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Sunday, February 1, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Perry Ko's Beacon Hill restaurant and bar is moving

Seattle Times staff reporter

You can find the old golfers here at Perry Ko's South China Restaurant every Tuesday afternoon, after the morning's round at nearby Jefferson Park Golf Club. Some, like 88-year-old Frank Komoto, dot South China's hazy lounge even on days they don't golf.

"We're gonna miss it," admits Tom Hisayasu, at 67 the youngster of the group. He finishes tallying the scores: Komoto, with a 22 handicap, comes out on top. "The winner here is really the loser," one companion explains. "Because he has to buy the drinks."

Welcome, and then say goodbye, to Perry Ko's South China Restaurant, whose lounge is the Rainbow Coalition of dive bars, a multiethnic martini of mechanics, landscapers, accountants and Supreme Court judges.

Veteran bartenders greet patrons with first names. Asian and white retirees share laughs at customary tables; a young Latino couple makes eyes and conversation on barstools; a pair of young African Americans gab over fried rice in a corner.

Perry Ko's is the old oak tree they thought would always be there, a Beacon Hill landmark serving generations of locals since the 1950s. But according to its owners, the restaurant and its classic lounge will close Saturday to make way for Sound Transit's light-rail construction, leaving patrons to wonder: Where will they go now?

They came here for the garlic chicken wings, for the stiff drinks concocted with an impressive arsenal of cheap vodka. But mostly, they came for the camaraderie. "Everybody gets along," says Darlena Alcayaga, who's tended bar here for 23 years. "Everybody looks out for each other. There are no colors in here."

Within a month or so, the restaurant will reopen at its new Bellevue address — just 12 minutes away, employees note, but mentally, even emotionally, out of reach for Beacon Hill residents, who have few options in an ever-fragile business district.

Some have been regulars ever since Ko bought the business in 1979, ordering chow mein from the same waitresses he hired shortly afterward. They practically have assigned seats. Some date back even farther than that, to the days after Hing Lee opened the place in the 1950s.

"You see people in their 80s who've been coming here for years, and still pop in here," says Constance Blood, on lunch break from her events coordinator job with Seattle's Urban League. "I feel cheated. I thought I was going to be able to pop in here in my 80s."

It's an institution, people say, where the lights were always on, even on the worst weathered nights. John Doutrich, who lives on Alki Beach, started coming here in the '80s. "All of a sudden — you know so many people," he says. "You start to become part of the family."

Says Tosh Uyeji, here every day with wife Jackie: "We feel like we're being kicked out of our second home."

Beacon Hill is one of Seattle's best known melting pots, and among the Chinese families that gave the area its mostly Asian character after World War II was Lee, an immigrant from Southern China. According to the recently published "Images of America: Seattle's Beacon Hill," he opened the South China Cafe on Beacon Avenue in the 1950s.

He passed away in 1972. Seven years later, Sid and Dan Ko were twentysomething college grads headed for insurance and banking careers when their father, Perry, told them he had his eye on Lee's former restaurant, which was up for sale.

Was he crazy? Perry had already owned the failed Cathay Palace in Bellevue, and after toiling summers there, the brothers wanted nothing to do with restaurant work. But their dad kept driving by the place: "He had that entrepreneurial itch," Dan says. "He would say, 'Gosh, I could do something there.' "

Eventually Perry persuaded them to help him. (The Lees still own the land.) It was 1979.

He did some remodeling, rehired the waitresses who'd worked for him at Cathay Palace and began hiring away bar staff from Dynasty, a former Chinese restaurant in Renton. An intensely social man, Perry began sponsoring annual benefit dinners and golf tournaments for local Asian organizations, pumping life into the area.

Then, Perry discovered he had cancer. He died in 1984.

And just like that, Perry Ko's South China Restaurant belonged to Sid and Dan. Now 50, Sid is thinner and more angular than his younger brother; both grew up in the area but have since moved to the Eastside.

But the sons kept up the annual benefits at the restaurant and added summer kick-off parties with lip-synching and a spinning disco ball. People came dressed as Elvis, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips. "That was before karaoke," Sid laughs.

Much of their father's original staff remains, still dedicated to a man who provided them health plans and wasn't above cooking or cleaning the bathrooms if it needed doing. Jean Geong, a 23-year veteran, typifies the team of waitresses who flit through swinging kitchen doors in red, Chinese-style blouses, efficient as pistons.

Every week, the restaurant goes through 300 to sometimes 600 pounds of chicken wings, its most popular item. Perry's widow, Sue, still prepares dim sum daily in the kitchen, a stainless steel savanna of sugar peas and prawns in lobster sauce, its 500-pound butcher-block tables as smooth-cut as ancient canyons from constant use.

"We were stuck between family and career," Sid says. "What do you do? And here we are."

The legendary lounge owes much of its punch to bartender Alcayaga, who has reddish-brown hair, weary eyes and a tendency to say what's on her mind. For two decades, she's held court for a faithful cadre of barflies; she celebrated her 40th birthday here, then her 50th.

Sometimes, unsettled wives march in, ready to catfight. They want to know just what this Darlena is all about. ("Whatever," she says, rolling her eyes.)

When a couple of hoodlums moseyed in and started tainting the place with attitude and disrespect, Alcayaga says she went over and told them: "See those old people? This is their bar." A few younger patrons got up to come to her aid, but she shooed them away.

"I had four brothers," she explains. "Nothing scares me."

As a result, patron Doutrich says, the bar is free of troublesome tangles. For years, he's weathered Alcayaga's badgering like a sea cliff deflecting ocean spray. "She can talk tough," he says. "And she pours a hell of a drink."

Alcayaga shrieks suddenly as her bar gun spurts nothing but air. "Aw, man, there's no orange juice," she says. "Everything's running out."

In these last days, there's no point in replenishing the big tanks anymore. Instead, she retrieves new jugs and liter bottles of OJ and Pepsi from the storeroom.

The next chapter in local mass transit will start with a facelift. The 14-mile, $2.44 billion light rail line planned from Westlake Center to Tukwila is the city's biggest public works project since the building of Interstate 5, one that will temporarily turn Beacon Hill's best-known strip into a rumble of boarded-up businesses and debris.

The Beacon Avenue business district is too wobbly to sport the Wi-Fi cafes or fancy brewpubs that mark other commercial areas. That could change as the station's projected completion date approaches in 2009: Sound Transit planners think the Beacon Hill station will yield the highest ridership south of downtown Seattle, with 3,000 daily boardings by 2020.

It's the years in between that worry locals like Bud and Dee Cox, who've lived here long enough to remember the Red Apple across the street as a Safeway and the gas station as a movie theater. They didn't vote for Sound Transit. Says Dee: "They're ruining our neighborhood."

At first, the plan was to take only the restaurant's parking lot. But by fall 2001, Sound Transit engineers had found their planned substation site unusable. They informed four Beacon Avenue businesses, including the South China Restaurant, that they'd have to go.

Some of the Kos' 20 employees and many loyal customers are still in denial; they wonder whether the family tried hard enough to relocate nearby, whether they realize it was on this community's back that its fortunes were built. But Sid says no available space was large enough. They eventually settled on a small business district in Bellevue's Newport Hills.

In all, the light-rail project is directly uprooting four Beacon Hill businesses: Phillip and Gilbert Ng's accounting business has moved a block to the east; Robin Padlan's hair salon a block to the west; King's Barbecue House to the nearby International District. But losing Perry Ko's is like transplanting Beacon Hill's heart elsewhere.

"We did what we thought was right," says Sid. "This neighborhood wanted Sound Transit. But they didn't realize we were going to be the price to pay for that."

In these final weeks, local patrons, especially older ones unlikely to make the Eastside drive, have been coming in more often — collecting last memories, as Sid puts it, or remembering old ones. From baptismal parties to memorial celebrations, the large back room has played host to the gamut of life.

People shake the brothers' hands, pat their backs, as they leave. Good luck, they say. "A lot of people have been coming here a long time," Sid says, his face darkening, his eyes reddening. "It's a meeting place. I have mixed emotions. I don't know if I'm making sense."

Meanwhile, they've been sprucing up the new site and making sure the current one will be vacant by their Feb. 13 deadline. They haven't given a closing celebration much thought — too busy with day-to-day activities, they say, but hostess Jo Churchill says it's more than that.

"Their mom — she raised her three kids here," she says. "This was the last place her husband was before he passed away. People keep asking when we're going to have a party, but they don't understand: It's like planning your own funeral."

In the bar, Alcayaga delivers cards with the restaurant's new address — 5606A 119th Ave. SE, in Bellevue — to the table where Tosh and Jackie Uyeji sit with pals Bud and Dee Cox. The four take long looks. "You'd get three tickets before you got home," Bud finally quips.

Newport Hills is mostly white and Asian, its median income of $82,000 twice as high as the area the restaurant is leaving behind. Most of the staff will follow, as will a number of regulars who already live in Eastside communities.

But for older Southside residents, it's likely the new site, in time, will become another Eastside outpost. Says 82-year-old regular Kay Yamaguchi: "It'd be too far for a lot of them. I think they'll go to Chinatown."

John Doutrich: "It's not like I'm just getting out of high school, where I'll drive up to Canada to drink."

Tosh Uyeji, shaking his head: "We can't go across that bridge."

"These guys are the best," Alcayaga says, wistfully scanning her room of midday regulars: "They're diamonds in the rough. They're never going to find another place like this."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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