My family has suffered a great loss. We will still have our memories, of course, each one suffused with a warm glow. But the source of those memories? After 35 years, that has gone. We have lost our family’s restaurant: the one that was so much more than somewhere to eat out. It was where my wife and I went before the kids arrived, and when those kids were young, and when a treat was needed, and when a treat wasn’t needed, and in the last days before every Christmas, when gifts would be exchanged with the lovely staff. It was our restaurant. Farewell then to Y Ming, the brilliant, eclectic Chinese on Greek Street in London’s Soho which, after 35 years, finally closed its doors at the end of last month.
Lots of families have somewhere like this, a place where generations of customers and generations of staff accompany each other down the years. Each navigates the vagaries of fashion. Because a restaurant where families grow up together is never really about what’s new. They are about what’s reliable and what’s familiar and what makes you feel cared for. They are an extra room in the extended family home.
My wife and I first stumbled into Y Ming one night while out in Soho many years ago. On the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue were the clattering Chinese restaurants of Gerrard Street, in those days banging out rough-hewn versions of Cantonese favourites, with service which was, shall we say, brisk. Here at Y Ming there were carpets, and jade green walls and staff who seemed pleased to see us. Stay awhile. There were northern Chinese dishes I’d never before encountered: the Tibetan lamb or the shredded duck with winter greens, or the melting folds of double-cooked pork in hot pot. The latter came with a citation announcing it was beloved of both Jonathan Meades and Matthew Fort, the titans of the restaurant reviewing world which I admired from afar.
I had been going for years when I finally wrote about it almost two decades ago. It was one of the rare occasions when I hesitated. Did I really want to tell the world? Well, yes, I did. They needed to know about the addictive Ming-style deep fried cauliflower. (And it would prove the route to adding my name to the menu next to that double cooked pork dish.) I quickly discovered I was not the only one who thought of Y Ming as his place. It was many people’s place. My publisher announced he was a regular, as did the then editor of the Observer magazine. Once, the two of us turned up together and the head waiter, William Tiger Sin, looked momentarily flummoxed then delighted to see two of his regulars eating together.
But mostly I went just with my family. We measured out the landmarks of our life as a unit with the double-cooked pork and the cauliflower. It was where my boys learned to use chopsticks. It was that place. The owner, Christine Yau, had long been an advocate for Chinatown, and had helped found a Chinese cookery course at Westminster College. But the restaurant was her life’s work. She has only closed now, she told me when we visited one last time in October, because her head chef has had to move on and replacing him would be impossible. So it’s goodbye. There will be a gap in my mental map of London. The door to one of the rooms in our extended house has closed. But we will still have those memories. And so, from the Rayner family to Y Ming, thank you. Thank you, for everything.