Jade Court, one of the city’s premier Chinese restaurants, will close at the end of February. Owner Carol Cheung confirmed that she would close following an exit agreement with the University of Chicago, her landlords who oversee the Harper Court development in Hyde Park.
It’s gloomy news less than a month before Lunar New Year — Sunday, February 10 — which is one of the busiest times of the year for Chicago’s Chinese restaurants. Post-pandemic challenges, like adequate staffing and rising labor and food costs, contributed to the decision as Jade Court struggled to fill its dining room.
“I still cannot find my footing there,” Cheung says. “It’s consistently inconsistent — we get slammed one night and for some reason on a weekend we’ll be done by 7:30.”
Cheung says the school wanted her out earlier, but they negotiated with the Year of the Dragon approaching.
In a statement, the university called Cheung a “great partner” and wrote that they’ve “worked closely with her on efforts to grow Jade Court’s customer base and develop a path to financial sustainability.”
Jade Court arrived in Hyde Park in October 2020. But the restaurant’s debut came in 2016 in Little Italy. It closed in 2019. Founder Eddy Cheung, Carol’s father — the eldest of nine siblings — is credited as a pioneering Chinese restaurateur in Chicago, bringing a style of cuisine seen in Toronto and Hong Kong. The first Jade Court opened in 1972 near Toronto, Eddy Cheung’s first sit-down restaurant. The Cheungs moved to Chicago where they also opened Chinatown restaurants Mandarin Palace and Phoenix Restaurant. Eddy Cheung spent two decades at the latter, one of Chicago’s best dim sum stops.
Carol Cheung is now the face of the restaurant after her father died in July 2019. She became beloved by her customers for her curiosity about their preferences, going into the kitchen and bringing back dishes tailored to her guests’ tastes and diets. These treats weren’t on the menu and showed Cheung’s hospitality and culinary knowledge. Former Tribune critic Phil Vettel would call Jade Court 2.0 the best Chinese restaurant in town.
This caught the attention of the University of Chicago, which saw Jade Court as a potential anchor for Harper Court, a redevelopment at Harper Avenue and 53rd Street that sought to bring more upscale restaurants closer to the university community. A family-owned endeavor like the Cheungs’ would contrast with chains like Sweetgreen and Aloha Poke Co. Despite the praise from nearly every Chicago food publication — Eater even listed them as one of the city’s essential 38 restaurants — Jade Court failed to attract a large number of local diners, including college students. Some speculate Harper Court is too far away from campus and expensive for students. The pandemic played its part. For example, the university tried to set up a patio in the private roadway in front of the restaurant, but that also was tough, taking away parking from delivery drivers.
Concerns mounted that Jade Court, with an extensive menu and Carol Cheung’s passion for Cantonese cuisine, wasn’t a good fit. The school pushed Cheung to adjust her menu in hopes it would work better. At one point, the university officials suggested a truncated menu where customers could pick a protein and sauce in the same vein of an assembly line fast-casual restaurant. But that was never Cheung’s desire as she safeguarded recipes passed down by her father.
“God forbid a Chinese restaurant charges $16 for Mongolian beef,” Cheung says. “It’s the idea of Chinese food being cheap, which many people are used to.”
Though supported with marketing and rent forgiveness, Cheung wishes there was a stronger rapport with the college, that they would have given her more catering opportunities, to provide food for school-sanctioned events like a Lunar New Year celebration to help build local brand awareness.
But the university has many tentacles, from real estate to its hospital, and Cheung says she feels her pleas for more catering gigs never reached the right people. Cheung understands that the success or failure of the restaurant rests on her shoulders, but since the pandemic, she doesn’t feel she’s received “a fair shot.”
The university has reached out to Chicago restaurants, bringing in acclaimed spots like Hai Sous, the Vietnamese restaurant in Pilsen; and Wazwan, the Indian restaurant in West Town, to campus. That’s given students and teachers choices, but also increased competition for off-campus restaurants like Jade Court, Cheung says.
Harper Court is tucked away from 53rd Street’s traffic, away from the buzz that restaurants like Pizza Capri, Virtue, and Valois provide. Restaurants have struggled inside Harper Court, with the notable exception of Ja Grill, which counts strong bar crowds. In late summer, the university commenced the second phase of its Harper Court redevelopment plan. Already removed from Hyde Park’s main draft, construction — including scaffolding — has reduced traffic to a trickle with Carol Cheung and other restaurant owners telling Eater that business has been slow, even for a winter that keeps most Chicagoans at home.
The university told Cheung they don’t have a tenant lined up to replace her. Still, her story may not be finished in Hyde Park. She’s looking at other opportunities. In 2019, Jade Court went on a year-long hiatus before landing in Hyde Park. Cheung, or her husband, Adrian Race — who posted about the restaurant’s closing over the weekend in neighborhood Facebook groups — will let the community know if there’s any news.
Meanwhile, read the university’s full statement below.
Jade Court was a welcome addition to Harper Court for three years, regularly recognized as one of the city’s best Chinese restaurants. Carol Cheung has been a great partner, and we have worked closely with her on efforts to grow Jade Court’s customer base and develop a path to financial sustainability. The news of her closing February 29, 2024 is difficult, but we extend our thanks and wish her continued success in her future endeavors.