Chef Ho Chee Boon, best known in the Bay Area for his Michelin Guide-listed Chinatown restaurant Empress by Boon, says opening a restaurant in San Francisco is one of the best ways to pitch in during a tough time. That’s what he did when he revived the majestic old-school Empress restaurant in 2021, catapulting the suit and tie destination of the 1960s into the 21st century in the midst of a pandemic.
Now, he says he’s ready to do it again in the Marina. Blue Whale, a more casual pan-Asian restaurant and lounge at Union and Buchanan streets, will join a neighborhood lineup that includes Causwell’s jaw-dropping burgers, Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in Cow Hollow, and the historic Gavin Newsom-owned Balboa Cafe.
Chee Boon will open Blue Whale Restaurant and Lounge on September 29 with plans to celebrate a grand opening in October. The chef is well known for not only Empress by Boon but also for his decades of cooking Cantonese cuisine around the world and opening the two Michelin star-earning Hakkasan New York. He’ll serve a seasonal Asian menu at Blue Whale — think wasabi crispy Tiger prawns with pineapple, and baked lobster with buttermilk and chili — based on his travels through the Asian continent, his background in countries such as his birthplace of Malaysia, and his experiences working and cooking in major cities including Moscow and London. The space is huge with an enormous outdoor patio, only reachable after walking through a dramatic entry corridor. “It’s a casual, comfortable place,” Chee Boon says. “It’s definitely not fine dining. These are the dishes I have of fond memories from so many places in Asia.”
Cantonese cuisine is Chee Boon’s specialty, and that’ll be central here, too. But so will the foodways of Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Indonesia. Rojak, a kind of fruit salad with spicy peanut dressing, is one favorite Javanese dish that’ll make the menu. Sharing a pan-Asian menu of salads, small bites, entrees, and rice and noodle dishes is how the chef wants to educate diners about the meals of his childhood in Malaysia and working across Asia. Lemongrass, peppercorn, and other indigenous ingredients from across these countries will appear, but as inspiration strikes chef says he’ll involve other techniques as well. Chee Boon is particularly excited about crab meat xiao long bao, a San Francisco dumpling favorite. Blue Whale has a full liquor license, with drinks coming from Brandon Clements who cut his teeth with the Bacchus Management Group, the team behind Spruce, Selby’s, and more.
Taking up residence at 2033 Union Street, kitty-corner from vegan restaurant Wildseed and a block from Bus Stop, Blue Whale aims to impress with its design. An austere corridor leads to an open-air courtyard before entering the main restaurant space, which includes two bars, a private lounge, and comfortable booths for group dining. Since Blue Whale will feature multiple dining areas, including a backyard space, Chee Boon says it’s ideal for guests whether they want to come by for dim sum and a cocktail or a full feast in the evening.
The Marina has seen a spate of activity in recent months, with the martini haven Dorian on its way out alongside short-lived cocktail bar Rendezvous. Meanwhile, new restaurants join the ranks including food truck Phat Thai’s first permanent location and coffee outlet Bluestone Lane deeming the neighborhood worthy of a new shop.
Chee Boon says this restaurant has been a long time coming, though, and he’s not concerned about its trajectory. This is the entrepreneur who opened Empress by Boon in the midst of COVID’s worst days after a seven-year hiatus, after all. “Any business, when one wants to launch, comes with lots of challenges,” Chee Boon says. “I’ve read about the challenges San Francisco is facing. For me, personally, I love San Francisco. I love this city. It’s times like these we need to continue to do positive things for the city.”
Blue Whale Restaurant and Lounge (2033 Union Street) opens on September 29 and will be open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner with plans to extend hours in the coming weeks.