The Sun Sets on Harvest Moon
The meaning of an old-fashioned restaurant
For several years, I’ve been driving past this Chinese buffet/event hall in Falls Church, Virginia, and wondering what it looks like inside or if it’s any good. The reviews suggest it isn’t. It’s been closed on and off during the pandemic, and Google and Yelp now identify it as permanently closed, though it’s possible it’s not dead yet. We’ll see.
There’s this one five-star Yelp review—the most recent, so possibly the last one the restaurant will ever get—that resonates with me.
The closest you will get to being in a Wes Anderson movie.
I like atmosphere. I like feeling like I found something no one else knows about. And I like it when people are nice to me. Harvest Moon is so different from most restaurants in Virginia. It's affordable and it's quirky. It has an old-fashioned, Chinese interior that reminds me of Chinese restaurants I went to as a young girl except this one has a stage and spacious banquet area that makes you wonder about the celebrations that may have been held here. It has that other-era feel that makes you feel like you're in a dream or a movie and to be honest, for that incomparable sensation in this bright and too-modern world, I would pay much more. The staff and managers are very polite and accommodating. I thought the buffet was great. Have I had better tasting Chinese food, maybe, but it isn't bad Chinese food. The egg rolls are enormous! Everything is hot, plentiful and nothing tastes off. What knocks me out are the little ice cream cups offered for dessert.
Speaking of those celebrations, here’s the view through the entrance, with whichever couple was last to hold their wedding here immortalized by abandonment.
There’s something kind of wistful about places like this. They still exist (at least this one did until recently). But nothing quite like them is being made today, or probably ever will be. They’re products of particular moments in time and culture, and they can never be unselfconsciously made again. It’s a little bit like how seeing Star Wars in a theater in 1977 was something that no person alive today can ever quite experience.
You can still experience a meal in one of these old-fashioned Chinese restaurants in America, but this dining “concept” is diminishing, and kept alive by the dwindling number of places that survive from this earlier era. I don’t mean, of course, that Americanized Chinese food is an obsolete concept. What I mean is this particular type of place. Where they bring you a teapot and fried noodles with duck sauce, where the menu might contain some old-fashioned or unique Americanized-Chinese dishes that are not widely known, or that nobody is still making except out of inertia. Where there’s an Americanized menu and an actual Chinese menu too, sometimes not offered to non-Chinese customers, who it’s assumed aren’t interested in it.
A place like this is a nonrenewable cultural resource. A restaurant is a business, but it’s almost like an organism too, a living repository, a little compendium of folkways unique to the era in which it was started and the people who started it.
This was one thing that contributed to the stress of the pandemic year—the thought that it might operate as a ratchet, and that things that don’t make it through this crisis may never exist again.
By now you may know I really like buffets, and I was concerned that the pandemic might permanently hurt them. Luckily, most of the Chinese buffets in my area survived, but I rather doubt any new ones will be opening up. And those that closed will probably have their interiors gutted and remodeled, such that a new buffet can’t simply rent the space and start serving.
I occasionally come across older buffets which are still operating as they did in the late ’80s or early ’90s or whatever relatively early year they opened up. They generally lack a teppanyaki grill or dedicated sushi bar; they tend to have these particular, somewhat old-fashioned faux-brick floor tiles; and they only have two or at most three steam tables. No buffet opened in the last 20 years looks like this. The same is true of “red sauce” Italian restaurants, “family restaurants” like Friendly’s or Howard Johnson’s, or any number of dining concepts that have fallen out of favor over the years and been forgotten.
I almost feel like I’m observing the last living individual of an endangered species when I walk into a place like this. It exists, but it’s no longer possible for it to continue existing.
Incidentally, I think this is the sentiment that animates a lot of what gets somewhat misidentified as NIMBYism. The intensity with which people like their local landmarks, their nostalgia for the things that defined their childhood, their desire for continuity in their surroundings, are all unobjectionable, in and of themselves. But they can’t be the guiding light for public policy, because change happens, and has to happen. The process by which these things change, by which dining concepts evolve, to get back to the point here, is kind of evolutionary. It...happens.
I find that I appreciate these things more when I understand that they’re impermanent, that a business or a cultural era is a dynamic thing and not an object you can encase in amber. I would like to see the NIMBY disposition channeled in a way that appreciates what exists, and mourns what has passed, rather than seeking to arrest the natural and the inevitable.
But I’m talking about a lot more now than Chinese restaurants, so we’ll stop here. How about an order of egg rolls?