Though it is wildly successful now, the story of Shi Restaurant on Center Boulevard in Long Island City exemplifies the humble origins, lengthy struggles, and risk-it-all mentality of many entrepreneurs in this country. Let’s start at the beginning.
Shih Lee’s father Tony was born in mainland China and emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1970’s. His first stop in this country was a restaurant in New Hampshire near Dartmouth College, but eventually he ended up in New York. Along the way he held many restaurant jobs, starting with dishwasher and including a stint in the kitchen with the originator of General Tso’s Chicken (or at least the American expropriator depending on how you look at it) at a restaurant in the East 40’s.
In due course he opened his own place nearby, named ‘Shih Lee’ for his two sons1, in the shadow of the U.N. It was a modest establishment that served food for almost three decades before closing last year.
The two brothers practically grew up working in this restaurant, but were really raised in Stuyvesant Town in a covetous apartment secured by their father as a form of recompense for being shot (twice) one night while living on Elizabeth Street near Chinatown in the violent NYC of the 1970’s.
Eventually their dad retired and the two boys took over the midtown restaurant. Several years later the heads of TF Cornerstone/Rockrose were regulars, approached them about opening a place in a new project they were developing in Queens.
Despite being only a mile away Shih, like a lot of New Yorkers in the 20th Century (especially Manhattanites), had zero history with Long Island City or Queens in general. Furthermore, coming from a small restaurant the brothers had no clue about running a big operation that the space TF/Rockrose was offering demanded. A point they could laugh about a few years later upon learning that the Lee brothers initial presentation, which included papier mache models and napkin-drawn renderings and that they believed was really good, were treated with “What have we done?” post-meeting gasps by their eventual landlords.
That same apprehension was felt by the two brothers when they first toured the site in LIC – there were only four towers along the waterfront then, and no Center Boulevard. Nevertheless they were amazed by the ‘Wow’ factor of being on this side of the river with in-your-face views of Manhattan. More importantly they trusted TF/Rockrose’s vision, and took the plunge. Likewise the Elghanayan brothers chose the Lee brothers because of their familiarity with them, despite having numerous more-established options.
Yet a consummated deal was only the beginning. That’s because the opening of Shi coincided with the financial meltdown of 2008. Already stretched by the scope of such a large restaurant, the immediate aftermath of the economic slowdown combined with the harsh Center Boulevard winters kept potential patrons away, and there were many nights that first year where the staff outnumbered the diners. To survive, mortgages and credit cards were maxed out and payments to suppliers were stretched out, and Shi almost didn’t make it.
But the warm weather (and possibly a February bottoming in the stock market) brought people in and the restaurant survived and now thrives, with lines out the door on weekends.
Throughout the turmoil and the subsequent burgeoning, the one thing that never wavered was the support from the local business community and the neighborhood overall. All these constituents very much wanted the restaurant to succeed.
With the overwhelming success of his Hunters Point location now well established, Shi has set his sights on the next up and coming residential area of LIC: Court Square. He and partners Eric Lehrer and Felix Lai, who were respectively a long time bartender and a manager at Shi, opened Sapp’s Restaurant at 27-26 Jackson Avenue in December 2017. Sapp’s serves lunch and dinner with classic Japanese menu items like sushi, donburi, and yakitori.
Fully involved in the Long Island City dining scene, Shih’s personal life is also now centered here. Despite spending the majority of his existence in Manhattan, ten years ago he moved to LIC and has no intention of ever going back. He and his wife Crystal are raising their 3-year old son Hunter in the neighborhood, so you’ll be just as likely to see him at the playground or the next PTA meeting as you will at one of his restaurants.
Shih Lee Serves Up Chinese Deliciousness In the Far Reaches of Midtown East – another time, another place
Flux Factory Takes Over Socrates Sculpture Park – Oct. 19 noon to 4pm
New Deli to Replace Sandwich King on Vernon Blvd – a new owner and a few tweaks
- both of whom are named Shih, but the other one is referred to as Skinny – and he’s also the owner of Skinny’s Cantina across the street [↩]