Joy Young Restaurant

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Joy Young in 1937
Joy Young interior in the 1960s

Joy Young Restaurant was a landmark Chinese restaurant at 412-414 20th Street North.

According to Kristen Lee, her great grandparents, a man and wife named "Joe" (zho-ee) were the first Chinese family to settle in Alabama, having arrived in the Port of Mobile from Canton (Guangzhou) China in the late 1880s. With no knowledge of English, they struggled in their new home.

In 1919 then 23-year-old Mansion Joe and three partners, including Loo Bing, opened a restaurant called King Joy on 3rd Avenue North in Birmingham. In June 1922 Joe opened Joy Young Restaurant in the former Beaver's Cafe at 115 20th Street North. Thomas Willard, a foreman for the Terry Showcase Company, constructed the interior woodwork, including staircases, wainscoting and dining booths of gum and poplar with mahogany details.

In October 1924 the café was the scene of a fight between two men that required six detectives and two patrolmen to quell, leaving the dining room in disarray.

In October 1925 the restaurant moved to 412 20th Street North opposite the Tutwiler Hotel, soon expanding into the former shop next door.

Joe and manager Henry Loo had earned reputations as friendly, generous businessmen, sometimes helping provide meals to the needy. That reputation served them well as the Ku Klux Klan found no support from the public in efforts to drive the restaurant out of business. On January 2, 1926 Joy Young and two other Chinese restaurants, Shanghai Low and King Joy, were "raided" by eight men wearing masks and hoods, purportedly serving "warrants" for the alleged sale of whiskey to diners in private booths. The raiders abducted suspected partakers and brought them to the county jail, but were turned away. Virginia Bridge & Iron Co. engineer W. W. Israel, an officer of the "Woodlawn Ku Klux Klan No. 59" affirmed that he was an instigator of the raids, which were subsequently panned as illegal, and at least two of the hooded participants were said to have been sworn "special deputies" of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. The owners of the businesses made plans to file lawsuits against the raiders. Mansion consulted with attorney Hugo Black. The restaurant owners set aside those plans as two grand juries began investigations. Sheriff T. J. Shirley was out of town on the night of the raids, but later complained that the publicity of the incident, "was only a plot on the part of newspapers to run down the Ku Klux Klan, and that the fact that persons were found in the cafes drinking was as big a crime as hooded raiders."

Several varieties of "chop suey", "egg fooyoung", and "chow mein" dominated the portion of the menu labeled "Mandarin Style". The other half of the menu listed "American" favorites for less adventurous diners. The restaurant served seafood, poultry and meats with French fried or creamed potatoes, English peas and fried tomatoes, and club or chicken salad sandwiches.

A Joy Young menu from 1950

The restaurant was remodeled in 1946 with new electric kitchen equipment and refreshed dining rooms. The Birmingham News listed Joy Young's fried chicken (1/2 spring chicken, fried for $1.25 in 1950) as the best in Birmingham. Some of the booths had curtains that could be drawn for privacy. The reviewing stand for the annual Veteran's Day Parade was usually directly across the street from Joy Young. Another major remodeling took place in 1954. At the time the staff of 70 included, "a new master baker from Bremen, Germany, who will prepare new Bavarian dishes such as cakes, pies, rolls, for your added pleasure."

Second-generation restaurateurs Wing Soon Joe and Loo Choy were involved in the restaurant's heyday. In the 1964 city directory, the proprietor is listed as George W. Sai. In the 1960s a new location on Highland Avenue opened as New Joy Young Restaurant. Another "Joy Young" restaurant operated in Memphis.

The closing of the Tutwiler Hotel in 1972 impacted the visibility of the restaurant to out-of-town visitors. Its sign is visible in scenes from the 1976 film Stay Hungry. In 1981 developer Raymond Gotlieb attempted to buy up most of Block 60, including the Joy Young building, which was owned by Cameron Grammas and Phil Hontzas. Those efforts were complicated by the Birmingham City Council's delay in formally adopting the 1979 Downtown Master Plan as its urban renewal and redevelopment plan, which would have given property owners facing the threat of condemnation access to tax incentives for relocating.

Joy Young closed its downtown location in the mid 1980s. Third-generation owner Henry Joe reopened in the Brookwood Gallery, a retail strip on the ground floor of the Brookwood Medical Center parking deck where it operated for several more years. His brother, Jimmy Joe strayed from the restaurant business and became a salesman at Gus Mayer.

Joy Young Restaurant ended its life as a take-out egg roll store in Pelham. Some have noted that the egg rolls and other dishes at the Chop Suey Inn on Green Springs Highway in Homewood are unmistakably similar to Joy Young's.

Mansion Joe's great-grandson, Chris Joe, whose portrait as a child once appeared on the cover of Joy Young's children's menu, worked in the family's business before graduating to other restaurant jobs. After taking a break from cooking during the COVID-19 pandemic, he launched a food trailer called "Rickshaw" which featured a blend of American-inflected Asian dishes.

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