Pioneering Sichuan restaurant Cafe China temporarily closed its doors earlier this summer as co-owners Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang prepared to relocate to a new location one block over. Ahead of their opening at 59 West 37th Street, the duo allege that a new restaurant — named Chili — has taken over their former storefront at 13 East 37th Street with a menu and design that are “nearly identical” to Cafe China.
“Someone has stolen our menu, hired our cooks, imitated our design, and opened a copycat restaurant a block away in the old space that used to house Café China,” Zhang and Wang shared in an Instagram post on September 8.
In the post, Zhang and Wang claim that the owners of Chili have copied multiple elements of their restaurant in an effort to deceive customers into thinking they are actually eating at Cafe China. The exterior includes similar design elements, including its logo, while the dining rooms at both restaurants are outfitted with similar pieces of furniture, the owners allege. “They want to essentially deceive people who either have never been to Cafe China or who have been there but didn’t pay close attention to what had happened,” Zhang says.
Joe Tsou and Miki Niu, two of four owners behind Chili, deny that the restaurant copied Cafe China’s menu, staff, or design. “We want to just be really clear,” Tsou says. “The menu is not invented by them. All of the dish is very classic Sichuan food... It’s a very classic menu.” He and Niu previously worked at Cafe China as a manager and a host, respectively, and say that their restaurant is primarily staffed by former hosts, waiters, and chefs of Cafe China, who were unexpectedly furloughed after its lease expired in August.
“That’s a place that we’ve worked for — for me, it’s over nine years,” Tsou says. “I treat this place as a home.” He says that if he and other former Cafe China employees had not signed a lease on the East 37th Street space, someone else would have.
Cafe China denies that its former employees were furloughed without warning. Zhang and Wang say they notified workers of their plans to relocate shortly after signing a lease on the new space in June 2019. The duo also claim they had planned to rehire their entire staff at the new location without an interruption in service, but the pandemic significantly delayed their reopening plans, leaving former employees without jobs for multiple months.
“In May 2021 it became clear that Covid had also caused major delays in city services and that the new location would not be ready by the end of our old lease,” Zhang and Wang wrote in a separate post on social media. Cafe China has yet to reopen at the time of publishing. Zhang estimates the restaurant will reopen its doors in October.
Tsou and Niu dispute that they were ever offered employment at the new location. “They just tell you they signed the lease down the block,” Tsou says. “That’s it. There was no further detail that was disclosed to us.”
Zhang and Wang opened Cafe China in 2011, serving Sichuan fare from one of Midtown’s more stylish dining rooms. Outfitted with blue velvet booths and schoolroom-style chairs, the former owner described his first restaurant as an “experimental project to see where we could take our concept of a 1930s Shanghainese cafe.” Within a year of opening, those efforts were rewarded with a single Michelin star. The duo expanded with China Blue, which closed during the pandemic, in 2014, and followed up with their latest venture, a modern Sichuan spot called Birds of a Feather, three years later.