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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Napa History: The A-1 Cafe

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Neon sign from the A-1 Cafe in the Napa Opera House Building

Napa History: The A-1 Cafe


Chinese immigrants Chin Yan Ing Low and Yuen Low opened Napa’s A-1 Café on Saturday, June 23, 1934 at 1018 Main St. in the Napa Hotel building on the northeast corner of Main and First. In 1947 the Napa Hotel building, which was considered a firetrap, was razed. The A-1 Café moved to the building next door, the opera house, and continued operation at 1028 Main St. It may be at this time that the A-1 Chop Suey neon sign was installed.

A 1937 advertisement for the restaurant in the Napa Daily Register gives the most detailed description of it I have seen: “Our specialty is Chop Suey and Chow Mein. Also other Chinese and American dishes. Chinese candles of all kinds. Lichee nuts. Beers of all kinds on ice.” I’m assuming that means bottles of beer chilled in ice, rather than beer poured over ice in glasses.

Yuen Low died some time between 1940 and 1948, but his wife Chin, also known as Mamma, continued running the restaurant until her retirement in December of 1967. At that time Yuen Low’s younger brother, Henry Wong Owyeong, and his wife, Mary Ng Owyeong, took over operations. They had been helping out at the restaurant since 1959. The Wongs, as they were generally known in Napa, expanded the business by opening two other Chinese restaurants in Napa. Despite much speculation over the fate of the opera house and several different plans for the property, the A-1 Café continued to operate through the 1970s, finally closing in 1982.

Where has the sign been since then and how did I come to photograph it? I’m not willing to share that information until the sign is in possession of the new caretaker who has been found for it.

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