Over the weekend, city officials raided Lan’s Old Town and shut the Chinese-American restaurant down after issuing citations for a private party that ignored COVID-19 mitigations. The city says Lan’s staff weren’t wearing masks and that customers were mingling instead of remaining seated at socially distanced tables.
The city counted 27 people inside the restaurant. At the time, Chicago’s rules allowed for a maximum of 50 customers per room, or a 25 percent indoor capacity — whichever number was smaller.
This is the second time inspectors had raided Lan’s in about a month. Last month, a video surfaced on Reddit showing a crowded scene of more than 60 inside the restaurant. On January 14, the city cited Lan’s for multiple COVID-19 violations. Karaoke in bars is especially concerning with health experts worried about the increased risk of transmission, as shared mic and loud voices don’t contribute to a low-risk environment.
Lan’s has been a fixture near the Sedgwick CTA Brown Line stop for 11 years. Owner Jimmy Ma’s personality made the club infamous with karaoke parties (the restaurant’s website promoted “wild BYOB party nights on the weekends”). Ma’s son says the city’s citations spell doom for the restaurant. Jeffrey Ma says Lan’s is unlikely to reopen and that they hosted the parties out of desperation, needing to make money to survive. Lan’s updated its website Thursday with the announcement.
It is with great regret Lan’s Old Town will be shutting its doors for good. Unfortunately we don’t have the means to continue operating. After tens years we want to thank all those who have supported us. Thank you for all the memories. Take Care Chicago!
“All good things must come to an end,” Jeffrey Ma adds, in an interview with Eater Chicago.
The younger Ma showed remorse for hosting the parties. He says Lan’s had been surviving on takeout and delivery until late December when they threw their first party. Overall, sales have plunged by about 90 percent during the pandemic. Ma says Lan’s secured about $4,000 through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and another $11,000 from an Economic Injury Disaster Loan.
“It was just that times got tough,” Ma says of the decision to book parties. “How do you expect a restaurant to operate through the winter, especially in getting very minimal help from the city and the state?”
Social media is full of posts of restaurants that continued to operate in defiance of COVID-19 safety regulations, and Ma finds it curious that the city would crack down on his father’s restaurant. He said they cited Lan’s for building violations and not having a liquor license, as well as not having a public place of amusement license, something that clubs that offer music and dancing need.
This “everything but the kitchen sink” tactic is common when the city targets a venue. It’s one of the reasons few venues in Chicago challenged the city’s COVID-19 orders — city authorities have more power to shut down a bar compared to a suburban spot. Two recent examples were EvilOlive and DrinkHaus. Critics say the enforcement doesn’t seem to be universally applied. They point to controversial venues — like Richard’s Bar and Bottled Blonde — which have found multiple ways to survive.
“The city does what it has to do,” Ma says.
Ma, who says he stopped by the restaurant on Saturday, adds that staff took customer temperatures before allowing them to enter. Jimmy Ma dove into Reddit — there’s a generational divide as the 68 year old is not used to social media — and read the posts that criticized his restaurant: “My father learned from that mistake,” his son says. “He said that we’re not going to operate in that fashion.”
Jeffrey Ma also wonders why the city isn’t placing more accountability on customers. This has been a common concern for restaurant workers who feel they need to police the people that pay them while dealing with pandemic pressures.
“He’s 68, it’s just kind of funny no one really asked about his health or anything else,” Ma says. “Every person that came into the establishment knew the risks.”
The city could allow Lan’s to reopen if it shows them a plan to abide by social distance rules, and Ma says they have an April court date to contest the citations. He didn’t seem too optimistic, and instead reflected on his family’s memories. They never intended for Lan’s to become a party destination. But Jimmy Ma saw how customers reacted and felt obliged to give them what they wanted, starting with a simple DVD karaoke machine and eventually upgrading to a professional grade sound system.
Adapting to the pandemic can be harder for people like Jimmy Ma. He’s from a generation that’s dedicated to work and was not thinking about retirement, his son says.
“That’s what kind of made Lan’s Old Town special,” Jeffrey Ma says. “It was his character, people wanted to party with him.”
The fines for breaking COVID-19 restrictions range from $100 to $10,000, set by city’s health department or the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.