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Plunge Into Kowloon, Past and Present

Welcome to a special Classics Week edition of Eater Scenes, in which we visit one of the city's tiki greats today — then dive deep into its history.

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Since opening in Saugus in 1950, Kowloon has become a destination for Chinese food and comedy in a throwback tiki atmosphere, complete with illuminated water fountains, kitschy decor, palm trees, and themed rooms seating up to 1200 people. It wasn't always that large — expansions were added by the Wong family over many decades, but the original restaurant, named The Mandarin House until 1958, only sat around 24 diners. In its previous life, it was an ice cream shop.

From pu pu platters to sushi, there's a little bit of everything on the enormous menu, where classic Chinese-American dishes are complemented with bits of Thai, Japanese, and Polynesian cuisine — and beyond. The restaurant is open until 2 a.m. daily and has an active weekend events calendar, particularly in the comedy realm.

Comedian Tom Cotter, a Rhode Island native who lived and worked around Boston in the 1990s, previously reminisced to Eater about doing shows at Kowloon:

"That was back when it was the heyday," he said, "so they called it the 'Cash Cowloon' because there was always a line of people outside. And they didn't pay a whole lot, but you got to eat free, and we would go just for the meal. I mean, it was unbelievable."

While the photos above depict Kowloon in the present day, here's a peek back into its history, courtesy of owner Bob Wong:

Kowloon building history
Kowloon
Kowloon - Madeline and William Wong
Kowloon - William Wong
Kowloon - Wong family collage

One North Shore native, Mick Greenwood of the band Zerobot, responded to Eater's call for magical memories of Kowloon. (Want to share yours as well? Email us.) Here's what he had to say about the classic restaurant:

"It seemed like for kids growing up on the North Shore, there were two places you could go 'after'...things — and they were both on Route 1. If it was just a night out or a standard school-related hangout (football game, non-formal dance, etc) — you went to Kelly's Roast Beef. But, if you had to put on a dress or a tie, you more than likely were heading to Kowloon to finish off your evening.

You and your group (typically 12-25 in size) would show up and congregate in the fish-pond-filled foyer while a very nervous greeter tried to find you a table. Often you were just one of several similarly-sized groups milling around and waiting until tables could be pushed together to accommodate you. More than once I watched a host pocket a $20 bill and move the provider's group up the list. Once I even tried it myself with successful results (baby's first bribe).

When you sat down, the waiters didn't so much take your order as they did inform you that you could have a pu pu platter and only a pu pu platter. The only thing you got to control was how many could come. Looking back on it now, I can certainly understand why there was such a mix of nerves and nervousness — the constant flow of teens (in groups) had to be massively disruptive and a tremendous deterrent to non-teen business.

They made no secret that they wanted you out quickly, either. With every phase of the order, the check was brought to the table in the hopes it would be paid quickly. Slowly but surely, we all learned that slow-rolling your food order was the way to make sure you could keep your table and stay late. There almost always was a female-fronted cover-band on the dance floor and they very rarely played music you to which one could dance (save for slow dances).

That's how I always will remember Kowloon — as a gigantic adolescent auditorium filled with friends, fried food, nervous chaperones and yacht rock."

Kowloon

948 Broadway, Saugus, MA 01906 (781) 233-0077 Visit Website

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