A year ago, there was one place in Boston equally beloved by the likes of James Beard award-winning chefs and the ravenous, rowdy masses spilling out of the Royale. And that was in the dowdy basement of 4 Tyler St., home to the crown jewel of Chinatown’s late-night dining scene: Peach Farm.
Well past midnight on the weekends, the two groups collided in this crowded space. Overburdened Lazy Susans spun like carousels. Chopsticks dive-bombed plates of chicken gizzards and vermicelli noodles. Line cooks from the city’s top restaurants waltzed into the kitchen to request off-menu delicacies. Upon order, a colossal live king crab was plopped onto a dining table where it danced briefly among the throngs of Tsingtao beer bottles. At the eye of this storm, there was Debbie — Peach Farm’s treasured waitress of 17 years — presiding over a manic 10-hour shift that landed her in bed around 5 a.m.
Today the buzz has been replaced by an eerie silence, the spectacle muzzled by a 9:30 p.m. curfew and the punishing, protracted pandemic. With the nightshift now a relic of a bygone social scene, a furloughed Debbie idles at home. The dining room sits largely empty. The students and clubbers are nowhere to be seen. Most of the hospitality-industry regulars are absent, too — out of work themselves.
Like many restaurants across Boston, Peach Farm is a shadow of its former self. With anxiety over coronavirus growing, Chinatown started clearing out weeks before Governor Charlie Baker shut down restaurant dining; things only got worse after the president labeled the contagion “the China virus.” The bustling one-way streets that give the neighborhood its cramped, metropolitan character cannot accommodate outdoor dining, robbing restaurants there of any summertime surge.
“Time moves so slow, but the costs don’t get any lower,” Peach Farm owner Tom Leung said on a recent Thursday night. A whole hour passed without a diner or a takeout order. A chef crouched in the kitchen, scrolling through his phone. Two servers eyed the upstairs entrance as if trying to will a pair of legs to appear. None did. Leung played video games on his PlayStation Portable. They all watched the clock tick away in the modest basement space that demands over $10,000 in rent each month.
Finally, Kyle McClelland, head chef at Back Bay’s Saltie Girl, wandered in with a few friends around 7:30 p.m. The group had the room to themselves until close. They dined on the king crab and platters of sesame noodles with pork (an off-menu favorite), head-on spicy salted shrimp and pea pod stems with garlic. Even with McClelland’s generous feast, Leung made just $800 in sales that Thursday.
Before the pandemic, Peach Farm employed more than 20 people, an impressive feat for a restaurant of less than 600 square feet. But nowadays, Leung can only afford to keep seven on staff.
Debbie, who declined to give her last name, was among those furloughed. In the Before Times, she worked six days a week from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. At a compact 5 feet 1 inch, her elbows barely poking out from beneath her short-sleeve button-down, she knew what returning customers wanted before they even sat down, and probably had a special sauce already brewing to accompany that meal. She acted as an air traffic controller among the boozier crowd, indulging them in their drunken escapades, but knowing when to draw the line, booting patrons who climbed up on chairs to dance to music blaring from an iPhone. (Peach Farm has no sound system.)
Aside from a four-month leave taken years ago during a bout with breast cancer, Debbie has not taken time off from the restaurant in her two decades. The steady gig has allowed her to send her only daughter to a university in England.
“It’s a tough business as it is, and then Debbie has to also deal with the riffraff coming through the door well into the morning. She deserves a medal of honor for her work down there,” said Marc Orfaly, a seven-time nominated James Beard awardee, formerly of Pigalle and Beehive.
Debbie hasn’t been able to find work in the city since being furloughed in March.
“I’m too bored and too young to retire. I miss all my friends at the restaurant,” she said. “I also miss all my times with the drunk people and the young kids. Often they’re very nice, and always very fun,” she added quickly, as if in their defense.
Leung’s parents originally opened Peach Farm in 1995 when Chinatown bustled with mom-and-pop eateries and the working-class residents that frequented them. The seemingly bucolic name is nothing more than an homage to the couple’s go-to dining spot in their native Hong Kong. There are no peaches to be found in the kitchen.
As gentrification set in — in the form of gimmicky bubble tea chains and exorbitant glass towers — many of those restaurants shuttered. Peach Farm managed to stay afloat by absorbing the regulars from the folded restaurants and gaining traction among the city’s culinary crowd. By the early 2000s, it had become a go-to spot for restaurant crew outings. All six chefs reached for this story used the word “family” at some point to describe their experience there. McClelland of Saltie Girl said he’s spent every birthday for the last 20 years in that windowless basement dining room.
Lydia Shire, Boston’s culinary matriarch, swears she has frequented Peach Farm from the start. And Leung confirmed that her patronage has remained steady through the pandemic. Years ago, Julia Child finished a meal at Shire’s former legendary bistro Biba and declared, “Let’s go to Chinatown.” The duo was at Peach Farm within the hour. Child ordered her go-to dish of fried stuffed taro root with duck. On another occasion, Shire convinced the chef to teach her how to make their salt and pepper pork chops. She still has the handwritten recipe to this day.
But now, Peach Farm is in the middle of its greatest crisis in 25 years. The struggle began a year ago as the coronavirus descended upon mainland China. Chinese residents in the neighborhood were fearful after hearing stories about relatives back home, leading to a muted Chinese New Year in January 2020, typically one of the most lucrative times. The rise in anti-Asian sentiment, bolstered by President Trump’s blaming of China for the virus, prompted other city denizens to avoid Chinatown in the early weeks of 2020, while continuing to dine elsewhere well into March.
Then came the government-mandated shutdown from which Chinatown has not been able to rebound. The Tetris-like formation of restaurants and markets — together with the symphony of sirens from the nearby Tufts Medical Center — thwarted any outdoor dining plans in the neighborhood. To some controversy, Baker has opted to allow indoor dining at limited capacity this winter but ordered the last diners to be out before 10 p.m. Even if Peach Farm was allowed to stay open as before, Leung admitted their late-night clientele has largely vanished.
Forced to scale back, Leung now shops mostly at the grocery store, rather than buying in bulk from wholesale dealers. His crew still picks up reduced orders of seafood from Sunny’s on the Fish Pier and James Hook & Co. downtown, but the lobsters and flounder languish in the bubbling front tanks. Prior to the pandemic, Peach Farm never bothered with delivery service. It didn’t need to. But now with takeout making up the majority of sales, Leung delivers orders himself. He has resisted utilizing delivery apps like GrubHub and Uber Eats since they collect up to 30 percent in commission.
“That’s pretty much your profit vanishing in front of you,” said Leung.
Local chefs are still supporting Peach Farm, in part because they crave the Cantonese food, but also because they shudder to think about what the loss of such an institution would mean for Boston.
“You walk into Peach Farm around 4 p.m. and the whole crew is sitting down for this gigantic staff meal like a family. It’s killer. A place like that would be a tragedy to lose. But also it’s part of a neighborhood that is truly one of Boston’s last cultural crown jewels. It’s weathered so much, I think it will persevere,” said Orfaly.
“I mean, I hope it will,” he added.
On a recent Friday, Leung and his staff served just 12 tables from noon to close. A group of young Chinese 20-somethings donned their masks in between sips of soups and lamented the chaos unfolding in Washington. The final two guests barely made a dent in their noodles amid a deflated conversation about a recent breakup. Complimentary bowls of coconut tapioca pudding sat untouched.
“It’s bleak. We’re very close to dying,” admitted a usually cheery Leung with a glance around the room.
A year ago, Peach Farm would have turned some 80 to 100 tables on any given Friday night. Instead, the vacuum hummed at 9 p.m. The lights flickered off a half-hour later. And Peach Farm took its last breath for the night and braced for the next day.