Jimmy Wan’s Restaurant and Lounge Prepares to Celebrate Its 15th Anniversary
Jimmy Wan Jr. reflects on the long-lasting popularity of his family’s Cranberry restaurant.
Jimmy Wan’s Restaurant and Lounge in Cranberry is set to celebrate its 15th anniversary in May. Jimmy Wan Sr., is a foundational figure in the growth of Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh’s suburbs.
“It was my dad with Taipei (O’Hara Township, 1985), Michael Chen with China Palace (Monroeville, 1988), Kathy Yee with Ya Fei (Robinson Township, 1989), George Lee with Sesame Inn (Mt. Lebanon, 1987). That’s the triumvirate right there. It’s the old guard, and I respect what they did to bring up Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh,” says Jimmy Wan Jr., who owns the restaurant with his father.
Wan Sr. founded the Pittsburgh Chinese Restaurant Association 22 years ago to help the burgeoning restaurant community grow and navigate their businesses. “Take something as simple as dealing with the health department. They’d go into places, and the chefs and the inspectors couldn’t always communicate with each other because they spoke different languages,” Wan Jr. says. Over the last year, the association has been instrumental in helping Chinese-owned restaurants navigate COVID-relief initiatives such as the Payroll Protection Program.
Wan Jr., believes deliberately melding the various crossroads that have influenced his family over decades in the Pittsburgh-area restaurant business set the stage for the establishment’s long-lasting popularity in Cranberry.
“You don’t have to pigeonhole a cuisine into a certain kind of restaurant. Every cuisine has numerous stories to tell. This is our version,” he says.
For Wan, that meant building a restaurant with his father that fused a menu of beloved Chinese-American dishes and items drawing from Asian-fusion culinary influences with a sushi bar, a full-service lounge and the design and service points of higher-end dining. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, you typically would find the lounge full of regulars having an after-work or pre- or post-dinner drink and a dining room buzzing with a cross-section of Pittsburgh sharing excellent renditions of canonical Chinese-American dishes such as wonton soup, egg rolls, beef ho-fun and chicken with broccoli alongside a selection of sushi rolls and Japanese-influenced small plates such as chili albacore sashimi, seaweed salad and bigeye tuna tartar. (Wan says the restaurant continued to do robust takeout business throughout the pandemic, and the dining room now is open in adherence to the current Pennsylvania guidelines.)
“I think fusion, for a long time, was a fusion between traditional and local taste profiles,” he says.
Wan says the philosophy that it’s essential to know your clientele has always driven the restaurant’s menu design, which means diners will see signature items such as kung pao fillet mignon and ginger-scallion Chilean sea bass alongside housemade dumplings. “We took some things people were comfortable within a fine dining restaurant, and then delivered our great flavor profiles to a location that might have had more of a meat and potatoes background,” Wan says.
Chef Zhen Chen, who has cooked at Wan family restaurants for nearly 28 years, is the executive chef, and he has a back-of-house that includes several cooks who have worked for the Wans for nearly as long. Chef Aki Lee is the sushi chef; he’s been with the restaurant for seven years, preparing nigiri, sashimi and crowd-pleasing rolls such as crazy tuna (spicy tuna, avocado and cucumber, topped with peppered bigeye tuna, mango and crispy taro root) with attention-to-detail to elements such as properly cooked and seasoned rice.
“There is a lot of trust for us in the neighborhood. We have guests that come in weekly and order the same thing week in and week out. And then, one day, they want to do something different. They trust us to point them in the right direction, and sometimes they have a new regular dish,” Wan says, noting that over the years, as the restaurant integrated into the community, it’s struck a balance between adding dishes and keeping longtime favorites, much in the same way the big Burrito Restaurant Group might navigate its establishments.
Wan grew up in the restaurant business, spending his childhood running under Taipei’s tables; the family is no longer associated with the O’Hara restaurant. He didn’t plan to join the family business and left Pittsburgh after graduating from Shadyside Academy in 1999 to attend college and later worked as a financial analyst for Intel in Sacramento, California. When he returned to Pittsburgh in 2005 to start a computer company, he says he instead felt increasingly drawn back to the restaurant business.
“Pittsburgh, at that point, had not evolved to see that Asian restaurants could be holistic. That you could have wine pairings and desserts. We wanted to evolve from the stereotypic vision on Chinese restaurants,” he says.
Wan Sr. saw his vision and was open to the idea of adding a full bar and upscale design to the new restaurant, building on the foundations of establishments such as Shun Lee Palace in New York City, which had offered fine-dining Chinese food since the 1970s.
The Wans opened a second location of Jimmy Wan’s in O’Hara in 2009, and Wan Jr. says they are looking to expand their brand to other suburban locations, though no timeline has been set. What’s certain, however, is that Wan plans to continue the legacy of his father — who remains active in the two restaurants but is relishing spending time with his grandkids. “My dad created this unbelievable foundation in Pittsburgh of people loving his food. It’s awesome to carry on that legacy, and I take that responsibility very seriously,” Wan says.
1686 PA-228, Cranberry Twp.; 724/778-8978, jimmywans.com