Thursday, December 30, 2004

Wisteria Bar manager Kenn Murakami offered a final drink special of lychee sake in a sakazuke to patrons Dennis Taira, left, Carol Miyashiro, Norman Takashita, Paul Rehmus and Doug Hilton yesterday evening, the final night the bar was open.

After 52 years, it's last call at Wisteria

On the last night of the Wisteria, warm memories of friendship and family overshadowed the uncertainty of the future.

The landmark restaurant, the site of more than 50 years of family meals, closes after lunch today.

In the banquet room, Kiyoshi Sakamoto, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, prepared to welcome 170 guests for an aloha party for his son Mel and stepson Keith Yoshida.

Both are home for a few days before leaving for Iraq with the Hawaii National Guard 29th Infantry Brigade.

The reservation was made weeks before the announcement of the restaurant's closing.

"I told the owner, 'We're the last party, right? How about half price?'" Sakamoto said. "He told me no."

Mel Sakamoto, a mechanic with the Guard, said he used to work at Spencecliff restaurants like Kelly's and Coco's, so he knows what it's like when a restaurant closes.

"It's sad," he said.

But last night's banquet was not about sadness. It was about getting together with friends and family, about leaving for war with memories of good times and good food.

Sakamoto's sister had her wedding reception in the same banquet room, and he remembers the "old-style saimin" and hanging out in the bar.

Another Wisteria patron took a sip of sake.

On a large screen onstage, a slide show with family photos of fishing trips, pounding mochi and prized motorcycles was shown, accompanied by the song "Proud to Be an American."

After the slide show, the emcee remarked about words etched in stone at the state veterans cemetery in Kaneohe. "It says, 'Thanks for your yesterdays so we can have today.'"

In the back of the room, Gertrude Sakamoto smiled as she greeted arriving friends and relatives. But it's hard to send her sons off to war, she said. "I'm fighting back tears."

Outside the banquet room, the line snaked out the door as customers waited patiently to have one last taste of Wisteria food.

"I think everybody got the same idea to say goodbye to the Wisteria," someone at the back of the line said.

In the bar, regulars gathered for what would really be last call. But early on, there were no tears in their beers.

But there were leis for the staff. People exchanged phone numbers so they could keep in touch after today.

The basketball and volleyball games were on television, and the tofu and chicken and poke pupus flowed along with the conversation and jokes among old friends.

For the workers, the restaurant and bar were just too busy to think about tomorrow.

Bartender Avery Shimabukuro has applications out for a new job but isn't sure what he'll do after today.

"Christmas didn't even feel the same knowing it was going to be different the week afterwards," said bar manager Kenn Murakami.

It's like a friend or a member of the family is leaving.

"It probably won't sink in until I can't come here anymore. Maybe when we're all leaving at that time, it will hit me."

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