Only John Chan could have come up with Chan’s Fine Oriental Dining, Jazz & Blues. The Hong Kong–born restaurant owner is also a painter, photographer, and jazz enthusiast. He won a 2015 Rhode Island Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts and was inducted into the 2018 Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame. Nestled between a paintball shop and a railroad in a small New England town, this Chinese-American restaurant is also what one writer deemed “the most inconspicuous blues club in America.”
Chan’s father, Ben, bought the restaurant (then known as New Shanghai) from a cousin in 1965, adding the family name to the Woonsocket eatery nine years later. While attending Providence College in the ’70s, John was introduced to jazz and blues by his roommates at a downtown lounge. Rapt, John suggested integrating the jazz and other live music into the family restaurant. A child of the Big Band era, his father agreed, and in 1977, the first act took the stage; a radio reporter for WGBH shortly thereafter coined Chan’s the “Home of Egg Rolls, Jazz & Blues,” aptly summing the unlikely merger.
The space behind Chan’s two hand-carved, rosewood doors is a lot to take in. Beyond a brightly-lit dining room and “Horseshoe Lounge” lays the “Four Seasons Jazz and Blues Club.” After a neighboring bank shuttered, the restaurant purchased the space, converting its former vault into the now 130-seat club. Its walls are lined with photographs, paintings, and watercolors of musical greats (some Chan originals) under traditional Chinese trim. While Chan’s stage has hosted acts such as Dizzy Gillespie, Leon Redbone, Livingston Taylor, and Aztec Two-Step, it’s been the backbone of the local jazz and blues scene for decades: “Musicians would have had nowhere else to play for 20 years without him,” a regular told American Blues Scene.
With all the art flying around, it’s easy to forget there’s also food: Chan’s boasts four schools of Chinese cooking: Cantonese, Szechwan/Hunan, Mandarin, and Shanghai. While online reviews indicate the cuisine is decidedly not what draws Chan’s loyal followers, as his website reminds us, “an egg roll a day keeps the blues away.”