For 32 years, Beijing Restaurant's red and yellow sign has lit up 3714 Spruce Street's windows. First years wandering from the Quad for an off-campus meal, a loyal Philadelphia customer base, and boisterous BYOs have filled the place's booths.
But now, those signs are turned off and the booths lie empty. Beijing announced on Aug. 31 that it is closing its doors permanently, posting a sign on its empty storefront thanking its customers for "32 years of patronage and friendship."
News of Beijing's closure spread rapidly on social media, as a number of Penn students and alumni posted pictures and messages sharing their memories at the restaurant.
Kushol Gupta, a 1997 College graduate and a research assistant professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the Perelman School of Medicine, posted a picture of the "closed" sign on Beijing's door on his Facebook account with the caption, "[I'm] on the sidewalk on my knees bawling."
Gupta said he has been a frequent Beijing customer for each of his 27 years at Penn, but especially since 2006 when the Penn Band, which Gupta co-directs, began practicing nearby.
"Beijing has really become a staple of the Penn experience, similar to how other places that have been on campus for a long time [have]," Gupta said. "It's going to be hard to imagine Penn's campus without [Beijing]."
When 2020 College graduate Nyazia Sajdah-Bey heard Beijing was closing, she reached out to owner and founder Alex Yuen to ask for the recipe to the restaurant's "Hot Oil," her all-time favorite sauce. Yuen supplied her with the formula, and Sajdah-Bey then tweeted a photo of an email Yuen sent along with the recipe, thanking her for supporting the business over the years.
"Beijing — and the Hot Oil — will always remind me of good times," Sajdah-Bey told the Daily Pennsylvanian. "It was the place I always ate with my friends to celebrate good news or just catch up."
While the closure was a surprise to many on social media, Yuen said the decision to close the restaurant was something he had been thinking about and planning for nearly two years. After working in the restaurant industry for over 35 years, Yuen said he and his wife plan to move to the West Coast to spend more time with his children and grandchildren.
The restaurant industry has always been a large part of Yuen's family. His father, Richard, and grandfather, Kim Wah, both owned and operated Chinese restaurants across the United States. Wah opened the family's first restaurant in San Francisco, Calif. in 1932 after immigrating to the U.S. from Southern China on a British merchant ship. In their 88 years in the restaurant industry, Yuen and his family have owned and operated 42 Chinese restaurants located in San Francisco, Manhattan, Long Island, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia.
When choosing a location to start his restaurant back in 1988, Yuen said picking a location close to Penn's campus was an easy choice, as Penn is "the family school." Yuen's three brothers — Stan, John, and Kenny — attended Penn. Stan and John graduated from the Engineering School in 1980 and 1987 respectively while Kenny graduated from the College in 1986.
Yuen said while his brothers attended Penn, he was able to learn about the Penn community and students.
"Penn is a wonderful, wonderful university," he said. "The students walk in and say, 'Mr. Alex, I love your restaurant' — What college freshman says that? Not too many. It made my day every year. It's incredible."
Will Castner, a Wharton senior, said he first went to Beijing for a club BYO when he was a first-year student living in the Quad. The following year, as a BYO host, Castner chose Beijing as the location without hesitation.
"Beijing was perfect for any event because it was fun and it was good food, but even more it was because of the people," Castner said.
Castner said there was a server at Beijing named Elaine who would join in with some of the chants and traditions his various clubs would perform while eating at Beijing.
In addition to the thousands of students who populated Beijing over the years, Yuen said the restaurant welcomed a number of famous guests, including former Vice President and former Penn Presidential Professor of Practice Joe Biden and actress Megan Fox.
For others, Beijing was a quiet spot to grab lunch and enjoy the company of the staff as opposed to coming with larger groups.
1983 College graduate Howard Gensler said he has been going to Beijing since it opened and always made sure to stop in whenever he returned to Penn's campus or was even remotely in the area.
"There aren't that many places that remain there from when you were a student to when you come back as an alumnus. So when I would return and see Beijing, it was always a pleasant sight," Gensler said.
As a co-director of the Penn Band, Gupta called on Beijing every summer to cater Penn's high school band camp.
"Beijing became a part of the fabric of the Penn Band," Gupta said. "Every summer they'd truck the food down to Franklin Field and all the [high school] kids would love it."
Gupta also said Beijing became the meeting spot for band alumni meetups and meals before and after performing at sports games.
Yuen said the most difficult part about closing was telling the Beijing employees, five of whom have been working at the restaurant since its beginning.
"I've watched these [five employees] become responsible fathers and grandfathers. Over all the years, we've become our own family," Yuen said. "Beijing is a family restaurant, both literally and figuratively."
Beijing's closure not only ends its 32 years on Penn's campus but was also the final restaurant in the Yuen family.
"There was never a restaurant in our family quite like Beijing," Yuen said. "I'm counting my blessings and have a smile on my face. I will always remember Penn as the place that created a good life for my family and 30 other families. And that's all because of Penn and the students."
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