Chinese Lantern Fire

Jan. 16, 1994

Flames erupt from the upper windows and roof of the Chinese Lantern shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday as firefighters pour water into the three-story structure from their hoses and aerial trucks. Twelve units and up to 50 firefighters were at the scene in downtown Duluth. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

Lantern lost (published in the News-Tribune Jan. 17, 1994)

The Chinese Lantern, a landmark supper club popular among Northland residents and visitors for 30 years, caved into a shambles of scorches timbers and ice in little more than three hours early Sunday.

Up to 50 firefighters were called out in 18-below weather at 5:45 a.m., battling a downtown Duluth fire of unknown origin that started in the kitchen and quickly burst through the rooftop in a wall of flames that threatened the lives of a dozen firefighters inside.

Those firefighters evacuated the three-story building safely and all firefighters escaped without serious injuries during the eight-hour blaze.

Firefighters kept the fire from spreading beyond the concrete building at Fourth Avenue West and First Street. But by the time most were sent back to their stations, the roof had fallen in and much of the second floor Brass Phoenix nightspot was destroyed.

The main level fronting First Street had heavy smoke and water damage, its lobby photographs of prominent patrons barely visible amid the dirt and ice debris….

When and whether the restaurant can be rebuilt is uncertain. Owner Wing Ying Huie, 60, was able to enter the building to inspect the lower levels before noon.

Later he said he can’t decide whether to rebuild the business that has been at that location since 1976, when it replaced the original owner, the former prestigious Duluth Athletic Club. …

Huie opened the Chinese Lantern in 1964 at the Superior Street level of the Palladio Building, immediately behind the structure that burned. He was following a Huie family tradition of serving authentic Chinese specialties that began when his father, Joe Huie, opened a restaurant near the entrance of Canal Park in the early 1900s. …

[The Chinese Lantern] was known throughout the state and has been named one of the 200 best independent restaurants in the United States, Huie said proudly as he struggled to light a cigarette, shivering from the cold and anxiety of the morning.

"I tried my best here," Huie said. "The people in Duluth have been very good to me."

Acting Duluth Fire Chief Dan Haus emerges from the First Street door of the Chinese Lantern after the fire. The building was encased in ice after firefighters doused the blaze in 18-below temperatures. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

It’s the place where the famous came to eat (Jan. 17, 1994)

Elvis ate there. Pearl Bailey ate there. Walter Mondale ate there.

And chances are, if you’ve lived in Duluth for any length of time, you’ve eaten there, too.

The Chinese Lantern has been an institution here for 30 years. It’s the place tourists stop natives on the street and ask about. It’s one of the places – like the Aerial Bridge, like Glensheen – that comes to mind when people think of Duluth.

And Sunday morning, it was destroyed.

"I was absolutely flabbergasted," said former employee Rose Chida. "When my daughter called me and told me the news, I was just – flabbergasted."

Chida managed the restaurant in the old days, when it was in the Palladio Building. … It was her idea, she said, to move the restaurant up to First Street into the larger quarters of the former Duluth Athletic Club.

"I told Wing [owner Wing Ying Huie], when the line starts out the door and stretches down the street, it’s time to do something," she said.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the place was that popular. Not only did it attract customers from all over the world – including movie stars, politicians and musicians – but the restaurant also did catering for the former North Central Airlines. …

Jan. 17, 1994: Workers remove heavy items from the wreckage of the Chinese Lantern a day after a fire destroyed the downtown Duluth restaurant. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

The Chinese Lantern restaurant was not rebuilt, and the building has housed a succession of other bars and restaurants up to the present.

Sept. 24, 1994: Rusty Marshall of Lakehead Sign Co. works on taking down some Duluth landmarks – the signs of the Chinese Lantern restaurant, which burned earlier in the year. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

18 Responses

  1. Laurie Evsich

    I am from Bessemer, MI & 40+ yrs ago when my grandma, aunt & uncles would come to visit (from Detroit) my parents would pack up 5 kids & we would all travel the 2+hrs to Duluth just to eat at the Chinese Lantern. Unforgetable…delicious!

  2. WOW!!! Today is January 2014 and I’m just now learning about the fire that destroyed the Lantern. It was an icon. I’d eaten there hundreds of times and danced at the Phoenix. I left Duluth in 1984 and never looked back, I need to read more in the “attic”, Thank you for this informative website! So Sad for Wing Gee. A great guy!!

  3. Bill berg

    Worked there for 8 yrs started as bus boy in 74 ended up bartending at both places. Head bartender at Brass Phoenix for the first 3-4 yrs it was open. Wing was a great employer!!

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  6. Scott

    I never realized that I’d grown up with some of the best Chinese food in the world until the Lantern died. I’ve tried a lot of places since in a number of states, and nothing else comes close.

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  14. Steph

    I watched the Chinese Lantern burn from the top of the Holiday Center parking ramp that morning, after the all-night “rave” at the DECC. The most surreal experience of my life.

  15. The Moose

    Never will forget that morning – was about 14, listening to KDAL break in with the news that it was on fire – back when local radio WAS local radio!!!

    1. Andrea Asleson

      It was a very memorable happening. I still think of that day seeing all the ice and the firefighters checking the building for safety issues. Seeing the fire chief coming out that door brought forth so many memories. Who could forget the big prime rib ? Food was delicious!!!!

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