Behind America’s First Chinese Restaurant

Today, Chinese food is just as much a part of American culture as baseball, hot dogs or apple pie. Everyone has their favorite takeout spot from where they order kung pao chicken—and probably a reliable list of backups for when their first choice falls through.

Considering how deeply ingrained Chinese food has become in our society, it might be surprising to discover that it hasn’t always been a staple of American cuisine; actually, Chinese food has only been truly prevalent since the early- to mid-1900s. To discover why, we can trace its origins back to the very first Chinese restaurant that opened up in the U.S.A. It’s a storied history peppered with economic influences, racism and the evolving American palate.

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Canton Restaurant

In the mid-1800s, the California Gold Rush brought a wash of immigrants to the west coast, both from other countries as well as those coming in from the eastern U.S. Among the new arrivals were an influx of Chinese people hoping to, yes, profit off the Gold Rush like anyone else, but they were also escaping famine and economic issues which were rising in China at the end of the nineteenth century. California promised to be prosperous.

Concurrently, small eateries appeared to cater to the new arrivals in accordance with where they came from. Thus throughout the mid-1800s, a host of Chinese fare cropped up from small-time vendors, establishing what was most likely the creation of that niche in American culinary society. Of course, none of it was an exact match to what they served across the Pacific Ocean, but such alterations were as natural as they were unavoidable: Different ingredients are grown and popularized in the states, so even the most simple and traditional of recipes were altered and Americanized. Of course, a natural consequence of that is that more and more non-Chinese Americans found their fare increasingly palatable, and started to crave a reliable fix.

In 1849, Canton Restaurant opened in San Francisco, thus becoming the first documented Chinese restaurant in the U.S.; and they quickly opened the floodgates for success. Over the course of just one year, five more appeared throughout the city.

Canton Restaurant was likely named as an homage to the fact that, during the Gold Rush, between twenty and thirty thousand immigrants came to America from the Canton region of China. Following this first restaurant’s success, as well as that of the subsequent ones which popped up to profit off the sudden demand, imports of Chinese food grew swiftly along the west coast and then spread eastward as the industrial revolution’s lingering effects (and the end of the Civil War) resulted in more railroads and thus more effective and widespread supply chains for popular foodstuff.

By 1880, there were 100K Chinese immigrants residing in the U.S. In 1882, there were fourteen Chinese restaurants in San Francisco and exponential growth seemed imminent, logical and very much desired.

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Chinese Exclusion Act

The future of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. suddenly rocked to a halt when the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The reasons behind its introduction were multifaceted, though racism lay at its core: America was going through its own economic troubles at the time, fraught with various setbacks, natural disasters, influenza and the Panic of 1873. Ultimately the depression borne from these combined factors made tensions, and the unemployment rate, extremely high amongst all Americans.

Concurrently, anti-Asian racism was on the rise because Chinese immigrants had little other option except to work for extremely low wages to make ends meet—often at the very railroads that brought Chinese food into such prominence in America’s collective stomach. Regardless, these rising tensions culminated in the passage of the CEA which severely limited immigration from China to the U.S. and put a temporary halt on Chinese restaurants’ growing popularity.

But innovation and food service can never be stopped completely, only temporarily stymied. The CEA contained an extremely important exception to the rule: Merchant visas gave wiggle room for those intent on starting businesses, leading Chinese entrepreneurs to seek self-employment in America in the ensuing decades. In 1915, that work visa expanded to include restaurants—and prospective restaurateurs took advantage, ready to recommit themselves to the American dream. Chinese food was back on the rise in the states.

It was then that Chinese food really took off, and new merchants laid the groundwork for what would eventually take off into a cultural phenomenon. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, more than sixty years after its inception, Chinese food was more popular than Canton Restaurant probably could have dreamed when it first laid roots in San Francisco. Even restaurants that took a less Americanized approach to their cooking style were doing well, people dined out more in celebration of the end of WWII and post-war economic prosperity, and the groundwork was set for Chinese restaurants to become even more mainstream than they already were. As food technology and consumer trends evolved, Chinese restaurants were now set to grow with them.

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Post-CEA and Beyond

For a sense of how prolific Chinese restaurants became after the CEA was repealed, consider General Tso’s Chicken: It’s now a household name, but it was only invented in the 1950s and brought to the U.S. shortly thereafter. Now General Tso’s is the most ordered Chinese food on Grubhub…and the fourth most popular dish on the website overall.

From humble beginnings, with only fourteen restaurants in operation when the Chinese Exclusion Act was initially ratified, the U.S. was home more than 46,700 Chinese restaurants in 2015 and that number has only been growing ever since. It’s unclear whether the very first restaurant remains open to this day, however the rich history of Chinese food is evident among the tens of thousands that do exist: K & A Canton Restaurant, Canton Low Restaurant and more all share similar names which may point to recognition and respect for the first ever Canton Restaurant, which opened the doors for a future like this.

Chinese food is an integral part of American culture now; there’s no way around it. Although the industry has admittedly experienced difficulty as of late, this is due to anti-Asian cultural shifts related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated racist assumptions people have brought against all Asian businesses and people. Because the virus originated in Wuhan, China, there’s been a significant uptick in anti-Asian sentiment throughout America which has trickled down to put even this most culturally significant of industries at risk. Read more about how the virus has affected Asian-American businesses, and why Chinese takeout is too powerful to disappear despite another round of hardship.

Chinese restaurants have existed in America for a long time, but perhaps not as long as one might think given its prolific permeation into American takeout, delivery and food service. Trouble always comes back around, but Chinese food is definitely here for good.

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