Customers patronizing Henry Africa, one of Old Town Alexandria's tonier restaurants, witnessed an unusual scene Friday night when a restaurant employe confronted a city worker who was removing a "Valet Parking" sign from a tree in front of the restaurant.

There are two versions of what happened. According to police, Carlos Barrett and Walter E. Shepherd, employes in the city's traffic division were instructed to remove the sign because it was on city property. "Most trees {on sidewalks} are city property," Officer Dennis Butler said.

After arriving at the restaurant, in the 600 block of King Street, at 10:30 p.m., they began cutting the chain holding the sign to the tree. Henry Africa manager Leo Panagopoulos emerged from the restaurant and asked one of his employes to get the sign. Butler said the employe, identified by Panagopoulos as Omar Lainez, grabbed the bolt cutters from Barrett and "hit him in the head."

Shepherd then took the bolt cutters, Butler said.

"No, no, you're kidding me," Panagopoulos said yesterday when told of the police account of the incident. "The city employe tried to hit my employe and he was defending himself."

Panagopoulos said he was unaware the men were city employes because they did not identify themselves and he thought they were trying to steal the sign. "We have had the sign {there} for nine years," he added, saying the city had never requested that he remove it.

Barrett filed an arrest warrant saying Lainez hit him in the right ear and charging him with assault, Butler said. As of yesterday, Lainez had not been arrested because police did not have his address, he said. Shepherd declined to comment and Barrett could not be reached.

Staff writer Virginia Mansfield contributed to this report.