Susanna Foo restaurant expected to close in August

Posted: May 09, 2009

Susanna Foo has signed an agreement of sale on her Center City building, and her signature restaurant is expected to end a 22-year run as a Walnut Street anchor by early August.

The restaurant, booked with reservations for Mother's Day and college graduations, is still open and is firing on all burners. The chef, who spoke about her decision reluctantly, has not announced a closing date.

"This is very hard for me," said Foo, 65. A Chinese immigrant who became one of the city's first celebrity chefs, Foo gained international recognition as a trailblazer of infusing Chinese cookery with French technique.

Foo emphasized that the impending sale was not tied to an economy that has staggered many other white-tablecloth restaurants but was driven by a desire to improve her quality of life while she still had the "energy of someone 20 years younger."

She plans to focus on her Radnor restaurant, Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen, which she opened near the Blue Route on Lancaster Avenue in 2006 as a more contemporary restaurant than the sedate Center City original. A 10-minute walk from the Villanova home she shares with her husband, E-Hsin, the Radnor restaurant is run by her son Gabriel.

"I want to do cooking classes," said Foo, who has hosted the occasional lesson while turning out two award-winning cookbooks. "There are a lot of things I can't do now." Then there are her granddaughters. Her son Jimmy, his wife, and their two toddlers soon will move from Center City to the Main Line, she said.

Given her two restaurants as well as Suilan - a restaurant she operated from 2003 through 2006 at the Borgata Hotel Casino in Atlantic City - Foo has worked six- and seven-day weeks since 1979.

The work paid off in major awards from such magazines as Gourmet and Food & Wine, the James Beard Foundation, and the Mobil and AAA travel guides.

The building, a World War I-era Italianate brownstone at Sydenham Street, will be configured for retail with apartments above, said Larry Steinberg, a principal of Michael Salove Co., a commercial real estate firm.

Steinberg plans to market two floors on behalf of the prospective buyer, whom he declined to identify. The listing and the purchase price are also confidential until settlement in August.

The Foos paid $750,000 for the building in 1991, according to city records. Real estate watchers said the sale price could be nearly seven times that.

It would mark the second closing this year of a major restaurant on Walnut Street, which emerged in the mid-1990s as the city's restaurant row. Brasserie Perrier, a block away, shut down over New Year's.

At Le Bec-Fin, Georges Perrier has adapted to changing tastes by offering discounts and lower-priced menus. Even Foo started delivery service in January.

Foo, the Mongolian-born daughter of a general in Chiang Kai-shek's army, was studying library science in Pittsburgh in 1979 when she and her husband relocated to help his family, which owned the Hu-Nan restaurants in Ardmore and Center City.

Jacob Rosenthal, retired president of the Culinary Institute of America and an influential foodie, stopped for dinner at the Foos' restaurant, then at 1721 Chestnut St. He became an early champion of Susanna Foo, and she later took classes at the institute in Hyde Park, N.Y.

In late 1987, at the urging of Perrier across the street, the Foos moved to 1512 Walnut. For three generations, the building housed Arthur's Steak House and for its last year was Arturo's.

The Foos spent barely $10,000 on renovations at first, keeping the dark-paneled dining room with its disco-mirror wall. The opening party, to which about 100 people were invited, drew several hundred. Foo later learned they "owned three-quarters of the real estate in town." Word of mouth spiked business immediately.

In 1996, a redesign by Marguerite Rodgers invited in the sunlight, befitting Foo's food.

In an interview this week over tea and her signature dumplings, Foo said her longtime employees would be offered jobs in Radnor.

She also turned her thoughts to her neglected garden and the prospect of home entertaining. "Can you imagine?" she asked. "I never invite people over. I'm going to have to clean up the house."


Contact staff writer Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com.

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