Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up?
Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. Today, we visit Maxim, a proudly old-school Chinese restaurant in West London, headed up by 92-year-old Mrs Chow.
Dubbed "Queen of the Suburbs," the outer London borough of Ealing isn't exactly known for being one of the capital's premier dining destinations. But then those foodie tastemakers downing negronis in E8 and buying fresh halloumi from Brockley farmers markets have probably never been to Maxim—or as the Ealing locals call it, "Mrs Chow's."
A meal at the traditional Peking restaurant is a lot like a visit to your grandparents' house. The interior is still as opulent as any 1970s Chinese buffet, with red lanterns hanging from the ceiling and oriental wood screens dividing the room. And, as with any trip to an elderly relative's home, no one leaves Maxim until they are completely stuffed.
When I arrive at the restaurant, four generations of the Chow family greet me and insist that I join them for a huge lunch. Taking me in like a long lost daughter, they lead me through Maxim's 100-cover dining area and past a golden stork statue to a huge round table, topped with a pressed white tablecloth and—natch—a Lazy Susan.
I soon find out that the day-to-day running of Maxim is also a family affair. Son Tony is in charge of the business side of things, granddaughter Jocelyn is on marketing and social media duties, and the front-of-house manager has worked here for over 30 years. A team of 36 long-standing waitstaff and chefs man the kitchen and dining area.
And at the head of it all is 92-year-old Mrs Chow, who founded Maxim with her late husband 43 years ago.
"I can't do as much as I did back in the day due to old age and bad joints. I can't stand for very long and have to use my Zimmer frame to help me get around," she tells me. "But, I'm still very much involved. I always try to come to the restaurant to supervise and make sure things are in order. I still sometimes help cook in the kitchen and wash up. I'm not afraid of getting my hands dirty—I do everything!"
The journey to opening Ealing's most popular Chinese restaurant wasn't exactly a straightforward one for Mrs Chow.
"I've experienced a lot during my lifetime," she says. "One day, the Chinese occupied my village and the communists took over. I knew it was unsafe for me to remain in China any longer. I came over to the UK with my husband when I was just 18-years-old and it was my first time flying on a plane."
Mrs Chow used the skills honed during her days as a teacher back in China, along with her husband's professional cooking background, to open Maxim in 1974. The name literally translates from Chinese as "beautiful heart."
"The food and the name of the restaurant reflects my personal tastes and standards, as well as the cuisine of my native province, Shantung," Mrs Chow explains. She adds that her culinary philosophy can be described as a constant search for freshness, using natural ingredients.
"I believe in developing and blending natural tastes, I hate using any synthetic and chemical additives," she says. "They make people feel drowsy and cannot be good for the health."
I ask whether the menu at Maxim has changed much over the years.
"We're actually criticised for being too old fashioned," Tony chips in. "We're doing well at what we're doing, so why bother changing? If it isn't broke, why fix it?"
As such, the restaurant's lengthy menu covers Peking classics like aromatic spicy duck, butterfly king prawns, satay chicken, and their signature barbecued spare ribs. Right on cue, a waiter presents our table with another Maxim classic: stir-fried egg whites with crispy prawns.
"A lot of other Chinese restaurants don't make this dish anymore because it's too old fashioned and it's very difficult to make," Tony explains. "This is a dish that'll always be on our menu and we don't care if people like it or not."
In typical Asian dad mode, he ushers me to hurry up and dig in before it goes cold.
"For the sake of old people like me, there's still about 20 percent of the menu that's very traditional like this," Tony adds. "A lot of people still want a taste of the good old days and that's why we like to keep a lot of classic dishes on the menu."
Indeed throughout the years, Maxim has gathered a legion of happy regulars—including Wagamama founder Alan Yau and Chinese American chef Ken Hom. But the restaurant is still keen to attract new customers.
"We want to try and attract a younger audience to the restaurant but they'd rather spend their money in Central London, rather than coming out to Ealing," says Jocelyn. "However if I was a youngster, I too would probably want to go somewhere in Central London for the convenience and something that suits my budget more."
But business at Maxim isn't bad at all.
"We can't really complain as we're still maintaining a profit, which is a blessing already," she continues. "I know a lot of my friends' businesses and other restaurants in Chinatown are facing a lot of struggles because of rising rent costs, competition from other restaurants, and trying to keep their customer base coming back."
Ealing has seen many restaurants come and go over the years, but the classic dishes and warm family welcome that greet diners at Maxim remain the same. And that, it seems, is the key to the Chows' success.
As we finish our meal and I thank the family for their kind hospitality, Mrs Chow takes both my hands in hers and instructs me to bring my parents along next time. Before I leave, she slips me some red Chinese New Year candies.
Well, you wouldn't expect anything less from a trip to Grandma's.