People tend to use superlatives and the word "institution" when they talk about Le Cheval. Romances began and ended at the Vietnamese restaurant on Clay Street in Oakland. Birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated there, and Oakland's political and business elite charted the future of Oakland while dining on shrimp rolls, plates of lemon grass chicken and steaming bowls of soup. Gov.-elect Jerry Brown made Le Cheval a regular destination when he was Oakland's mayor for green beans with garlic, tofu rolls, cube beefsteak and a glass of chardonnay.
But on Saturday the restaurant stood empty.
Le Cheval closed the previous night after a farewell party packed with customers wanting one last night at the old Oakland restaurant, which had planted roots in the neighborhood 25 years ago.
"This is the end of an era," said owner Son Tran.
But it's not the end of Le Cheval -- not exactly. A smaller version, called LCX, is opening at the other end of the block with better acoustics than the open hall style of the former building.
Opening night is not final but the owners are aiming for Saturday.
LCX started out as a wine bar but when it became clear Le Cheval would close, the plans changed to open as a restaurant and bar.
LCX will feature the same menu as Le Cheval, though the space will be smaller.
LCX will seat 110 instead of 250. Tran isn't thrilled with the decision that forced the family to lay off employees who had been with the restaurant for years, but there was little they could do.
They had fought two expensive lawsuits in court against the landlord, Monica Ung, and lost one of them.
Meanwhile, Le Cheval's lease expired. Le Cheval operators could extend the lease and pay the higher rent Ung demanded, or move out. So they moved down the block to 1019 Clay St.
The lawsuit, combined with the economy, overwhelmed the business and, once again, the family started over. "We fought it to the end," Tran said.
Le Cheval first opened in 1985 on Jefferson Street.The family had arrived about a decade earlier from Vietnam. An airlift carried them out of Saigon in 1975, Son Tran said. His father, My Ngoc Tran, worked for Bank of America in Saigon so he was able to find work at the bank in the United States. But four months after the family settled in Oakland, he died. His wife, Tuyet Bui, was a single mother of seven children in a country whose language she barely knew. She worked two jobs to support the family: as a seamstress for the North Face outdoor clothing company and as an assembler of electronics for Xerox.
When Xerox laid her off, Bui decided to open a restaurant. She named it Le Cheval because Son Tran was born in 1954, the year of the horse in the Chinese zodiac.
Bui, now 80 years old, reigned over the kitchen and taught her five sons, two daughters and grandchildren about Vietnamese cooking. They expanded the business to Berkeley and to a location in Walnut Creek, which is run by Bui's sister.
The matriarch of the restaurant family finally retired from the kitchen in 1997 but remained executive chef. "Tonight is sad," she said Friday surrounded on all sides by customers. They had become friends and came to say goodbye, she said, her words translated by Son Tran. Without them and the country, she said emphatically, the family wouldn't have survived. "Thank you to all American people," she said.
Bui is planning to return to Vietnam, maybe for a visit or maybe for good. Meanwhile, the family is still busy putting the final touches on LCX. "We are excited for a fresh, brand-new start," said Bui's grandson, Quan Tran, who will run LCX.
Not surprisingly, Son Tran said he plans to open another Oakland location.
Follow Angela Woodall at Twitter.com/angelawoodall.