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Calif. 'rudest waiter' eatery may stay open

Associated Press
Signs taped to the walls from long ago are shown inside the Sam Wo restaurant in Chinatown in San Francisco, Friday, April 20, 2012. The 100-year-old Chinese restaurant known for having "the world's rudest waiter" is shutting its doors and serving its last customers Friday. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
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Signs taped to the walls from long ago are shown inside the Sam Wo restaurant in Chinatown in San Francisco, …

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A San Francisco Chinese restaurant once known for having "the world's rudest waiter" may not be closing for good after all.

The owners of Sam Wo restaurant are scheduled to plead their case to the city's Public Health Department at a hearing on Tuesday.

Owner David Ho's daughter, Julie, told the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/JcjydH) that the restaurant will be closed over the weekend, but nothing is definite beyond that.

"This restaurant is my life," she told the newspaper.

Health officials had demanded changes after finding violations including rodent activity, but the restaurant's owners had said the 100-year-old, hole-in-the-wall eatery in Chinatown was just too old. They had planned to serve their last meals early Saturday.

At Tuesday's meeting, the owners must present their plans to bring the restaurant back up to code, Health Department spokeswoman Eileen Shields told the Chronicle. Those plans would then have to be approved and implemented before Sam Wo could reopen.

"It's a lot of money and time," Shields said. "But people are so very loyal to that restaurant, and San Francisco is a city where nothing goes down easy. I'm hoping for the best, and that the neighbors and supporters will rally."

Word of the restaurant's closing saddened its customers, who lined up down the block to get a seat at one of its eight lunch tables on Friday.

"I know change is good, but sometimes you want to hold onto the happy memories," said customer Darlene Lee, 71, who has been coming to the restaurant for 60 years and said its inexpensive fare is comfort food that reminds her of going home.

For those who did not grow up dining at Sam Wo, it became a cultural mainstay in the 1970s through reports by the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen and the "Tales of the City" novels of Armistead Maupin.

Both men immortalized the restaurant by writing about the antics of Edsel Ford Fung. Dubbed "the world's rudest waiter," Fung was known for verbally abusing patrons and slamming dishes on tables.

"The Soup Nazi is the Dalai Lama compared to Edsel Ford Fung," said longtime patron Sam Begler, as he tucked into pork rolls and chow mein. "He is the Don Rickles of restaurants."

Fung died in 1984 at age 57, but for a long time a sign listing the restaurant's house rules maintained his gruff demeanor. Among its warnings: "No Booze ... No Jive, No Coffee, Milk, Soft Drinks, Fortune Cookies."

Begler, a caterer who had been dining at Sam Wo since 1976, recalled how Fung would refuse to serve people he didn't like the looks of and chastise customers who dared to complain when they were brought the wrong dishes. It was never quite clear whether his crustiness was genuine or an act, but it was always an experience, especially for locals who wandered in to take advantage of the restaurant's 3 a.m. closing time.

Another devoted customer who showed up, Michael Lyons, said it seemed odd for city inspectors to crack down on Sam Wo's managers now for failing to institute modern food safety techniques, when the restaurant's old-fashioned methods, such as chopping and preparing meat dishes on a wood table near the front door, was part of its charm.

"It's always been a litmus test in a new relationship," Lyons said about people he took to the restaurant. "If they can appreciate the humble character of a place like this, they passed the test."

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