For Owner of Wantagh’s Kwong Ming, Historic Chinese Restaurant Remains a Shining Star on Long Island

By Michael DeMarco

Established in 1962, Wantagh’s fabled Kwong Ming restaurant rides the odyssey of time like a dragon.

As it soars towards the finale of three parties commemorating the 2024 lunar Year of the Dragon on March 1st, Kwong Ming – the landmark Long Island Chinese restaurant on Jerusalem Avenue in Wantagh – continues to prove that fortunes past make fortunes present.

Open since 1962, second-generation president, Barry Lee, attributes Kwong Ming’s 62 years of success to the restaurant’s hospitable philosophy of preservation.

“Consistency,” said Lee. “The most important thing is consistency.”

While most businesses adopt models that oust the old and reel in the new, Kwong Ming’s antiquated banquet hall and cocktail lounge capture the essence of a bygone era. 

Apart from minor renovations throughout the years, the interior’s lacquered wood finishes and warm Oriental hints of old Hollywood regency remain virtually frozen in time.

“It’s never changed,” said Lee. “A lot of people say, ‘Keep the old look, don’t change it.’”

While the walls of Kwong Ming capture the realm of the past, the same can be said of the kitchen with a codex menu dating back to the restaurant’s debut. It’s the “same menu since 62 years ago,” down to the sauces which are all fresh and “homemade” every day, said Lee.

“That’s why we’re here so long,” he added. “Everything in the restaurant’s gotta be the same. You can’t do anything different.”

Bound to Kwong Ming by family lineage, Lee witnessed the restaurant’s early beginnings. 

Lee’s father, Howard Lee, acquired the space that would become Kwong Ming along with a group of 65 partners who slowly dispersed themselves towards other dining projects over time, including West Hempstead’s Gum Ying restaurant, and Sun Ming restaurant of Huntington. Before that, the elder Lee worked at a dry cleaner in the Bronx and gained early industry experience at Gam Wah restaurant in Carle Place across from the Roosevelt Raceway. 

Lee’s father rose to the top as president of Kwong Ming operations in 1962. His son and current owner, Barry Lee, joined the family business at 14-years-old in 1980, where he learned the trade by day and completed his schoolwork by night.

“I was running take-outs back and forth,” recalled Lee, who is now 57-years-old, describing how he would “bring tickets to the kitchen, help the guys pack up their orders, and bring it to the counter.” 

The animated frenzy of Wantagh that Lee experienced during his early childhood and adolescence has changed significantly through the years. Jerusalem Avenue flowed in vibrant motion, surrounded by the triple crossroads of Wantagh Avenue, and the Wantagh and Southern State Parkways. The old Wantagh Theatre still stood adjacent to Kwong Ming back then and herds of moviegoers across the street fueled the restaurant’s notorious late-night hours. Customers would go to the restaurant as late as midnight after the shows let out, recalled Lee.

“On the weekend, years ago, we closed at one-o-clock on Friday and two-o-clock on Saturday, because after the movies, they would come here,” he said.

That has all changed in the ensuing years.

“But there’s no more movies anymore so we close early now,” he lamented.

Before its opening on Christmas Day, 1959, a Newsday advertisement named Wantagh Theatre “Long Island’s Newest, Most Modern Motion Picture Theatre.” It stood until 1989, changing hands from different studio distributors, starting with Century Theatres, then RKO-Century-Warner. Cineplex Odeon later acquired Century-Warner in 1986, closing out both RKO motion picture chains and the Wantagh Theatre’s final run.  

Lee witnessed the passing of time as he ascended Kwon Ming’s roles of responsibility through the turn of the millennium. Also, the Year of the Dragon on the Chinese lunar calendar, in 2000, Lee succeeded his father as restaurant president. 

Kwong Ming as it looks today.

Jumping to the present Year of the Dragon, 2024, Lee preserves the Kwong Ming of his youth as much as time allows with his long-term “V.P. man,” Gregory Tan. His mother, Amy Lee, still aids restaurant operations as she did side-by-side with her husband, who passed away in 2020. Also joining the team is Lee’s 17-year-old daughter, Tiffany Lee, who is rising up as the next generation at Kwong Ming, mirroring the early work of her father and carrying on the restaurant’s legacy. 

Kwong Mings’s inner core, from family, food, and atmosphere clung to days of old, but time could not prevent changes to the restaurant’s exterior and a 2023 shift in land ownership. 

MDG Investments, a property management firm in Bellmore, purchased the retail strip where Kwong Ming stands for more than $5 million. The restaurant operation remains the same, however, new demands were met regarding the store-front exterior that the entire strip adhered to.

The familiar red awning that hovered above Kwong Ming for decades transformed into an off-white minimalistic canvas with the restaurant’s name backlit by white lights in its previously recognizable font. Tailored to a modern fit, the same restaurant name plate in red-lit neon Chinese characters hangs in the eatery window reminding customers that, despite the modern touches, Kwong Ming’s identity remains unchanged.

“Some people like it, some don’t,” Lee said, voicing that some customers think the old exterior was “more authentic” and find the new look to be plain. 

This, however, could not prevent the far reaches of Kwong Ming’s classic image.

Almost 3,000 miles away from Wantagh, in San Diego, California, another version of Kwong Ming’s exterior is pictured differently on gilded-gold cardboard that some locals may still recall.

Matchbook from Kwong Ming. Courtesy of David Blair.

Resting on a baby blue background with boastful chop suey font atop a red-bricked storefront reads, “KWONG  MING RESTAURANT.” Underneath; “OUTGOING ORDERS.” It’s the face of a faded matchbook selling on eBay for $4.25 from the seller, David Blair, a semi-retired professional photographer and vintage collector. 

“I have been collecting vintage matchbooks, as well as many other items, for over forty years,” said Blair. “I’ve acquired several thousand matchbooks.” 

“I have no memory of where I found this specific matchbook,” added Blair. “But most were acquired through online auction sites, local matchbook collector shows, estate sales, and yard sales.” 

Despite being unaware of the Kwong Ming matchbook origin, Blair recognizes the sentimental value it holds along with other pieces in his collection. 

“Many individuals who purchase vintage matchbooks from me on eBay do so because they hold memories from their past,” said Blair. “I often hear about how they visited a location with their parents or grandparents long ago, or how much fun they had in the past hanging out there with their friends or siblings.” 

Matchbook from Kwong Ming. Courtesy of David Blair.

Like a message in a bottle, another image on Blair’s eBay page reveals a red-printed map on the inside of the matchbook. The matches are long since removed, but the mini-flagged marker representing Kwong Ming on the north-facing map is as faithful as an X-marks-the-spot, ready to guide a lucky navigator toward a treasure from 1962. 

Kwong Ming, however, requires no map to garner attention. Bethpage Federal’s Best of Long Island has dubbed Kwong Ming “The Best Chinese Restaurant on Long Island” every year since 2018. The restaurant also continues to make recurring notable media appearances. Most recently, Kwong Ming appeared on Newsday’s Feedme magazine page in 2023. In the past, Kwong Ming appeared in The New York Times, and in a 1972 Sunday edition of New York News Coloroto Magazine, featuring the restaurant’s Year of the Rat celebration. 

Chinese Lunar New Year always drew attention to Kwong Ming for its annual price-fix dinner and party with a full open bar. The final lunar party of 2024 will take place on Friday, March 1st, featuring martial arts displays, and0 full-length dragon dances starting in the restaurant parking lot with fireworks before moving inside.

Magazine feature about Kwong Ming in the 1972 New York News.

Lee says the name Kwong Ming translates to “shining star,” and it still glows from its birth in 1962. Outlasting restaurants, Gum Ying, Sun Ming, and Gam Wah, Lee adds that many “of these kinds of old restaurants are gone.”

Apart from its faithful followers, Kwong Ming’s customer base, much like its exterior, isn’t the same on the outside as it was in the distant past. The restaurant now glows in the limelight but remains a legendary star of old. 

On Kwong Ming’s future, Lee has one thing to say.

“I hope people still come to see us.”

Michael DeMarco is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media. 

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