The wall by the entrance of the Szechuan House bears decades of praise: In 2004, readers of the Pennysaver voted it a favorite, according to a framed sign. Three years later, City Paper called it “Best Chinese.” Today, even in the midst of a pandemic, loyal customers still line up — six feet apart, masks on — to pick up carryout orders.
Despite its popularity and nearly 28 years in Lutherville the restaurant’s owner Robert Wang will shut the place down permanently next month because of what he describes as a dispute with the landlord, Hill Management Services Inc.
The closure comes at a time when scores of area restaurants are closing permanently because of the coronavirus pandemic. While business has slowed down this year, Wang, 69, says they have been helped by strong carryout business.
“This is a good business,” said the 69-year-old, standing in the entrance of the restaurant between the wall of accolades on one side and some illuminated fish tanks on the other.
The restaurant’s lease in a Lutherville strip mall called the Galleria Atrium expires at the end of next January and Wang said the property owner has declined to renew it. The reason, he says, stems from a series of disagreements over upgrades the landlords wanted to the storefront. “We had a very good relationship the last 27 years until this,” Wang said.
In a statement sent through a publicist, Timonium-based Hill Management said that negotiations had been ongoing for the past five years and that they had offered Wang a “significant improvement allowance” and upgrade to the building’s facade as part of a lease renewal several months ago. But, they said, Wang was “unwilling to make any operational or managerial changes that would be essential to ensure the restaurant’s long-term viability.”
Wang told The Baltimore Sun that the upgrades proposed by Hill Management included moving the entrance to the side of the building, which would have created challenges for his kitchen. Originally from Taiwan, he still struggles with English and said he thought there had been a miscommunication in the midst of the negotiations.
Larry Lichtenauer, a spokesman for the management company, said: “Language barrier did not play a part in this.” He called it “ridiculous” to suggest that a communication would be an issue after nearly 30 years of a working relationship.
The eatery opened in 1993 and was met with warm reviews in The Baltimore Sun, which called it “a welcome addition to any neighborhood.” Then-critic Elizabeth Large wrote, “It isn’t a fancy place — in spite of the crystal chandeliers and white tablecloths — but the staff treats you as well as if you were eating in a four-star establishment.”
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The restaurant was Wang’s own slice of the American dream. Growing up, he lived in a poor rural area of the island; he remembers American helicopters delivering rice and powdered milk. It seemed like magic. “I figured that the United States is heaven compared to our country,” he said. He fantasized about moving there, eventually doing so in his 20s.
Business has ebbed and flowed over the years. Ten years ago, the restaurant employed more than 50 people, Wang says. During the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve dropped to a staff of around 10. Employees include some who have worked there since the beginning, including manager Jean Der.
Many customers have been coming for decades, including Ted Lewis, who drives from his home in Columbia several times a month for the food. The journey takes more than an hour round trip, Lewis said, but “When you have good food, you go where the food is.” Among his favorite dishes are the shrimp egg rolls and snow pea tips.
Lewis called news of the restaurant’s closure “devastating.”
Wang said he appreciated the outpouring of support from customers. “I feel very warm about this.”
Wang says he doesn’t have the capital to reopen the business someplace else, having invested all of his money already on the existing property. “We spend more than $500,000 here,” he said, including installing a new walk-in refrigerator a few years ago as well as a new floor. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”