Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A lot of news has happened under the large, red neon sign — with the distinctive crooked “Y” — outside Yenching Palace on Connecticut Avenue NW.

The venerable Chinese restaurant hosted the men who worked out the final details of the agreement to resolve the Cuban missile crisis, countless Chinese diplomats, and ordinary Cleveland Park residents during its 52-year history. But all the elegant ivory chopsticks will be put away on Sunday.

The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board has asked the owners to save the sign with hopes of putting it in a museum or preserving it. Remaining items in the restaurant will be auctioned, given away or saved in family collections after the restaurant closes its doors for the last time. Details of the auction haven’t been set.

Owners Larry and Shirley Lung decided to close Yenching Palace because of his health and age — he’s 65 — and their desire to spend more time with family, as well as a general decline in business as more restaurants have opened on the midtown stretch of Connecticut Avenue. They have leased the space to Walgreens, which will open a drugstore there.

The couple has mixed feelings as they reflect on the restaurant they have owned for 16 years and have been a part of since 1969. “The cleaning just cannot be finished, Mr. Lung says. “I don’t have enough energy to run the restaurant.”

But they’re nostalgic as they recount the customers and employees they will miss and the significant events that have taken place in Yenching Palace.

“A lot of things have happened here,” Mr. Lung says, sitting for an interview in a booth at the back of the large dining room. Aleksandr Fomin of the Soviet Embassy and ABC News reporter John Scali, secretly representing the United States, met at one of the circular booths to agree on the details in the Cuban missile crisis deal.

He recalls many times when Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, dined with Chinese diplomats. “There was a big banquet with Kissinger and a delegation from China,” he says, recounting one such occasion. “There were Secret Service and media everywhere. And Connie Chung was there. She was peeking in to see the party.”

Yenching Palace hosted the Chinese pingpong players who visited the United States, which preceded to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries after President Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Lunches and dinners were delivered to the first Chinese diplomats in Washington, who lived at the Mayflower Hotel and did not like American food.

In 1972, when the first pandas arrived at the National Zoo down the street, the press conference announcing the acquisition was held at Yenching Palace.

The restaurant thrived through the 1960s and ‘70s, hosting notable customers such as Mr. Kissinger, Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan, actor Marlon Brando, James Bond creator Ian Fleming, Rolling Stones rocker Mick Jagger, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and American ballet choreographer George Balanchine.

But things have changed. “Business is not as good as it was in the ‘70s,” Mr. Lung says.

Yenching Palace opened in 1955. It was initially called Peking Palace, until founder Van S. Lung — Larry’s uncle — was sued by another restaurant with a similar name. Mr. Lung renamed it Yenching Palace and put up the large neon sign. For years it was the only restaurant on the block. Larry and Shirley Lung bought the restaurant in 1991, when Van S. Lung died.

As word got out earlier this year that Yenching Palace was slated to close, loyal customers flocked to the restaurant for their last bite of a favorite dish, a keepsake menu or dibs on a favorite figurine.

Mrs. Lung says customers have asked to buy a white figurine of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, a multicolored camel statue and large figurines of a baby ram, among other relics. On Monday evening the Lungs will entertain friends, customers and neighbors at a farewell party.

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