Just west of Spadina and College, at the foot of Chinatown and on a street that has gradually turned into a computer supply store village, is Peter’s Chung King. You wouldn’t notice it passing by; old white drapes obstruct any peek inside, although a signed 1980’s photograph of Sharon, Louise and Bram proves their endorsement. Inside is not more noteworthy. I believe it has mostly blank dull walls, interrupted only by some foreign money taped up and those weird landscape paintings (are they plastic?) that only appear in Chinese restaurants. Truth be told, I don’t remember much more about the interior, as my family always ordered to take out.
To call it our favourite Szechwan restaurant would be incorrect: it IS our restaurant. My parents were first introduced to it years before I was born when it was at another location. Its second place on College Street was conveniently just below my elementary school and five minutes from our house on Brunswick. The story is that they found it so delicious that, when they were finished, they licked their plates. Actually, many myths surround Peter’s. Most evocative are the stories of picking up Peter’s on our way to our cottage and driving the other passengers crazy with the delicious smells on the boat ride across to our island. Even if this only happened once, it caught on as a family tale because it sums up a wonderful experience of living in Toronto: you could actually pick up really good Szechwan food and enjoy it on a dock beside a lake within an hour. How lucky are we?
Over the years different dishes were added or subtracted to our take out list (it is always Mom’s job to phone, always Dad and mine to go pick it up, and smiling Peter would occasionally come out and greet Dad as I waited in the car), but it was mostly the old favourites: spring rolls, Muchu Pork (later switched to the vegetarian Muchu), ginger chilli shrimp, garlic broccoli and, last but not least, Spiced Chicken, which because of a typo on the original menu (another legend) all of us call “spice-ces chicken”. This last dish of chicken, peppers and peanuts in a smooth, spicy brown sauce is so popular around the table that, as my brother and I got bigger, we had to start ordering two dishes of in order to prevent family fights.
It is our special occasion dinner, a good thing to have with visitors, but also good on a gloomy day when no one feels like cooking. Peter’s was one of the things I missed most when I travelled throughout Europe last year, made worse by a lunch I had in a Parisian Chinese restaurant one Sunday afternoon when a dish that looked surprisingly like Spice-ces Chicken was given to me and got my hopes up only to end up tasting NOTHING like it. On my first evening home, when I told stories to my parents for three non-stop hours (drive from the airport, drive to pick up food, sitting down at dinner) we of course had Peter’s. And I realize now I had already subconsciously chosen Peter’s as my first dinner when I return to Toronto.
My Dad called me on skype today as I was dressing for work. At one point Dad said, “So did you hear about the terrible thing that happened on Grandma’s birthday?” In my gut I knew what he was going to say. In reaction to my pained expression by Dad said, “Well, it’s not THAT bad…”
But it was. “We had our order all ready and Mom phoned and a woman answered the phone and said, ‘Oh, didn’t you know? Peter decided to retire and the restaurant is closed. Next month I’m opening a sushi restaurant.’ So yeah,” Dad said, trailing of. “Thirty years, and it’s gone.”
Now, I was feeling pretty tired and lonely and a bit homesick already. Tears starting coming to my eyes, but I suppressed them. I can’t remember what I said, perhaps just nodded, and Dad said, “Well, he deserves to retire. Peter had been running it for a long time.”
In my head I replied ‘I don’t care! His kids should run it or something!’ Mom, still in her housecoat, joined us. “You know what, sweetie, don’t upset yourself about it. All this means is that we’ll have fun trying different places to find a new restaurant.”
Again in my head, I reacted with a modified cliché of the petulant child who has just lost his first pet: ‘But I don’t want another restaurant! I want Peter’s back! Now!’
“My only consolation,” I managed to say finally, “is that I’m not missing the final meal. But shouldn’t he have told us or something? Thirty years…”
“Yeah, Mom and I were joking that we should hire Peter for around the house.”
If only. But of course, it wouldn’t be the same.
Then I had to go to work. As I walked in the bright early afternoon sunlight, tears streamed down my face. At first I berated myself; ‘You ARE NOT crying about a Chinese restaurant!’ But it’s about so much more than a restaurant or food or eating, although of course I will miss those dishes to no end and good Szechwan has completely spoiled me for the crap that is often called ‘Chinese food’ which tastes alright on the way down but revisits you all night. No, it’s not just the food. It’s the role it played for my family. It’s the beloved tradition that has been snapped unexpectedly from us. And now I can’t even remember the last time we ate it.
I was already upset about some of my favourite places in Toronto shutting down (mostly bookstores, like Mirvish Books and Pages on Queen Street). But Peter’s closing took me completely off guard. I understand that restaurants come and go, and big cities are always changing. I will eat good Szechwan again and, more importantly, the warmth and fun of our family dinners (which made the Peter’s tradition special in the first place) will continue. But the two together, along with the ritualized drive down to College street, the parking in little-visited Snow’s Flowers across the street, the sitting with the warm plastic bag on my lap and the arrival home to a table set with plates and bowls and little pink tea cups from Chinatown and plastic chopsticks whose red and green markings have long since faded in the dish washer, these things will never be the same.
And recognizing that you can’t, as much as you’d like, stop time in its tracks, that sometimes things just have to change, is a part of growing up.
Peter’s, I will deeply miss you.
Update: We are still without a good Chinese restaurant, so if anyone has a recommendation, leave it in a comment.