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Friday, June 20, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Operatic Twist For Old Bistro -- Last-Minute Bid Saves Capitol Hill Restaurant

Seattle Times Business Reporter

With a "for lease" sign in one picture window and an "auction, complete sellout" sign taped across the other, the future of Capitol Hill's tiny Cafe Sabika looked grim earlier this week.

Then, yesterday, everything changed.

Inside the living-room-sized restaurant, nicknamed "Seattle's Oldest Bistro," dozens of opera posters and pictures of its owners, John and Gloria Rios, once covered the walls. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of families have gathered to share weddings, anniversaries, engagements and celebrations of life at Cafe Sabika.

But the neighborhood landmark was closed nearly two weeks ago and put up for auction. John Rios, a French chef and tenor who was known to serenade customers after he was finished cooking each evening, died nearly a year ago. Gloria Rios said she couldn't keep it open because it just wasn't the same without him. She's been hoping that someone would buy the entire business and keep it open.

"The name is there; the history is there," Rios said earlier this week. "They would have a good start."

About 45 people walked around Sabika's antique chairs and wooden tables yesterday, carefully inspecting sets of plates, wine glasses and utensils. Everything had a small green sticker with an auction number on it, from the ceramic elephant-shaped tea pots and dark wooden salad bowls to the shiny steel appliances and commercial espresso machine.

There were even stickers on a metal music stand and a copy of "Operatic Anthology," sheet music for tenor singers.

Auctioneer Kenneth Mroczek started the bidding at 11 a.m. sharp, and said he would sell everything individually - unless someone made a bulk bid. The event was over within five minutes.

Rob Zehel and Thomas Meade, who have managed Sabika over the past year, made a bulk bid of $7,500 for everything in the restaurant. There was a counterbid for $7,775, and after about a minute of waiting, a woman bid $8,000.

The crowd was quiet. Mroczek called for additional bids, but there were none. Then he announced the items were sold for $8,000 to Diane Stone, who owns the neighboring businesses - The Cheshire Grin and Le Frock - with her husband, Stan Stone.

Turns out, she purchased the bistro for Zehel and Meade. The two men already had signed a one-month lease on the storefront.

The men say they couldn't watch Cafe Sabika get split up into pieces. "Look at this space," said Zehel, 34. "This place is magical."

When they found out it was going up for auction, several of their friends offered to invest cash. "We've got a lot of people that believe in us," Zehel said.

Zehel and Meade, 35, plan to reopen the restaurant as soon as possible and continue to serve country French and Italian menu items similar to those John Rios used to serve. Zehel will work as the chef, and Meade, a self-supported artist, plans to host and refurbish the dining room's woodwork.

Guests still will be serenaded by opera music - but not by either of the restaurant's new owners.

"We don't sing, but we've got operatic singing friends," Zehel said.

Basically, the place won't be changed, they said. If it's renamed, it probably will be called Sabika Bistro.

"We were heartbroken" to see it close, Zehel said. "I thought I'd never stand behind this counter again."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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