire.
Apologies in advance
If I get any of this wrong by the way, blame Peter Schlipf and Grant Baird, who were recounting the restaurant’s history at the 85th birthday party last night. Drink had been taken, so I cannot vouch for total accuracy.
A 1969 newspaper advert announced “Eat at Jimmy’s – on both sides of the harbour” – which heralded the TST branch. In 1975, Jimmy’s in Central moved across the road to the South China Building at the bottom of Wyndham Street. “Jimmy’s moved into the basement just vacated by the South China Morning Post’s printing presses – the floor was still covered with ink,” says Baird, a diehard Jimmy’s Kitchen fan and former director of operations for Epicurean Group for 11 years.
Jimmy’s Kitchen stayed in the Landau family until the business was sold in 1985 to Neil Mackenzie and Peter Schlipf. In 2002, when it was dogged by financial troubles, Sherman Tang of Epicurean Group stepped in and bought Jimmy’s, at the insistence of Baird. “Sherman loved Jimmy’s, but if I hadn’t been working for him and persuaded him, he would not have bought it,” says Bard who remembers every moment. “Negations started at 6pm on a Friday night and the deal was done by 7.30,” he recalls fondly.
So how has Jimmy’s Kitchen survived so long when grander, flasher places have vanished long ago? It’s old fashioned, fuddy duddy, the air con packed up for weeks last summer but no one really minded. It’s still as popular with the great and the good as it ever was. More deals have been done in the dark basement than in Hong Kong’s boardrooms. It’s an institution where everything is comfortingly familiar and chicken stroganoff does not come off the menu. It indulges its customers’ eccentricities: when writing about ship management company Anglo-Eastern’s founder Peter Nash. I learned that for decades he summoned his brokers to a weekly Saturday lunch at Jimmy’s. Nash, a famously picky perfectionist, did not rate Jimmy’s chips, so he would dispatch a hapless broker to McDonalds for French fries. Apparently the accommodating Jimmy’s management never raised an eyebrow as these were then munched on their premises.
“It must be an iconic restaurant to have survived all the happenings in Hong Kong since 1928,” observes
Baird. “It’s really gotta be iconic to have lasted that long. It’s known for its consistently old fashioned food done well. The classics. It’s that simple.”