Mandarin Garden in Willow Grove to close after 32 years

Mandarin Garden restaurant, a fixture across the street from the Willow Grove train station since 1985, will close after business Sunday. Its next booking is with a wrecking ball.

Longtime owner Michael Wei and his partners have arranged to sell the building to developers, who intend to erect a midrise apartment building on the site at York and Davisville Roads.

“This was a hard decision,” Wei said Wednesday in an interview at the restaurant, a time warp of ’80s suburban elegance down to the burgundy and pink color scheme. “The feelings we have, it’s like we’re leaving a beloved friend. But this was going to happen sooner or later.” He declined to discuss terms of the sale.

Camera icon MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Mandarin Garden opened at York and Davisville Roads in Willow Grove in July 1985.

The building, part of a parcel developed in 1926 by Eugene Rothwell, also recently housed medical offices and several second-floor apartments. At one time, the parcel housed a drugstore, the Grove movie theater, and a grocery store.

At its July 1985 opening — three years after the debut of the nearby Willow Grove Park Mall — Mandarin Garden was regarded as the best Chinese restaurant in the suburbs by an Inquirer critic, who also conceded that it had little competition.

“From every standpoint — decor, cuisine, service, and price — this is a place you will want to save for a special occasion,” wrote John V.R. Bull, who covered suburban restaurants.

A cross-section of Eastern Montgomery County — movers and shakers among them — would fill the 130 seats, enjoying shrimp with honey walnut and chicken with sesame sauce, two best-sellers.

“More than just a great restaurant, it’s a neighborhood institution with a welcoming and warm atmosphere,” said newsman Larry Kane, a customer from its opening. “We’ll miss it and so will many, many others.”

Wei said the restaurant was successful from the start because it was an anomaly — it specialized in cuisine from northern China, not the more familiar Cantonese, and because it was freestanding. The fact that it was not located in a mall or strip center seemed to give it more impact.

Prices are reasonable, especially at the bar. Few restaurants today command $3.75 for a glass of Italian pinot grigio or $4.75 for a mai tai.

Mandarin Garden also served as a professional springboard for Wei, now 75, who emigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1971 to obtain his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.

Camera icon MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Dining room of Mandarin Garden, Willow Grove.

Wei moved to Washington and juggled work at a district restaurant called Empress, whose client list included Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and a law firm that specialized in immigration law.

His brother, who taught at Temple University, mentioned that Ming Garden, a restaurant near Lynnewood Gardens in Cheltenham, was for sale. Wei bought it in 1977, and opened Szechuan East in Northeast Philadelphia in 1985 — later selling both.

Mandarin Garden is the oldest of Wei’s restaurants. He is owner or part-owner of CinCin in Chestnut Hill, Nectar in Berwyn, Yangming in Bryn Mawr, and the new Danlu in University City.

Wei said Mandarin Garden customers were being asked to patronize CinCin, 20 minutes away, and to redeem gift certificates there.