Szechwan Restaurant rising from building near-collapse

Nancy Chen misses her regulars.

Never did she think she would go almost a year without serving those patrons, who have become her friends, their favorite Mandarin, Cantonese and Szechwan dishes.

That’s why she is more excited every day that the reopening of her downtown St. Charles restaurant draws near.

The Szechwan Restaurant was the victim of a most unusual incident: The building housing it nearly collapsed.

It happened Aug. 8, 2011, the day after Chen’s birthday, which she celebrated with a private dinner at the restaurant.

The restaurant was closed, as it is every Monday. Chen was out visiting with her daughter when the St. Charles Fire Department called her.

A fire official told her water was leaking out of the building, and she should come. Now.

“I thought it was the roof leaking again,” Chen said.

If only.

A woman walking past the building on Main Street noticed water flowing out the front door and called 911. Fire officials discovered a grim situation: A load-bearing wall had failed. A support beam in the basement sagged, and the floors of the two-story, 100-year-old brick building dropped 18 inches.

Fire and city building officials feared the whole building would come down. They blocked traffic on Main Street in the lane closest to the building, to minimize vibrations.

The next day, city inspectors told Chen, who leases her space, it would be at least two to three months before she could reopen.

Not quite. There were delays in building repairs, out of her control, which she doesn’t want to talk about.

Chen has managed to hang on, thanks in part to business interruption insurance that compensated her, in part, for lost income.

She briefly thought about moving out from the spot her restaurant has called home since opening in 1988. She considered other spaces in St. Charles and Geneva.

But she loves the visibility of her corner, and the view from its windows. And St. Charles has been good to Chen, a Taipei native who started cooking at age 13. Hers was the first Chinese restaurant in St. Charles, she said.

Rebuilding meant gutting the interior of the restaurant. Chen has made a few changes. The former banquet room has been turned into a bar area, with views looking out on the First Street redevelopment. An elevator has been installed. She has put in booths by the windows in the dining room, and has a new kitchen. She is contemplating whether to open a small patio.

The menu will still feature the dishes from before, and the lunch buffet will return, with its customary weekly entree change. She is adding a sake lunch, and weekend and drink specials.

Children will be pleased to discover she will still have a giant fish tank, stocked with koi. The old one broke in the collapse; it was at the epicenter of damage in her restaurant. “Thank God” the restaurant was closed when the collapse happened, Chen said, so that nobody was hurt.

And for those wondering about safety, a new steel-and-concrete structure supports the building, with support posts extending from bedrock up to the roof. The building’s load-bearing wall used to extend from the foundation to the roof, but a portion was removed in the late 1980s during a remodeling of the first floor, replaced by beams that rested on a pad on top of the foundation wall. When mortar beneath that pad crumbled, it pulled the wall, according to building owner Dave Gary.

Chen hopes to be back in business with a “soft opening” between July 10 and 12, pending a building inspection and county health department approval. Patrons should call the restaurant at (630) 513-1889 to check on the opening.

She plans a grand reopening celebration, most likely in August. She’s also dreaming of ways to unofficially reward regular customers.

“I would really like to see them come back,” she said.

Restaurant: Owner briefly thought about relocating

  Nancy Chen, owner of Szechwan Restaurant in downtown St. Charles, takes care of business calls early Thursday in preparation for next weekÂ’s reopening of the restaurant. Laura Stoecker/
  Nancy Chen, owner of Szechwan Restaurant in downtown St. Charles, is nearly ready to reopen her restaurant after being closed for 11 months due to a near-collapse of the building. New to the restaurant is this bar area, as well as an elevator. Laura Stoecker/
  The main dining area of the Szechwan Restaurant in downtown St. Charles will be slightly larger when the business reopens, which is expected next week. Laura Stoecker/
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