Meiwah is closing in DC after nearly 20 years in business. Owner Larry La says he’ll shutter the Chinese restaurant on Tuesday, May 14, due to a proposed rent hike and the building’s landlord wanting to expand on the West End space. The Chevy Chase branch will remain open.
“It’s sad. It’s closing a chapter,” says La, who came to Washington in 1988 to manage City Lights of China in Dupont before opening Meiwah in 2000. “You can’t keep increasing your costs for the customers.”
As with the recent closure of nearby lunch counter CF Folks, Meiwah’s closure marks the end of an institution with an ardent following. It’s a vestige of a specific time in DC’s dining scene, before all the line-standing restaurants and prolific pop-ups.
The Chinese-American restaurant is no longer trendy. Its days of hosting A-listers like Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger—documented in dozens of VIP photos lining the walls—are mostly past. And the foodies who are currently obsessed with scorching Szechuan plates or lesser-known regional delicacies like Mama Chang’s Hubei cooking might find Meiwah’s General Tso’s chicken and lo mein passé. But Meiwah was long a standby for presidents, politicos, diplomats, and media types. La counted the Clintons as regulars on his delivery roster for years and says he was even once stopped by police speeding to Dulles to get a delivery order to Bill Clinton‘s private plane. (He avoided a ticket.) Meanwhile, CNN’s newsroom orders takeout so frequently they have a house account. (Dana Bash signed her celebrity-wall photo, ‘I can’t live without Meiwah dumplings.’) Hawaii senator Daniel Inouye once said it was his favorite restaurant in Washington because it reminded him of home. And a group of snobby New Yorkers claimed it was the only decent Chinese takeout in Washington.
Even more than the bang-up crispy shredded beef, credit La—Meiwah’s affable ambassador to Washington—for the restaurant’s longtime popularity. A Vietnamese refugee of Chinese descent, he arrived in the US in 1979 as one of “the boat people”—Vietnamese who fled the war and its aftermath by sea. He was working for the railroad when his brother-in-law, who operated a restaurant in DC’s Chinatown, said he knew of a good restaurant with a Chinese-speaking chef that was in need of an English-speaking manager. La came to Washington to manage City Lights of China and never left.
President @billclinton loves #eatingmeiwah#PresidentsDay #ChineseFood pic.twitter.com/AZxk9FRLuW
— Meiwah Restaurant (@EatingMeiwah) February 15, 2016
La might be an unlikely restaurateur. He doesn’t cook, has opened only two full-service restaurants in two decades, and isn’t much for trends. (An “Atkins-friendly” section of Meiwah’s menu is about as of-the-moment as it gets.) But he rose through the ranks in the ’90s, when Cantonese cooking was hot—think Peking Gourmet Inn, a Bush family favorite, or Tony Cheng’s. During his decade as a manager and then partner at City Lights, La made loyal connections who followed him to Meiwah. Politicians loved the Chinese food, and La was enthralled by politicians.
“I never wanted to be a politician, but I love it,” says La. “I remember watching George McGovern on TV and the  American election from Vietnam, and I was so excited because in Vietnam we didn’t have that kind of election. It’s also the people.”
Happy Birthday @DanaBashCNN! pic.twitter.com/2Vsyes6Qqq
— Meiwah Restaurant (@EatingMeiwah) June 15, 2017
La became a US citizen in 1985 and is an unabashed believer in America’s greatness. “No one needs to make it great again,” he says. In 2015, he was honored with an Outstanding American by Choice award from the US government, acknowledging achievements of naturalized citizens. (José Andrés and former Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera also received awards.) He has jumped at invitations to attend George H.W. Bush’s inauguration, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union, countless diplomatic functions, and embassy parties, at many of which he has served food. He reminisces about how he introduced the Chinese ambassador to General Tso’s chicken at Blair House.
“In China, they don’t have that. I said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, any Chinese restaurant in the United States—it doesn’t matter, carryout or big restaurant—they have to have General Tso’s chicken regardless. And fortune cookies!’ Those things are not in China. So the ambassador tried it and said, ‘Wow, that’s tasty!’”
Meiwah is a name invented by La because it combines “Mei” (America) and Wah (China) to create “American-Chinese.” It’s a cuisine La serves with pride—and is about more than the food.
“These countries are so big and important to each other, they can’t afford to fight,” says La. “I call it culinary diplomacy. Food is always a good thing to start a conversation.”
Meiwah. 1200 New Hampshire Ave., NW