Relentlessly Stylish Mr. Chow : Blending boyhood memories of the Peking Opera and a sense of style honed in London, restaurateur Michael Chow created a seductive stage that lured the beautiful, rich and talented.


Meet me at midnight

At Mr. Chow

Schezuan dumplings


After the deal has been done

I’m the one

--from “Glamour Profession” by Steely Dan

The man is Chinese. The suit, Italian. The sense of humor, British.

And he’s only half kidding when he declares himself the spiritual second cousin of America’s favorite elegant mobster.

“I always wanted to have a kind of vision,” Michael Chow is saying. Then he pauses as his words rewind in silence. “Sounds like Bugsy in Las Vegas.”

Perhaps so, but in a sense, Chow did Bugsy Siegel one better. He lived to see his own vision bloom, fade and then settle into the comforting backdrop of a hardy perennial. When Mr. Chow was good, he was very, very good.

Mr. Chow and his four eponymous restaurants on three continents were among the places to sup and be seen for the aristocrats of film, fashion, music and art during the groovy ‘70s and the excessive ‘80s. In its best days, it was an endless A-list dinner party hosted by the relentlessly stylish Michael and his then-wife, Tina, a onetime model and source of fascination for the fashionable.


“I think it was the most exciting environment Los Angeles had had in years,” says longtime friend Nadia Ghaleb, who managed Mr. Chow L.A. in Beverly Hills during its prime. “It was almost like walking into Casablanca. It had real style.”

“One thing you have to say about Michael Chow is that he has impeccable taste--whether clothes, design, food, everything,” says restaurateur Michael McCarty. “It’s just amazing. Very few people are remotely close.”

But the Chows’ milieu--the evanescent worlds of style and art--evolved into a prime arena for AIDS in the ‘90s. Tina Chow, who’d spent years tending that cause, died of an AIDS-related illness in January. She was 41 when she passed away at her home in the Pacific Palisades, assuming the unenviable bequest of becoming one of the first internationally prominent women to die of the disease.

As for Mr. Chow, the restaurant, it has somehow survived both its own brash youth and the rough tides of the business to persevere into the austere ‘90s as a sort of foppish uncle of trendy eateries.

“It’s like Trader Vic’s,” says restaurant critic Merrill Shindler, who like most people interviewed for this article hasn’t been to Mr. Chow in years. “It is a universe unto itself that does not seem to have anything to do with standard criticism of restaurants. It exists on its own terms.”

Much like its owner, a man who shocked food critics by charging Beverly Hills prices for Chinese food and then insisting on Armani-garbed Italian waiters, Lalique doors, silver-plated wine buckets from the ship Normandie, Wiener Werkstatte-inspired chairs and the ultimate insult--forks and knives. And when his critics criticized, he took some of them on in a highly unusual lawsuit--and won. That is, until he lost on appeal.


“I don’t conform too well,” says Chow, 54. “Someone once said about me that I’m the most established anti-Establishment person, meaning I’m anti-Establishment and yet I’m organized.”

At the moment, Chow is literally gliding along Mr. Chow L.A.’s black-and-white checkerboard floors--inspired by one in Rudolf Valentino’s home many moons ago.

Chow’s mustachioed portrait is everywhere--Keith Haring’s cartoon-y painting of green-faced Michael Chows bobbing in a bowl of green prawns. Helmut Newton’s vision of Chow as a Shanghai dandy. A glittery black-and-white photo silk-screen of Chow by one of the few people he refers to by first name only--the Fidel of the art world--Andy.

“I said, ‘Give me a black-and-white one and give me a lot of what you call it, that silver stuff,’ ” he says. “He has some colored ones, but I chose the black and white. It’s just tougher. People get confused between beauty in life and beauty in art. Art has to be ugly in order to be beautiful and tougher.”

At Mr. Chow, the restaurant, worlds collide. Mr. Chow, the voracious connoisseur, is everywhere here, which means the elegant dining room could almost double as a gallery. The restaurant itself is conceived as theater. Here, fashion design is deified as art, and fashion itself takes its cue from the movies.

Mr. Chow, where lines of demarcation blur into oblivion, is the perfect postmodern environment for Mr. Chow, the postmodern man. Neither this nor quite that, not entirely Eastern nor primarily Western, neither fish nor fowl but a stew for all species, Michael Chow is a man of the world and at the same time a man without a country.


“I always say I’m a professional refugee,” says the Shanghai-born Chow, “meaning I left home very early, lost my parents so to speak, lost my country, don’t speak English very well. So I have this professional refugee mentality that translates into survival instincts. I can adapt to different cultures very quickly. You can put me on the moon and it’s OK.”

Consider the first table on the left, the best table at Mr. Chow, and not just because the mere idea of capturing a best table appeals to good old Western vanity. In typical Chow style, seat snobbery gets an unlikely dose of Oriental mysticism, or feng shui , the ancient art of enhancing good fortune by aligning buildings and their interiors with the environment.

“With the best table,” Chow instructs, “your back is against the wall, so nobody can attack you from the back and you can see everything.”

A pioneering promoter of celebrity seating, Chow makes no apology for his dining hierarchy.

“I have to admit that I have a star system,” he sniffs. “Maybe it’s a dirty word, but people say, ‘In my restaurant, we treat everybody the same,’ which is not true. Nobody’s going to treat them that way, unless it’s McDonald’s.”

Michael Chow is also one of the first restaurateurs to enjoy the fruits of contact fame, the folk who become famous for feeding the famous. It’s frankly a bug with him, an addiction he inherited from his own shimmering childhood in Shanghai, where his father was a playwright, performer and grand master of the Peking Opera.


“I always liked celebrities because my father was a celebrity,” Chow says. “And in China, when I was a kid, I was made a fuss of. So I always have this problem.”

When Chow was 13, he was sent to England to be educated. The year was 1952, and “the bamboo curtain” between East and West was blocking any further communications with his family. He eventually learned that his father and only brother had been jailed during the Cultural Revolution; his father died 10 years later. His niece, tormented by Red Guards who’d shaved her head, eventually jumped to her death off a building. His mother died at the outset of the tumult.

“People said she was beaten to death, but I don’t know,” he says softly. “So the Cultural Revolution took a great toll on my family.”

Chow paid tribute to his family in 1981 by producing a performance of Peking Opera at Lincoln Center that starred his brother Zhou Shaolin.

The run was typical of Chow’s career in two respects: one, he was creamed by the critics--the New York Times labeled his effort “more esoteric than exotic.” Second, his audience was characteristically chic with a vengeance, with friends like Andy Warhol, the designer Zandra Rhodes who attended in pink hair, and Sylvia Miles who chirped to the press, “I’ve never been to China, but I once appeared in ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle.’ ”

Chow’s first years in the West were not happy ones. With only bare-bones English, he bounced from school to school, finding a home only when he went to art school, where he spent three years studying painting. There’s a touch of pride in his voice when he talks about his “broken education,” because it flew in the face of the Confucian scholarly tradition and appeals to his mutinous soul.


In the ‘60s, Chow was in London enjoying a different sort of cultural revolution--the creative whirl in English music and fashion. Chow, who felt quite at home with the English taste for eccentrics, mingled with artists like David Hockney and Peter Blake, designer Rhodes, Vidal Sassoon and the Beatles. For a while he owned and designed chic little shops--a hair salon, a boutique that sold early Karl Lagerfeld.

He also flirted with bit parts in movies like the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” and Wim Wenders’ “Hammett.” But roles for Chinese were stiflingly limited. “I have always had a cynical saying, that for Chinese in the West, one thing they can do is laundry. The second is restaurants,” Chow says. “Joke.”

In the late ‘60s, Chow’s personal style was spare. His first wife, Grace Coddington, now a fashion director of Vogue magazine--and typical of his three wives, a woman of great style--told HG in 1988, “When I met him, he wanted and had nothing. When we lived together, we had four chopsticks, two plates, two chairs, a bed, a pot, and a frying pan--no pictures, nothing. Only when he started the restaurants did he become a collector.”

Chow’s epiphany was to create a restaurant that was the culinary equivalent of his own eccentric self. It would be a blend of East and West, and it would symbolically close the gap between the two that had separated him from his family for so many years. It would also correct the grievous injustice done to Chinese food, which had become the Rodney Dangerfield of cuisine.

“Chinese food was not respected. Twenty-four years ago, which was the beginning of Mr. Chow, Chinese food, especially in America, came from the traditional railroad people. And it’s always been associated with not authentic, Americanized cheap food.

“But I felt Chinese food was the greatest food in the world. Someone once said Cantonese is like a symphony--with French food like a quartet in comparison. Not putting it down, but just the Chinese vocabulary of cooking is much richer.”


One way Chow courted respect was by commanding what were at the time high prices. A meal at Mr. Chow can easily run over $30 a person without drinks. More important, he made design the heart of the restaurant, drawing on the talents of his artist circle, trading food for art, which in turn guaranteed a creative clientele.

The first Mr. Chow opened in London on Valentine’s Day in 1968 with commissioned works by Jim Dine, Peter Blake and Richard Smith. “My restaurant started like a party, every night a party that goes on forever,” he gushed at the time.

Chow’s thinking on food is characteristically idiosyncratic. He insists that the menu be good but not too good because, “especially in the West, if you concentrate on the food too much, you get heartbroken. The West is not ready to have the greatest food. For the greatest Chinese food you need lessons, just like you do to appreciate a really good bottle of wine.

“So the best, top Chinese food . . . is like music--at certain notes you can’t hear it anymore.”

At the same time, Mr. Chow serves chopsticks only if patrons insist. “Knives and forks are a tradition Westerners are much more comfortable with,” Chow says. “And I find it very disrespectful and annoying if you can’t use a chopstick properly. It’s kind of inverted snobbery.”

Unlike a restaurant’s typical family tree--Spago’s Wolfgang Puck came from Ma Maison, for example--Mr. Chow’s familial tie was to Peking opera. For years, Mr. Chow’s noodle chef would literally perform his art before an audience of diners--until noodle chefs became commonplace on TV talk shows and so lost their requisite panache.


“The restaurant is theatrical, charismatic know-how,” Chow says.

Not surprisingly, Chow earned a reputation for being demanding.

“He was a benevolent dictator, which is the best way to run a personal restaurant,” Ghaleb says. “He’s a very individualistic restaurateur.”

Perhaps too individualistic for some tastes. The will to be chic boomeranged with Gault Millau, whose New York guide blasted Mr. Chow for serving “pancakes as thick as a finger,” for the 10-minute wait for chopsticks, and for the cooks, who were said to require “some instruction somewhere in Chinatown.”

“The purpose in coming is, apparently more to be seen in this superb setting than to eat Chinese food,” Gault Millau griped.

Chow filed suit in federal court and brought the same theatrical flourish to the jury that he used to woo clientele. He showed videotapes of his cooks cooking and brought Stephen Yim, his chief noodle chef, to roll pancakes for the jury. Yim also demonstrated his Guinness Book of World Records-worthy talent for rolling a 10-foot-long noodle in 60 seconds. Chow was granted $20,000, but the award was overturned on appeal on First Amendment grounds.

Gault Millau publisher Alain Gayot accuses Chow of filing suit for the publicity. But Chow says his motive was far from frivolous.

“They were always very witty, but to the point of being very racist,” Chow says. “So, I had my satisfaction.”


While Chow’s suit didn’t scare off critics, it did prompt them to be more precise in their criticism.

“They would be very careful about the language,” says Colleen Dunn Bates, Los Angeles Times Syndicate food editor who was then an associate editor of Gault Millau. “You couldn’t say that the soup was canned unless you saw someone opening the can.”

Food critics tended to miss the point of Mr. Chow, anyway, which was not the food as much as it was the ambience, the magical pairing of Michael and Tina Chow.

Introduced by mutual friend Zandra Rhodes, the couple met in 1972 touring a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Tina Chow, nee Lutz, was born in Ohio of a Japanese mother and an American father who had a passion for bamboo collecting. Tina Lutz and her sister, Adelle (who later married David Byrne), were modeling for Shiseido, which revered their brand of Eurasian beauty.

“She had a certain grace and style which designers and photographers found fascinating,” Chow says. “We were 12 years apart, so in a sense I brought her up.”

“I think they had a lot in common, both being Asian,” Ghaleb says. “They were both incredibly intelligent and both very charming and very gifted and lovely. Their dynamic together was brilliant.”


By the time they married in 1973, Chow was juggling four restaurants in London--one of them Italian--and a nightclub called Maunkberry. “Peter Morton gave me a choice of either buying Maunkberry or buying the Hard Rock Cafe,” Chow says. “So I was a brilliant business person. I bought Maunkberry.”

Chow also flirted with a Japanese restaurant in London called Game, but the Mr. Chows turned out to be his charm. And with backing from A & M Records founder Jerry Moss, he opened Mr. Chow L.A. on North Camden Drive in 1973. Mr. Chow New York followed in 1979, and Mr. Chow Kyoto, which he doesn’t own, in 1987. The restaurant quickly became a lure for artists like Ed Ruscha, such Hollywood regulars as Jack Nicholson, Jane Seymour, Jacqueline Bisset and Beverly Hills bad boys like James Woods, not to mention the music crowd lured by Moss.

The stylish were drawn as much to Tina Chow’s own sharp sense of style, which won her a place in the Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1985. Tina Chow sported a boyish Eton cut, simple Kenzo jodhpurs and spectacular museum-quality antique clothes.

“Her idea of chic was when everybody is dressed to the nines, what’s graphic and compelling is simplicity and effortless ease and everyone else looks artificial,” says Harold Koda, director of the National Museum of Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Then when everyone else is in dungarees, she was like a fantasy.”

Under Chow’s tutelage, they came to share a passion for collecting--for Tina, the Greek-inspired pleated silk gowns of Mariano Fortuny as well as old Chanels, Schiaparellis and Balenciagas, which she would sometimes wear so as not to have to choose among her designer friends. The fashion institute will open a show of her collection March 16.

Michael’s fervor was Art Deco furniture, and his collection of nearly 100 pieces by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Jean Dunand and others was deemed among the finest in private hands. But after the Chows split up and began dividing their assets, Chow put his entire collection amassed over 15 years on the block.


“It was very painful for me to sell, so like an elastic band, you tear it quick,” he says. “But in collecting one has to be philosophical in the sense that you are the caretaker of certain pieces. When you’re gone, some other caretaker will take them.” As Chow grew more introspective in the ‘80s, he and Tina had drifted apart. New York Magazine reported that their 1987 separation came on the heels of Tina’s affair with Richard Gere. Gere’s publicist, Pat Kingsley, declined comment.

Tina went on to express her growing spirituality in AIDS fund-raising and jewelry design. Her costly pieces were crafted from bamboo and crystals, whose healing powers had been touted by Andy Warhol. She and Michael stayed close, Ghaleb says, in part because of their children, China, 14, and Maximilian, 17. He was among the family members who were with her at her death.

After Tina died, the family considered it an obligation to warn the public of the dangers of contracting AIDS through heterosexual activity. It released a statement that said Tina’s illness may have stemmed from “an extremely brief affair with a bisexual man in Paris who has since died of AIDS.” The New York press has speculated that the man was a French restaurateur and journalist. Chow is reserved on the subject, saying only that the family situation is “sensitive.”

After the Chows split, Ghaleb says, Chow began to burn out on his hands-on restaurant style, and he eagerly accepted Giorgio Armani’s invitation to design his Beverly Hills boutique. Lately, Chow acknowledges, his restaurants, which grossed $2 million a year at their peak, have been hit by recession.

But these days, Chow says he’s living his own happy ending. He remarried in January, to Eva Chun, a 36-year-old fashion designer based in New York. Chow divides his time between that city and a 7,000-square-foot home in Holmby Hills that he bought last year for $3.5 million. Like Chow, the Seoul-born Chun came to the West in her teens. And in Chun, he has found his own multicultural reflection, much the way he has in Mr. Chow.

“My theory is if you’re totally young, like before 10, and you come here, you become totally Westernized. And if you’re very old, after 18, you become Oriental.


“So half that and half the other--two cultures. Inwardly, we’re very Oriental. And on the exterior, very Western. There are not very many people like that.”