Despite being bought up in a little village in the Midlands, London still figured in my childhood as a place for family gatherings and visits. With a pair of grandparents as well as an aunt and her family living in the capital, it was the natural location for festivities that brought together the various branches of our family. And for as long as I can remember should any of these festivities necessitate a meal out at a restaurant, there was but one place we would head: Choys.
(apologies for the terrible reflection...)
The sign reads: "Sadly, after more than 60 years Choys is closing. Our final day will be Saturday 9th November. We would like to say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to all our customers. Best of luck to you all!"
The Accidental Parents, in town for a visit, discovered the sign. And acted promptly. A final family meal at Choy's was booked and so, last Thursday night we gathered; the Accidental grandmother, two Accidental aunts (and one husband), the Accidental parents and me.
As a waitress looked us over and consulted the reservations book, the owner, whose move back to Hong Kong is necessitating the closure of Choys, appeared. My grandmother was greeted warmly by name and we were shown to our table. We took our seats beneath a large, pale painting of a walled city - just one picture within a wonderfully peculiar and eclectic collection of art within the restaurant - and behind a range of perfectly folded, clean white napkins. We played the ever-popular game, "What is your napkin supposed to look like?", identifying a giraffe, several different kinds of flowers, a couple of birds, and what was either a peacock or a shrimp.
And then out came the menus; the menus which all of us knows well, right down to the same, single typo that always gets spotted by someone every time we eat at Choys. We summoned up a round of Tsing Tao beer, and tucked into the prawn crackers. We read the names of the familiar dishes, daring each other to try the more exotic delicacies, because "it's your last chance!". In tribute to the Accidental grandfather, who approached a meal at Choys as the most pleasurable of projects, we drew up our own order on the back of an envelope, before presenting it to our friendly, giggling waitress. We toasted absent friends, all those members of the family with whom we had shared similar past meals. We reminisced about the events we had celebrated here - the 50th birthday parties, the 70th's, the 80th's, the birth of a new addition to the family - and those sadder moments that needed to be marked somehow but which needed a secure, peaceful place in which to do so - a birthday of someone no longer with us, a memorial service.
But before we could get too melancholy our first course arrived...
...lettuce leaf wraps with pork and chicken, hot fried baby squid, banana stuffed with prawns, shredded jellyfish, and crispy seaweed. Yum! Around us were taking place similar final meals, with diners chatting to staff about their plans for the future, and the plans for the site of Choys. People were hugging, shaking hands, expressing regret and sadness, but also joy at the memories they'd created in this restaurant. At the table behind us I overheard the sad lament of a young patron: "But where will we go now? We'll miss you so terribly! You know, So-and-so, was going to fly back from New York just to come for one last meal." A man who'd come in to pick up a takeaway (for which he paid with a crisp, pink fifty pound note) joked about how the owner wouldn't need to worry about dodgy bank-notes anymore, once he retired back to Hong Kong.
And after our first course came the second. Mountains of perfect egg-fried rice topped with beef in black bean sauce, whole prawns in wine and ginger, perfectly crunchy green beans with spicy minced pork, tangy lemon chicken, and Szechuan lamb served sizzling noisily on a wooden board, borne out of the kitchen in a cloud of smoke and haste. We had no room for pudding. But then our kind hosts dished up a platter of fresh fruit and a pot of hot, green tea. We paid up, retrieved our coats, and that was it. We left the restaurant after final goodbyes and well-wishing, full, happy and racking our brains for another place that could ever replace Choys. As we wandered away down the road, we thought about the new person who would be joining our family in the new year. Where would we take them to introduce them to the whole family? Where would we toast their arrival? Where would we find our new Choys?
Goodbye to the staff at Choys who have fed four generations of our family over the past twenty years or so. Goodbye, and thanks for all the food. Thanks for all the memories.