After 50 years in business, the Kong can still hold its own on a Friday night.
Packs of undergraduates slurp their Scorpion Bowls, while townies in the next booth dig into plates of chow mein and sweet and sour fish. A burly Cambridge police officer lingers by the door as an even burlier bouncer blocks the main entrance, scrutinizing questionable ID holograms under dim yellowish foyer lighting. Keeping a vigilant eye on all aspects of food and bar service, owner Paul Lee slips with discreet authority from the main-floor restaurant to the bar and dance floor on the upper levels. The raucous laughter of drunken college students and the thumping rhythms of Beyoncé form the unmistakable soundtrack of a late night experience at this Square standby on the eve of its silver anniversary.
Originally from China’s Guangdong province, Buoy and Sen Lee had been in America for only seven years when they opened the doors of the Hong Kong Restaurant in 1954. According to their son and the current manager Paul Lee, the new Waltham residents opened their restaurant business on Mass. Ave. a few blocks down from a cousin’s laundry shop located on Broadway. The Kong was a single-story restaurant until 1970, when the Lees purchased the building’s remaining two floors to create a second dining room on the second floor, and a gold-wallpapered function room on the third floor. The additional space came not only with a liquor license, but also with a refurbishment for the main restaurant—most noticeably, the distinctive carved ceiling and bat-patterned panels. By the time the bar was moved upstairs in 1974, the Kong had become a favorite among young Cantabridgians.
“Originally, we were a townie hangout,” recalls Lee. “There would be fights here every weekend, back when the drinking age was 18.” According to Lee, the Kong’s clientele changed significantly after a scuffle involving local patrons on the second floor. The locals resolved to boycott the place and then, “suddenly, all the kids from Harvard started coming in.”
Back then, the restaurant offered the same affordable prices and an unbeatable location as it does today. “Kids who only had a few dollars would come here and eat,” Lee says. The Kong’s status as a quaint local landmark helped preserve the establishment during riots in the 1970s, says Lee. “They spared the mom and pop operation. A few rocks bounced off the windows, but didn’t break ‘em.” The restaurant’s family feel is enhanced by the presence of several long-term staff, including waitress Sandy (who has worked at the Kong for “ten or fifteen years,” according to Lee) and the ponytailed cash-register attendant Fred, with 20 years of service under his belt.
Night after night, the Kong offers Chinese takeout staples like fried rice and chicken wings to their regular weeknight clientele—locals whose Chinese palates have been cultivated on Kong fare, or “a lot of the kids coming in for late night study breaks.” Malini D. Sur ’04, Ari M. Shaw ’04, Juliana H. Chow ’04 and Shun Kakazu ’04 recently celebrated Kakazu’s 22nd birthday with scallion pancakes and a Scorpion Bowl. Perhaps echoing the sentiment of many a nocturnal Harvard student, Shaw notes that despite mixed feelings about the quality of the food, “we somehow keep getting sucked back here.” Chow adds that “I think the food is much better now [than it was a few years ago].”
First-time Kong guests Juanita Brown, Sheree Wilson and Chris Jones of Mattapan disagree. Stabbing his egg roll while his dining companions dejectedly twirl their egg noodles, Jones’ verdict is that the Kong’s food is “definitely not the best.”
Lee remains adamant, however, that the large numbers of Asian students frequenting the Kong mean that the menu “can’t be half bad.” He cites spicy Szechuan fish in black bean sauce, Chinese-style eggplant and crab Rangoon (“I like the cream cheese”) as his personal favorite house specialties, with the restaurant’s signature Scorpion Bowls clearly its most popular beverage. The large, shared bowls of punch are served on both floors of the Kong, along with a selection of fruity cocktails and bottled beers ranging from Tsingtao to Rolling Rock.
Looking forward beyond issues of alcohol consumption by minors, Lee has grand plans for the next 50 years of the family-run business. He is currently in the process of selecting architects to revamp the fabled fluorescent-lighted exterior of the building under the auspices of Cambridge’s facade renovation program for neighborhood vendors. “We’re going to redo the exterior front facade,” Lee says, “and maybe create an open dining room with windows into the street—like Café India, Redline and Grafton.”
Meanwhile, at the Kong’s upper levels, clusters of grad students and Cambridge locals share Scorpion Bowls and draft beer. A few grind to the rhythms of Ashanti and Aaliyah on the small square parquet dance floor, while others take aim at the dart boards hung beside a framed Playboy cover from 1982 announcing steamy images from “The Harvard Scene.”
“I’ve been here half a dozen times or so,” Michael W. Finneran of Milton says to FM. “My friends live nearby. Do you have a boyfriend?”
Liquor continues to stream freely from behind the bar to the lips of a crowd of middle-aged people circling around two gyrating bodies on the dance floor. Beside the dart boards, several men take turns stripping off their button-down shirts and shouting gleefully at passing females, “Rock on, baby!”
Downstairs, Calvin T. Chin ’06 has just arrived and is about to join his friends at a table by the front window. He praises the Kong for its late-night service and friendly, low-key vibe. “I’m from Hong Kong, so when I first heard about this place, I swore I’d never come because I’m such a Chinese food snob. But after awhile you learn to like the bad greasiness—just like you get adjusted to bad dining hall food.”