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At Yenching Palace, Five Decades of History to Go

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tucked between Engine Company 28 of the D.C. fire department and a 7-Eleven known for having a mural painted across its brick wall, Yenching Palace has been a Cleveland Park landmark for more than 50 years, a place where -- in its heyday, in the 1960s and 1970s -- diplomats and movie stars dined, secrets were told, international crises were mediated.

Sometime this year, if all goes as expected, the art-deco restaurant with the lopsided "Y" in its famous neon sign on Connecticut Avenue NW is going to get a makeover. It's going to become . . . a Walgreens.

"WHAT!" shrieks Barbara Eagleton, wife of former Missouri senator Tom Eagleton, upon hearing the news via a phone call to their home in St. Louis. "When I tell him, he won't believe it!"

Just the mention of Yenching has her off in a world of reminiscence, memories spilling forth of large, laughing affairs or cozy dinners with Senate friends.

"We used to take the gang there all the time," says Sen. Gaylord Nelson's widow, Carrie Lee Nelson, who cooks Chinese herself and insisted on doing the ordering at the lavish dinners she hosted. "It was the place where you'd just call everybody up and say, 'Let's meet for dinner at Yenching.' "

And, as former manager K.C. Chow puts it bluntly, "It just hasn't changed." But the world has. Once the place to go for Peking duck and General Tso's chicken, Yenching has become a relic in a time when Asian restaurants are abundant, and high-end Asian-fusion cuisine is wildly popular.

"It's a matter of taste," says current owner Larry Lung. "Chow mein, egg foo yong -- older people like that, but the younger people, they don't."

Members of the Lung family have owned the place since Van Lung (Larry's uncle, who was the son of Chinese governor and warlord Lung Yun) opened it in 1955. Larry bought it from his uncle's estate upon his death in 1991. But Larry is about to turn 65 and his health, he says, is an issue -- and his three children have career ambitions that do not include the brutal day-to-day demands of running a family restaurant. Business is not what it once was. According to Chow, the fact that the family owns the building itself -- a large and valuable piece of real estate in an upscale neighborhood -- is the only thing that made it tenable to stay open in recent years.

So Larry Lung has decided it's time to let it go. He has a tentative deal for a long-term lease with Walgreens, a large drugstore chain making its first forays into the local market. Once the final details are approved, Lung expects the hand-over will take place in late spring or early summer. He's already getting daily calls from panicked customers who have heard the news and wonder if the closing is imminent. It's not. Large parties are booked for the coming months, and those reservations will be honored. Still, the closing is inevitable.

"I walk in here and look around this place and think, 'This is going? No!' " says Chow, who started working at Yenching as a busboy when he was 15, and spent two stints as manager, once in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. "I grew up here. This place is history."

The three old leather guest books read like a who's who: Mick Jagger, Danny Kaye, George Balanchine. Ann Landers, Jason Robards, James Baldwin, Arthur (that's how he signed it) Garfunkel, famed architect I.M. Pei (whose signature is completely unreadable). Daniel Ellsberg, "Alex" Haig, Lesley Stahl, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. So many ambassadors and senators it's hard to keep track. Even in more recent years, folks like George Will still called for delivery. Anna Chennault, widow of Gen. Claire Lee Chennault -- the leader of the famous Flying Tigers, who fought the Japanese during World War II -- was a stalwart customer and still remains a close Lung family friend.

The most famous and oft-told story about Yenching Palace is how emissaries representing President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev met there to negotiate during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and legend has it that they hammered out the final details, and avoided a war, in the second-to-last booth on the left. In the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger was a regular visitor, Chinese diplomats often his companions. Kissinger, Chow says, used to drink Moutai -- a powerful liqueur popular in China -- and eat the duck.

"Kissinger has a mesmerizing voice," Chow says. "It just carries. There would be 100 people in here and you knew he was here."

Van Lung, the original owner, could be a helpful source of information to journalists, who also considered the place a hangout. Perhaps at their peril, upon occasion. Scott Armstrong, a former Washington Post reporter and longtime customer, once got a call from a source at the FBI after he took someone from Kissinger's office to Yenching. Armstrong was told, as a favor, to never again interview sources in the first booth, the one next to the office.

"That's what I want -- the first booth," says Armstrong, who lives in the neighborhood and still comes in, though he bemoans the fact that the duck doesn't drip as much fat as it used to. "We can rip it out and check for the wires."

For all its famous customers, though, Yenching was always a family restaurant.

"When the kids were still around, we used to go there a lot," says New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh, who remembers Van Lung introducing him to the man who served as an interpreter for the Cuban Missile Crisis negotiations. "It stayed the same. Everybody else got yuppified. We're very fancy here [in Cleveland Park] now. I live in Yuppieland."

Once the only restaurant on its block, Yenching is now within walking distance of hip, popular restaurants like Ardeo and Bardeo, Palena, Spices and Indique. Meanwhile, behind its unchanged storefront, the original faux leather booths -- "whatever it is, it lasted!" Chow says -- still exist, and there's still a phone booth in the entryway, though hardly anyone uses it anymore.

But that's all going to go, Larry Lung says. He is effusive in thanking all his long-term customers and neighbors, and is torn by those who have called or stopped by recently to bemoan Yenching's demise. Still, it's time.

So maybe Lung will keep some of the Chinese artifacts that decorate the room, maybe he'll sell some. In any case, soon folks won't be coming in for the beloved noodle soup, with its hot broth and the raw meat to be cooked at the table. They'll be coming in asking where they can find the cough medicine.

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