The steadfast presence at Upper East Side Taiwanese restaurant Pig Heaven, owner Nancy Lee, has retired from her post — selling the restaurant to new management and marking the end of another era for the nearly 35-year-old restaurant. Lee, who is 62 years old, has been with the restaurant for over three decades, seeing it through a renovation, relocation, and many years of changes in the neighborhood. The restaurant remains open without her.
Lee started working as a host at Pig Heaven the year it opened, after immigrating from Taiwan. It was her first job in the U.S., but she didn’t necessarily see herself running the restaurant, she says. Nonetheless, she took over Pig Heaven in 1987. “I’m a people person, and I like to work with people,” she says. The restaurant ended up being a good fit for that.
In doing so, she ended up shepherding a legend of its time through decades. Pig Heaven isn’t as well known in the city now, but for years, it was a destination for Chinese food, pointed to as a solid dining option in the Times as early as 1989 and consistently through 1995. The original space, located at 1540 Second Ave., at of East 80th Street, sported a barnyard motif on the outside and a bright pink dining room with neon-lit pigs throughout. It was opened in 1984 by famed Red Farm restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld and chef David Keh, who was considered a pioneer in NYC’s sit-down Chinese restaurant scene. He died in 2003.
A 1999 Times look at the restaurant notes a slight decline but credits Lee with renovating the restaurant for a more modern era, replacing the barnyard paraphernalia with hanging lamps and a table of ceramic and carved pigs. In 1999, the Times also noted that the food at Pig Heaven, which had fallen off a bit, was back in top form. With the renovation, Lee restored the restaurant to its former glory. She also became known for her friendly and constant presence in the restaurant, which had a reputation for great service under her ownership.
The restaurant closed its original location on Second Avenue in 2014 but reopened at 1420 3rd Ave., near East 81st Street. As the name suggests, Pig Heaven specializes in pork dishes, like its famous spare ribs and Peking-style shredded pork. But it’s also known for its non-pig dishes, like a Peking duck and three cup chicken.
The restaurant is still in business but has new ownership and a mostly new staff. Lee says it’s too emotional for her to return. “The customers have become my friends and extended family,” Lee says. She says that while it’s difficult to leave, she’s also looking forward to spending more time with her family. “I’m a grandma, so I think I should give myself a break,” she says.
“This has become my American dream,” Lee says.