Friday, July 09, 2010

Goodbye, Uptown Cathay

Incredible! After so many years I don't know where to write or call Peter, the man I have known as the proprietor of the Uptown Cathay since 1991.

Uptown Cathay Restaurant, Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C.
I'd like to tell him that I will miss him and his food.  For years, it seems, this cozy little neighborhood place was where I went with my younger son every Saturday around lunch time.

We had a prandial ritual that the waitress, Grace, knew by heart: pan-fried pork rolls and a half-Peking duck. Enough to feed an entire Chinese family. She didn't know, of course, about our rip-roaring game of 20 Questions.

You know the game: I think of someone famous and you have 20 chances to ask me for clues to the identity of this person. You can only ask questions that can be answered "yes" or "no." Female? American? 20th century? (It was the 20th century, then.)

We began playing traditional 20 Questions, although I gave my son a handicap appropriate for his age (6? 7?). When it was time for him to guess, I once chose the educator after whom his school was named. Later came the grand figures of history; of course, never Hitler or Napoleon, because they were too easy.

Later still, came Reverse 20 Questions, in which the guesser would ask directly "Are you thinking of Napoleon?" If you were, he'd have to continue guessing. The object was for the guesser to ask a name you weren't thinking of, so you had to keep thinking of new historical figures every second.

Then came Anything Goes 20 Questions, a variant of the traditional game in which you didn't have to think of a person: it could be a thing or an idea. I was finally defeated with my son's thinking of "nothingness." He was then about 11 and about to graduate from going anywhere with his father, even if it was just half a block from home.

Of course, the restaurant evolved, just like our game.

The enclosed open-air table area on the sidewalk (lower left, by the date imprint), wasn't there originally. Nor did the menu include Japanese sushi, nor Thai food (added after the Thai Room, once across the street, closed its doors). Before the Cathay, there'd been a deli that was never quite to my taste -- or wallet.

In later years, after my family moved away and I remained. I kept going to the Cathay because I knew the menu by heart. When I didn't know what to order, Grace, who has just had her second child, could pretty much guess something I'd like. One could call that Food 20 Questions, except that the idea would be lost in translation.

Once, Peter gave me a formal Chinese dress shirt similar to one of his that I had admired. It was an Asian version of the guayabera. The one he gave me was too tight around the abdomen. I still have it, always hoping to slim into it next year.

Finally, there came on June 19 the occasion of a friendly postmortem of reading by Sam Munson from his new novel "November Criminals" across the street -- at the bookstore that is (sigh!) on the block to be sold.

That night, I had longtime friends with me, along with my younger son. I had had lunch there and Peter had told me his troubles. This was why I'd brought my entourage after the reading; I was set on spending my way into saving the place.

Peter's wife came over and remarked that she had seen me earlier, so I told her of my "plan." She hugged me.

Next Saturday, the place was shut.


Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful piece. Very melancholy, though. I have nothing comparable in my life -- too peripatetic I suppose. Goodbye, Uptown Cathay.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post! Brings back many memories. Were you ever able to contact Peter? I'm hoping to find him and say hello after all these years.