Chinese Restaurants of the Past

also known as Mee Hong’s, Luke’s, and Ming Garden

These three restaurants are a gateway to memories of mid-century immigrant restaurants and their impact on our taste buds.

About this Property

A new-ish project called “Providence’s Chinatown has been created to dive deeper into the history of the bustling Chinese American community on Empire Street and on Summer Street between Broad and Pine.

Current Events

While browsing through and recreating some of the photos in Jay Boersma’s portfolio from 1976, we saw the photo of Mee Hong’s and were intrigued. We had previously heard of Luke’s restaurant and the upstairs Luau Hut which survived until the 90s. It was time to put a page together about some of the places that we could find photos of, and over the years, many visitors have told us their own story as well.

These Restaurants

Mee Hong

The Mee Hong Restaurant in Providence at 102 Westminster St. closed February 24, 1979. Photo taken by Jay Boersma, 1975 .

Mee Hong was located at 102 Westminster Street, between Providence National Bank (#90) and First Federal Bank (#110). It was opened by the Chin family in 1938 and closed in 1979. The building was probably razed within 10 years. It might be one of the earliest Chinese restaurants in the city.

From the anecdotes:

  • There was a plaque on the entrance which read “through these portals pass the nicest people we know”
  • The meal always included little dishes with pickled beets, coleslaw, or fries. Another visitor swears it was “Cole Slaw, Peas or Beets”
  • French bread was served with butter, like every other restaurant. But only Chinese restaurants in RI seem to do this
  • Popular dishes seem to be a veal cutlet with brown gravy, chop suey, chow mein, and batter fried fish and chips

Luke’s Chinese American Restaurant

An interior postcard view of the restaurant with small inset photo of the exterior sign

59 Eddy Street was home to Luke’s Restaurant, one of Providence’s early Chinese restaurants. In 1951, Tin Cheung Luke opened Luke’s with his son Henry. Located behind City Hall in the downtown Providence, the restaurant drew customers who worked nearby on the weekdays and out-of-town shoppers on the weekend. Food was cheap – a plate of chow mein was 90 cents and a plate of chow suey was only 5 cents more.

The restaurant occupied two stories. During the 1960s, the Lukes converted the upstairs dining room into a Polynesian themed restaurant called the “Luau Hut”, which served tropical cocktails and exotic dishes. The Luau Hut was decorated with straw wall covering, bamboo polls, and gigantic shell light fixtures. Downstairs the decorations were modest. People ate in formica covered booths.

59 Eddy Street still exists as the Edwin A. Smith Building as seen in the Google Streetview photo.

From the anecdotes:

  • Officer Luke of the Providence Police Department told someone that his branch of the LUKE family was related to Keye Luke, the actor from the golden age of Hollywood, and, Charlie Chan’s first son.
  • Some considered Luke’s to be the best, most authentic New York- and California-style Chinese food outside of Boston.
  • Popular dishes include pu pu platters; Ipswich fried clams with cole slaw; veal cutlet with brown gravy; combination plate with chow mein, fried rice and egg roll; eggrolls and lobster Cantonese in lobster sauce; and Scorpion bowls

Ming Garden

Another exterior view of Ming’s Garden next door to People’s Bank, Kennedy Plaza, date unknown (maybe 1970s)

The longest lived of the Chinese restaurants, the Ming Garden was vital to life in downtown Providence. Open from 1941 to 1986, the restaurant was located at 141-143 Westminster Street, which had entrances on Westminster Street as well as Kennedy Plaza (now #68 Kennedy Plaza). The building was 2 and a half stories tall and dates to the late 19th century.

During the 1950s, the Tows contracted a young architect named Morris Nathanson to modernize the restaurant’s interior. Mr. Nathanson was well known for hospitality design, and his portfolio includes The China Inn in Pawtucket and the Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts Museum among others.

From the National Register nomination form for the Downtown Providence Historic District, prepared by William McKenzie Woodward, Principal Historic Preservation Planner, 1984

The Ming Garden (building constructed 1903): 3-story brick building with tiled modern entrance (similar entrance on Westminster Street side of building) and large plate-glass windows on upper stories; modern interiors by Morris Nathanson (ground floor) and Ira Rakatansky (upper floor). Though architecturally undistinguished outside, the building is heavily altered. The Ming Garden is a major Providence institution and the longest lived of a popular type, the Chinese restaurant, which has been an important part of the urban scene since the early 20th century.

From the anecdotes:

  • Ming’s Wings! People in the anecdotes certainly loved them. The recipes remains elusive. Some ideas for the recipe are included here in a Providence Journal article.
  • Ming’s Garden decor was more upscale than the other two listed here.
  • Other favorites dishes include sweet pork buns.

68 Kennedy Plaza still exists in much the same form as seen in the 1950 photo.

Other restaurants mentioned

A matchbook from Chen’s, 124 Washington Street

The folks in the anecdotes have left us many memories. Here are a few of the names that have come up:

  • Asia Restaurant
  • Brown Bear Chinese Restaurant on the East Side, Brook Street towards Benevolent
  • Chens, upstairs across from Shepards
  • Far East
  • Hon Hong restaurant, circa 1964, across from the Majestic Theatre (Trinity)
  • Kubla Khan on Weybosset Street
  • The Luau Hut at Luke’s
  • Mee Hong Restaurant
  • Bob Tow and the Persimmon Room with their introduction of Dim Sum
  • Port Arthur restaurant upstairs with a dance floor and live bands (undated photo)
  • Toy Sun’s, Thayer Street next to Avon
  • Young China and chow mein sandwiches

In The News

At Johnson & Wales, ‘Dinerman’ Richard Gutman was dean of food culture

by Gail Ciampa
Providence Journal | Nov 10, 2016 (abridged)

In 2009, Johnson & Wales and the [Culinary Art Museum] museum sponsored a series of discussions with Brown University to explore “Eating Chinese: Comestibles, Cuisine, Commerce and Culture.” It was just one of several collaborations among JWU and Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.

It featured what seemed the tiniest exhibit you’ll ever see, “Chow Mein, Chicken Wings, and Cheeseburgers” with a table setting from Mee Hong Restaurant (1975 photo), which was opened by the Chin family next to the Arcade in 1938. There was also Lily Tow’s typewriter [from Ming’s Garden, typewriter photo ], used to compose newspaper ads for the Ming Garden restaurant.


Thanks so much for your anecdotes over the years!