This S.F. Chinatown giant is opening a new location — at the Louvre in Paris

The San Francisco restaurateur behind the massive Chinatown food complex China Live plans to make his mark on Paris with a second multipart restaurant at a landmark location.

Asia Live, as the new venture’s name implies, will expand the focus of owner and executive chef George Chen to include Vietnamese, Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines.

Situated directly next to the Louvre Museum in the underground mall known as the Carrousel du Louvre, Asia Live will open onto the iconic inverted glass pyramid designed by Chinese American architect I.M. Pei, that punctures the subterranean hall.

“You can almost touch it from the door,” remarked a dazzled Chen.

A veteran of the S.F. dining world, Chen ran well-known restaurants such as Betelnut, which spent more than 20 years in business before closing in 2015. In Paris, he will develop Asia Live in partnership with Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield SE, Europe’s largest commercial real estate company.

At nearly 35,000 square feet, the multistory, cavernous venue, which is set to replace the Printemps department store, echoes the vast scale of the world’s largest museum. Taking its cue from China Live, which features two full restaurants as well as a bar and marketplace, the 20,000-square-foot main floor at Asia Live will include open kitchens that feature duck roasters and dim sum stations, in addition to a cafe and banquet hall. Chen, who has enlisted the Shanghai-based architecture firm Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, also envisions “a passage of food stalls” evocative of Singaporean row houses, he said.

Along with a speakeasy-style bar, a lounge and a smaller fine-dining restaurant, the 7,000-square-foot mezzanine overlooking the grand central hall will house a test kitchen for collaborating with visiting chefs.

“I want to make this a living platform, like cooking itself,” he said. “It’ll be a food lab of sorts, for exploring all kinds of cuisines that have an influence on each other.”

Despite their rich history and prolific presence, many of these culinary and dining traditions have long been “belittled and disrespected,” said Chen, particularly in the West.

“I want to show the world what great, interpretive and modern (Chinese and Asian) cuisine looks like,” he added. “I want to demystify and elevate it, but also keep it really accessible.”

Although Chen acknowledges the ambitious scale and nature of the project, he’s nevertheless aiming for a spring 2024 debut. He also noted the challenges of getting city approval in Paris for installing natural gas — a bureaucratic process that he estimates could drag on for a couple of years. Chen is keen to use gas burners to fuel the restaurant’s wok cooking.

Chen was hesitant to disclose costs, noting only that in Paris, general commercial construction runs about €10,000 per square meter, or roughly $1,100 per square foot. (He also said that approximately 20% of the space, mostly in the basement, will need minimal renovations, as it will be dedicated to warehousing and prep.) China Live in San Francisco cost at least $20 million to develop, he said when it opened in 2017.

While annual visits to the Louvre plummeted to 2.8 million last year — a three-quarter drop from its pre-pandemic peak — Chen is confident that numbers will quickly rebound as Paris prepares to host the Summer Olympics in 2024. Along with the daily flood of museum visitors, Asia Live’s proximity to major tourist, cultural and commercial landmarks, including the recently refurbished La Samaritanedepartment store and the Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection, should serve to make it a central hub for locals and tourists alike, he said.

“I’m creating a vibrant experience,” said Chen. “That’s why we’re calling it Asia Live.” – San Francisco Chronicle (01.31.23)