This week in my Bloomberg News column I awarded 2.5 stars to the sometimes cramped but always comfortable Mission Chinese on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Mission serves “Americanized Oriental Food,” much of it seasoned with a lifetime supply of mouth-numbing
novocaine sichuan peppercorns. This is the second of four or five planned locations; the San Francisco flagship debuted in 2010; a Williamsburg outpost will likely open within the year, followed by Atlanta and Oklahoma City.
To many, Mission Chinese is about philanthropy. While some chefs take the Warren Buffet approach to giving (get rich then give it away), Mission’s Danny Bowien takes a community-based “empower-the-diner” approach: Mission donates 75 cents from the purchase of every entree to the Food Bank of New York. It also donates 75 cents from the purchase of every glass of wine or soju cocktail to a rotating series of New York-based charities, including the Bowery Mission and Edible Schoolyard.
To others, Mission Chinese is about a different form of charity — free beer while you wait, a thoughtful gesture that saves you from blowing $30 bucks at a nearby cocktail bar when your table is sixty-minutes away. There was Bud in the beginning, then Miller High-Life, and now Bowien tells me he’s working on getting a better Brooklyn-based brew. It’s a nice little courtesy to take the edge off the queue, a blue collar amuse bouche of sorts. It’s something you’d expect from a Danny Meyer restaurant, not a $15-and-under venue on the Lower East Side. It’s something that makes you feel welcome.
So for me in particular, Mission Chinese is about hospitality. We’re living in an haute-hipster era where high-end food at a (theoretical) discount reigns supreme while all other creature comforts are expendable. But Mission Chinese proves that an ambitious and affordable restaurant can maintain its street cred while still coddling the customer a little bit. I’ve consistently had better service at Mission than at other “budget gourmet” spots like Pok Pok Ny, Acme or Il Buco Alimentari. Mission is also proof that a small restaurant can accept American Express and still (presumably) turn a profit.
Of course, we like to focus on numbers here at The Price Hike, and as such it’s worth noting that not a single drink or dish exceeds $15 at Mission Chinese. No, we’re not talking about small plates; many of these items easily feed two or three guests. So given the long waits and given the low prices, Mission could clearly charge more, per to the laws of supply and demand. And given the charitable component, Mission could easily get away with hiking the prices, per the laws of philanthropy. But Mission doesn’t.
Danny Bowien was nice enough to chat with me, over the phone, about prices. And since that stuff can get boring, we also talked about other things, like, well, women, liquor and monosodium glutamate. Here are some snippets from my hour-long conversations with Bowien (dude can talk):
- “It’s hard to tell my investors `look, I’m not going to charge $20 for a plate of food here because that’s not what we’re about’”
- “We’re opening in Brooklyn, for sure, within the next year.”
- “Oklahoma City won’t have crazy chicken hearts on the menu. It’s going to have to cater to that demographic.”