So friends of the princess —“sao,” in Burmese — could be forgiven for their reaction to her news that anxious winter of 1989 as her country heaved with turmoil and its ruling military junta rebranded it Myanmar. The sao and her husband would be opening a restaurant in Washington’s Chinatown. On New Year’s Day, 1990.
“You have never worked a day in your life!” Sao Jane Nuwadee Tinpe recalls her friends gasping. “Now you are opening a restaurant?”
For the next 23 years, the sao and her family presided over a business named for the homeland they left behind. Their restaurant, Burma, was a homage to the country they remembered. Now this second-floor hideaway — this intimate nook where mayors and congressmen, artists and Burmese democracy activists dined — is serving its final meals. The building’s new owners have given the Tinpes until Dec. 31 to leave so that the Sixth Street NW space can be rehabbed to attract higher-paying tenants, says John Zarni Tinpe, the sao’s son. Tinpe says the family can’t afford to reopen in another location. The building’s owners, Douglas Development, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Due to gentrification, we’re just continuously losing the gems in Chinatown,” says Daphne Kwok, an AARP executive and Burma regular who has chaired President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “It’s a huge, huge blow.”
Burma feels like a secret, a whisper in a city of shouts. Diners shuffle up a dreary, battleship-gray stairwell to
arrive at a door with a lattice of ironwork splayed across its window. But when the door swings open, they find walls painted a bright yellow — sunshine defying the perpetual winter of the stairs.
John Tinpe — a youthful 40-something who also works as a “supernumerary,” or extra, at major Washington ballet and opera performances — greets his guests in custom-made tailored pants, his voice soft and his manner refined. The sao flickers in and out of the room, her dark black hair cut sharply in bangs. She moves without seeming to displace the air around her. In Burmese, her name — Nuwadee — means “gentle waters.”
Over in the far corner is Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s favorite table, John Tinpe says, a vantage point to scan all who come and go. In this room, Tinpe has brought Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. his favorite sauteed chicken kebab and former mayor Adrian Fenty his usual chicken curry. On a recent afternoon, he was gently placing Burma’s signature green tea leaf salad in front of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was quietly ensconced in a window seat alone.
“What is this?” Baryshnikov asked, lifting a small nugget from the salad with his chopsticks. Tinpe explained that he was holding a toasted lentil, a discovery that seemed to delight the ballet legend.
The salad before Baryshnikov embodies the allure of this place, one of those Washington haunts populated by characters who know mystery and intrigue. The tea leaves, Tinpe explains, are soaked in garlic oil, leaving them with a flavor that cannot be described in simple terms. It is neither sweet nor sour. In Burma, he says, they call it “the other flavor.”
Years ago, it was Tinpe’s father, Henry Tinpe, who gave the restaurant, a place that seats no more than 70 at a time in two rooms, an aura of old-world charm. Henry Tinpe, who died in 2005, had served as deputy chief of mission at the Burmese embassies in Washington and New Delhi, as well as deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.
He spoke with a proper British accent, having been educated at Cambridge. Lyndon Boozer, a Washington-based telecommunications lobbyist who has been close friends with John Tinpe since their college days at Bucknell, remembered being invited to the Tinpes’ fashionable apartment on New York’s Upper East Side in the late 1980s. Henry Tinpe answered the door. He wore an ascot.
“Mr. Boozer, so glad you could join us. Cocktails will be served at 6:30, dinner at 7 p.m.,” Boozer recalls his friend’s father saying. “ ‘Mr. Boozer’? I’m only 22!” he thought. “It was like meeting a Burmese Cary Grant.”
The Tinpes blended international savoir faire and glamour with ancient bona fides. The sao’s family, the Yangs, had founded Kokang in the 1700s after coming to the area from China. Her father had provided material and workers to help build the Burma Road, a famed supply route for British soldiers during World War II, John Tinpe says.
By the late 1980s, the family’s world was coming undone. Henry Tinpe had returned to Burma for a post in the Foreign Ministry while his wife and family had stayed behind in the United States with relatives. In 1988, Burma was wracked by demonstrations against political oppression, followed by a bloody crackdown on protesters and a coup d’etat. In the chaos, Henry Tinpe joined a tidal wave of Burmese leaving the country.
Settling in Washington, the family thought, “What better way to represent Burma than with food?” John Tinpe says.
The sao culled the family recipes that had once been prepared by her household staff. She trained cooks, drawing from years of observation, and even began to cook herself at times.
Old friends were the original patrons — diplomatic chums such as Arthur Hummel, the former U.S. ambassador to Burma. The Tinpes served the influential and the famous,
who were drawn by a menu that sounded and tasted utterly exotic: caladish, a type of squash, fried into “golden fingers”; a fish soup called mohingar, infused with coriander and fried onions; sour mustard leaves; pork slow-roasted with mangoes.
Kwok, the former head of the Obama advisory commission, ate there with Kiran Ahuja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Chris Lu, assistant to the president and Cabinet secretary. Darryl Hannah dined there during Obama’s 2009 inauguration festivities. Chelsea Clinton showed up once.
But, as much as anything, the restaurant served as a locus for people who cared about Burma. Roundtable discussions were held in the evenings. During the “Saffron Revolution” — the 2007 protests led by thousands of Buddhist monks against Burma’s military dictatorship — the restaurant swelled with activists and with emotion.
“They had one thing in common: that was democracy for Burma,” John Tinpe says. “It was great.” Today, he and his family are hopeful that democratic reforms will continue to strengthen there.
Over the years, patrons would sometimes ask whether the Tinpes would change the name of the restaurant from Burma to Myanmar. Never, they said.
After he leaves the restaurant business, John Tinpe would like to put his Burmese expertise to work in a different way, perhaps in a job with the U.S. government or a nonprofit organization. He has made tentative approaches in this direction but for the moment is focusing on the last days of the restaurant.
As word spreads about the restaurant’s impending demise, the little place has turned into a kind of rolling farewell party. One after another, old friends have shown up for a last plate of dry bean curd, a final bowl of onion pea soup. But also for one more visit with a princess and her son; one more demure smile.
“It would be nice if this could have a happy ending,” John Tinpe says one afternoon, his voice trailing off.
In some ways, that’s exactly what is happening.