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S.F. Chinese restaurant known for 'world's rudest waiter' closes

San Francisco's Sam Wo Restaurant

Sam Wo Restaurant, a San Francisco institution known for having the "world's rudest waiter" closed its doors on Friday.

Its decaying architecture, fluorescent lighting and kitchen prep sink wedged next to a toilet have served as fodder for ribbing by comedian Conan O'Brien. Its 3 a.m. closing time made it a favorite for late-night club hoppers.

But most of all, the eatery in the heart of Chinatown was a haven for unassuming regulars and curious tourists — who for decades streamed through the cramped kitchen and up a narrow staircase to the tiny second- and third-floor dining rooms served by a dumbwaiter.

David Ho, who has owned Sam Wo for the last 30 years, revealed this week that he could not afford to bring the building, with its precarious concrete balcony and idiosyncratic kitchen, up to health and safety standards. Come Saturday, the doors will be closed for good. The owners plan to appeal the health department's orders to make upgrades at a hearing next week, but they concede that reopening could prove too costly.

Fans massed at lunchtime Friday like roaches on a dirty counter, some driving for hours for a final taste of Sam Wo's signature chow fun, jook and barbecue pork rice noodle rolls.

"The news started circulating in the office, and everybody just freaked out. What about the rolls?" said Will Traer, 27, of San Francisco, who waited in a snaking line with coworker Cuong Leung, 35.

Leung started eating at Sam Wo as a teen. Over the last five years, he and his financial district office mates have made the restaurant on Washington Street near Grant Avenue a twice-monthly ritual.

"Cheap eats, good food," said Leung, who favors the scrambled eggs on beef chow fun, house noodles and fried rice. "You can't really go wrong."

The restaurant is believed to be the oldest in Chinatown — some say it was founded after the 1906 earthquake; others claim it opened earlier. In the 1950s, it became a hangout for Beat poets.

Edsel Ford Fung became the keystone of restaurant lore when he was dubbed "world's rudest waiter." Fung, who died in 1984, was memorialized along with the restaurant in San Francisco author Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City." The waiter was a regular feature in the writings of late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen.

Shirley Fong-Torres, a chef, writer and Chinatown restaurant tour guide, wrote in her 2008 book, "The Woman Who Ate Chinatown," that customers "came to see and be verbally abused by Edsel."

"He did not necessarily bring you what you ordered, which he sometimes scribbled down while smoking a cigarette," wrote Fong-Torres, who died last year. "He was notorious for flirting with girls, rudely criticizing customers and reminding people about tipping him."

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-- Lee Romney in San Francisco

Photo: Customers crowd into the aging Sam Wo Restaurant one last time. Credit: Eric Risberg / Associated Press

 
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