Willowgate's new great wall

Dragons, drums and other small wonders

The mini-Great Wall at the Willow Gate II in Roseville is the restaurant owner's tribute to his loyal, "royal" customers.

By Allie Shah, Star Tribune

Daniel Tan sure knows how to put on a show.

On Saturday, the charismatic restaurateur hired a Chinese dragon dance team to perform and invited all of his customers and even Roseville dignitaries to come to the grand reopening of his Willow Gate II Chinese Restaurant. The festivities also served as a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Tan's pet project -- an authentic replica of the Great Wall of China, built at the restaurant's entrance.

But more than any gimmick, it was Tan who brought people out in the pouring rain.

His customers are fiercely loyal and travel from as far as Minnetonka and Anoka to dine there because, they say, he treats them like family. He greets them by name when they walk in and knows what their favorite dishes are.
Many remember him when he was 14 and washing dishes. He worked his way up to head waiter and later chef.

Last year, he took over from his father, Franklin Tan, who started the original Willow Gate in St. Paul's Highland Park.

The Tan family, longtime customers say, resembles another well-known east metro restaurant family in terms of creating a place that's warm and personal and has a devoted following: the Mancinis.
During the lunch hour on weekdays, the Chinese restaurant is packed with customers who have been coming there for two generations. They stop to chat with Tan, a boyish-looking fellow who's usually in an apron. He said his regulars inspired him to build the replica.

"We've been here for 17 years. I said, 'I will build that to honor all our royal customers who've been eating here,' " said Tan, who studied architecture in college. In China, the emperors walked on the stone path between the sides of the Great Wall to pass safely to the Forbidden City, Tan explained.

His replica is a rather modest version of the original wall. It resembles a retaining wall and measures 60 feet long, 5 feet wide and 3 feet high. The whole thing weighs about 80 tons. The real Great Wall, one of the new seven wonders of the world, can be seen from outer space. "This one can be seen from Highway 36, but you have to drive about 2 miles an hour," Tan said, laughing at his own joke.

Longtime customer Jim Anderson of Shoreview braved the rain to attend the festivities Saturday. He went to China two years ago and visited the Great Wall. "When I saw this, I said, 'The size is a little different,' he said, chuckling. "But the theme is there, and Dan is so proud of it, and I'm proud for him." Anderson brought his son, Joel, daughter-in-law, Beth, and grandson, Sam, 10, to the event. They joined the throngs of other customers inside the restaurant, sipping tea and socializing while they waited. The ceremony was delayed an hour because of the rain.

A tradition

Brook and Mindy Leventhal, who live in Highland Park, said they used to go to the original Willow Gate, which was opened in 1986. Back then, they used to bring their boys, Steve and Jim Leventhal. The boys are all grown up now and have children of their own. Now, they go to the restaurant on their own at least a couple times a week.

Eight years ago, the Leventhal brothers started a tradition. They brought a few friends to the restaurant every Thursday. "We started calling it 'Willow Gate Thursdays,' " Steve Leventhal said. Those friends told their friends, and pretty soon there were hordes of people showing up. "It got to the point where I was like, 'Who are you?' " Steve Leventhal said.

He postponed a trip to a Brainerd resort to attend Saturday's reopening.

Ernie and Placida Venegas of Roseville drop by the restaurant nearly every day, taking food to go. "I don't cook," Placida Venegas confessed. She paused and then whispered, "You can order off the menu. He'll make things that aren't on the menu."

Although the rain had not stopped, an hour had passed and it was time to start the show.

After a few opening remarks, everyone headed outside where Roseville Mayor Craig Klausing, playing the part of the Chinese emperor of the city, cut a bright red ribbon and strolled down the stone path surrounded by the Wall. Colorful fringed flags flew from atop the wall.

With cymbals clanging and a Chinese drum beating in the background, two green and gold dragons danced down the path. The person in the lead dragon costume climbed a red pole hoisted high above the ground.
About 50 people watched from the parking lot, some snapping photos of the traditional Chinese dragon ceremony. On top of the restaurant building, two workers dangled something that looked like a fishing pole with eight red envelopes filled with money on the string. The dragon head bobbed up and down, capturing each envelope until there were none left.
Bang, bang, bang! Firecrackers sounded and a cloud of smoke passed through the crowd. People cheered and when the smoke cleared, they filed back inside for lunch.

© 2007 Star Tribune. All rights reserved