Mary Weinman was a 20-year-old waitress when Magic Wok opened. At first, she wasn’t sure her job would last.
But 30 years later, Weinman is still there, preparing to celebrate a milestone that’s unusual for any restaurant to reach.
It was July 9, 1981, when entrepreneur Steve Cho opened Magic Wok. A month earlier, he’d purchased the San Franciscan, a moody, dimly-lit supper club, and transformed it into a Chinese-meets-American restaurant with a full bar.
At first, no one came. At the time, Central and Tyler was pretty much the edge of west-side Wichita civilization.
Then in 1982, a fire damaged the nearby Rolling Hills Country Club severely enough that it closed down for a year. Members looking for a new place to dine found Magic Wok, which at the time was one of the few restaurants in Wichita serving Chinese food. “We just started getting all this business. All these country club people starting coming in,” Weinman said. “It just snowballed from there.”
In 1993, Cho moved to New Jersey to open more restaurants and asked his most loyal waitress to run the place for him. Weinman managed the Magic Wok, maintaining Cho’s menu that mixed Chinese classics with steak and potatoes, until he offered to sell her the restaurant in 2002.
Magic Wok today looks much like it did when it opened in 1981 with dim lighting and ’80s-era wooden tables and booths. The exterior is nondescript, and Magic Wok is identifiable only because of the original sign touting “American-Oriental” food to those who drive past on Central.
The clients are a mix of neighorhooders who like to pick up carryout on weekends and longtime regulars, who crowd in on Friday nights for the $16 ribeye. Magic Wok also has managed to keep some of its original country club crowd, and Weinman has a group of around eight regulars who come in three or four nights a week, crowd around the bar and stay though the evening.
“This place has become kind of like a ‘Cheers,’” she said.
Through the years, many members of Weinman’s family, including most of her siblings and her children, have worked with her at the restaurant. Weinman herself still works in the front, delivering food and running the bar on the weekends.
She gives much of the credit for Magic Wok’s longevity to her chef, Phat Duong, who has run the kitchen for most of the restaurant’s 30 years.
Somehow, Weinman said, Magic Wok has survived through economic downturns, aircraft layoffs and the invasion of a zillion neighboring restaurants. She credits the sentimental soft spot many Wichitans have for the restaurant and the fact that she focuses on giving customers what they want and keeping prices down.
“It’s been rocky, but we’ve made it,” she said. “Now if I can make it to next weekend, we’ll be okay.”