Though it’s not his official title, it’s safe to say that Tony Hu is the culinary Mayor of Chinatown. The restaurateur — known for his upscale, region-by-region take on Chinese cuisine — has built his venerable brand over the past 20 years, opening 10 much-lauded restaurants (including Lao Sze Chaun, Lao Beijing, Lao Shangai and Lao You Ju) throughout the city and suburbs. In mid-June, he further expanded his empire, launching Lao 18 in River North.
His newest effort doesn’t disappoint. From within the 265-seat, pan-Chinese restaurant, Hu serves up a dinner menu filled with gourmet dishes like Lao’s crispy duck ($19) and twice-cooked pork belly ($14). Soon, he’ll add a classic dim-sum lunch and brunch service. And the spot has a unique twist — on the weekends, it transforms into a club, complete with an in-house DJ. Here’s what else you can expect to find at Lao 18:
When Tony met Bing: Fifteen years ago, Hu and future business partner Bing Zhou worked side-by-side at Szechuan House on Michigan Avenue. Now, they’re finally together again with Lao 18.
Decor: You may have experienced the stark styling at Hu’s Lao Sze Chuan and the Maoist agitprop décor of Lao Hunan, both in Chinatown, but “at Lao 18,” says Hu, “we put a lot more thought into design.” Hiki Feng and Jeremy Stanulis have designed an entryway with 100-year-old Chinese roof tiles that opens onto 8,000 feet of Sino-Stylish dining space, topped with a dramatic brass cloud.
Get lucky: Hu says the brass cloud symbolizes peace and luck, and that woodcarvings behind the banquettes represent good fortune. The space also boasts bubble lights filled with water (you guessed it — also lucky), and 18 is a lucky number in China. With that kind of karma, Hu might consider selling Illinois Lottery tickets at the hostess station.
Cuisine: Traditionally, Hu’s restaurants have tended to focus on traditional regional foods. Lao 18, however, has broader focus, with selections reflecting Szechuan (beef & tripe, string beans), Cantonese (roast duck, steamed bass) and Shanghai (ponzu red snapper, jelly fish) cooking styles.
Drinks: Premium sake is hot — though it’s never served warm — and Lao 18 carries an impressive selection of this brewed beverage. If you want to sip something exclusive, ask for Maotai, which Zhou says is “the No. 1 liquor in China.” According to Hu, an iPad menu will be debuting soon to help diners navigate the extensive beverage and food choices.
Must-try dish: Lao 18’s crisp, juicy Peking duck ($39), thin pancakes spread with plum sauce that’s prepared tableside, is a beautiful rendition, and the Fei Teng black cod ($25) packs serious heat. But Hu believes that in morning-after-dinner conversations, “most guests will be talking about Tony’s crispy shrimp ($16) and the three-chili chicken ($15).”
Plant power: Traditionally, Chinese cuisine devotes equal attention to flora and fauna, and Lao 18 offers many plant-based options. There’s a Vegetable & Tofu menu section, and several small plates sans meat or fish. Upon request, even veggie-based dishes that contain small amounts of animal protein (like green beans with bonito flakes) can be made vegetarian.
Story by David Hammond