July 17, 2024


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Little Lan’s, Winnetka’s oldest eatery, could get booted after surviving pandemic: ‘It would be devastating’

Is a chop at the end of this stick?

Is Winnetka’s oldest restaurant heading to the land of the lost?

Little Lan’s, a traditional, old-school Chinese eatery in the middle of posh North Shore environs, may lose its lease — a move that would devastate its owner, Chien Lan Pi, who has given her blood, sweet and tears to the business for 29 years.

“It’s sad and it’s bad optics,” said longtime Winnetkan Monica Bidwill. “The owner is a hard-working Asian American woman, who fought hard to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The tiny spot is almost hidden from view on Winnetka’s trendy Chestnut Street. A postage stamp on an expensive package, Little Lan’s is squeezed next to a trendy health foods shop for many pickleball moms who like to drink their lunch — and the uber expensive duds emporium at the ritzy Neapolitan shop for women who drop money by the ton.

The owner’s son, sushi chef Peter Ma, who decided to help out his mother by adding sushi to the menu a few months ago — netting a June 12 article in the North Shore Reader — hit Facebook this week posting this brickbat: After 29 years, Evanston’s Farnsworth-Hill property management company was refusing to give Little Lan’s a new lease.

The post stated:

“After we put every last dime into remodeling the restaurant to keep it going thru Covid, this is how the management treats us after being faithful rebrands for almost three decades.

“My faith in humanity is almost all but lost. WTF can I do.”

Peter Ma cooks at Little Lan’s on Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Winnetka, Ill. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Ma’s post cited the shock of an unannounced encounter with a property manager after he showed up early at the restaurant to do some prep work “because our new sushi menu had been flying off the shelf.”

He claims the back door was unlocked and the property manager was showing the space to prospective renters. “She said they were architects, but I don’t believe it.”

“My mom was born in Korea to Chinese parents and this restaurant is her baby,” said Ma.

After 29 years, losing the lease would be a huge blow: “If it disappeared it would be devastating for her,” he said.

“Mom works her butt to the bone. In the past three decades she’s rarely had a day off; help has been hard to find … and basically she has been the cook, dishwasher, phone answerer and waiter,” he said.

“Now COVID is lifting, we have added a new sushi service, and this happens!”

Peter Ma noted his parents are divorced and the Winnetka eatery is NOT affiliated with his father Jimmy’s Lan’s eateries, including Lan’s Old Town, which was shut down for violating city COVID regulations.

Ma said the owner of the building comes in for lunch frequently and “is a friend.” He admits his mother’s eatery has been without a formal lease for the last two years, and during the pandemic she paid less than what was due. But she paid what she could even though the landlord didn’t offer to reduce rent during the difficult stretch. In fact, she was sent an I.O.U., he said.

“Mom, who doesn’t speak English well, claims they sent her a letter stating she owed a lot of money — $16,000 in back property taxes and back rent — and signed some sort of legal agreement,” Peter Ma said. “Why is she paying property taxes? She doesn’t own the building.

“I’ve been talking to the property management people for the past year because we’ve been on a $4,700 month-to-month rental basis, and I feel like I’m getting a runaround,” he said.

“They always say they don’t have the paperwork at hand and will call back. Recently, they said they didn’t want to kill the lease, but there is the money problem backed by papers she signed.”

Sneed’s call to the Farnsworth-Hill property management company earlier this week has yet to be returned. A very polite woman named Wendy said it might be awhile before Peter Nash, the property manager, called back because he was very busy.

Peter Ma (from left), Chien Lan Pi and Jeffery Ma, stand together in their family-owned restaurant, Thursday in Winnetka.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Bidwill, who went to New Trier High School with one of the Ma Brothers, Tony, a sushi chef in Las Vegas, said Little Lan’s has been a great takeout spot for years.

Chien Lan Pi “is now facing the awfulness … of being booted after decades.

“When I heard about this, I was heartbroken. It just doesn’t seem right.”

Stay tuned.

Sneedlings . . .

Paws Up! A special gathering to honor the memory of Winnetka’s beloved veterinarian, Dr. Kurt Miller—who died in the midst of the COVID pandemic—will be held at 4 p.m. on June 26 at Winnetka’s village green, 525 Maple Street. As the owner and founder of Winnetka’s only veterinary hospital, his legacy lives on.

Saturday birthdays: Boris Johnson, 57; Zoe Saldana, 43; and Jacob deGrom, 33. . . . Sunday birthdays: Nicole Kidman, 54; Lionel Richie, 72; and Alex Guarnaschelli, 49.