To some people, a Chinese menu shoved under the door is an appreciated convenience. To others it’s a minor annoyance. But for a time on the Upper West Side, it seemed like something else entirely—it seemed like a very big deal indeed. It also seemed like the story that wouldn’t die.
There were threats, physical altercations and public demonstrations. There was legal action, police and government intervention. Activists involved with the cause made straight-faced references to “the movement.” All of this over Chinese menus. What exactly was the deal?
On the face of it, it was simple enough. Behind it was a Chinese restaurant, Empire Szechuan, with a promotional strategy that involved aggressively blanketing Upper West Side residences with takeout menus. The strategy worked pretty well, helping Empire Szechuan grow from a single restaurant to a thriving mini-chain.
The problem was, some Upper West Siders began to get sick of the onslaught. They complained, but it didn’t seem to have any effect. Then they got really sick of it. A few decided to fight back.
So one night in 1992, at peak dinner hour, a group calling themselves the “Menu Vigilantes” invaded the Empire Szechuan at West 97th and Broadway and scattered menus around the dining room, surprising the hell out of diners who’d stopped in for a peaceful plate of sesame noodles.
West Side Spirit covered the counterattack, and some bigger media picked up the story. The restaurant promised to stop after that, but they didn’t, and the vigilantes returned, this time with a TV camera crew in tow.
From then on, the battle, which we took to calling the Chinese Menu War, not only stayed alive for months and months, it just got more heated. Letters were sent by the score, not only by community groups but by city and state officials, one of whom drafted an anti-dumping bill. The New York Times and CNN ran stories. The Community Board revoked the restaurant’s cafe permit. The captain of the 20th Precinct met with Empire Szechuan owner, James Shau. An Upper West Side landlord, Saul Lapidus, took Empire Szechuan to small claims court repeatedly, suing for the cost of clearing menus out of his buildings (he eventually won).
Nothing, it seemed, dammed the flood. Seething with frustration, people spoke of the menu deliverers in semi-awed tones, like they were some mysterious, unstoppable force of nature.
Violent altercations between doormen and the delivery men were not uncommon around this time. I remember going up to see one West 109th Street doorman who, at the end of his rope, had called West Side Spirit to vent about his daily run-ins with the menu dumpers. Things were so bad that he was worried that someone was going to get seriously hurt. “It’s come down to that,” he said, his voice tinged with disbelief. “Over menus.”
It was, after all, only menus. So, again, what exactly was the deal? What were people so worked up about?
Some claimed that an anti-Asian bias was behind the complaints. But I’m inclined to think that Saul Lapidus put his finger on it when he told the paper, “We’re assaulted everywhere, in the streets, in the subways. To be assaulted in our homes with this garbage—it’s an indignity.” In a city where one is required to fend off one unwanted advance after another, it seemed that having the unwanted advance literally shoved under one’s door was the last straw.
So why was I so captivated by the whole thing? I guess because it was such an oddball, only-in-New-York story. It showed how a little issue could become a big one when it upset the delicate balance required for people crammed together on a little patch of island to coexist in a state of relative harmony.
And it just never seemed to end. For that matter, it probably still hasn’t.
Chris Erikson, currently an editor at the New York Post, was the associate editor and then editor of West Side Spirit from 1993 to 1997.