Summertime sizzles for hundreds at Szechuan Palace annual party

VERO BEACH — Summer just wouldn’t be the same without the annual Anniversary Celebration Buffet Dinner at Szechuan Palace, hosted by John and Sue Liang, Ralph and Chris Sexton and Mark and Hildie Tripson.  The restaurant’s initial grand opening party in July 1989, and an anniversary celebration to mark their first year, were both so well received that they all decided to continue the tradition.  A party Monday night was the 21st year for the celebration.  Every year more than 200 invited guests descend on the restaurant, to enjoy the plentiful buffet and catch up with old friends. The Liangs generally have to call in all of their staff to help with the party and even set up tables outdoors to catch the overflow.  Some manned the bountiful buffet tables, while in the kitchen chefs were busy replenishing the copious quantities of food needed to feed the seeming ravenous crowd.

Lines of people fed in to the buffet from all angles, waiting patiently to try the tempting assortment signature dishes.  In the dining rooms, servers darted among the guests, efficiently serving drinks and clearing plates, while outside two police officers directed the continual flow of traffic.

“People are always so happy, greeting each other and enjoying the food,” said Liang, who learned the business from family run restaurants in Taiwan.  “Some people say they don’t ever see each other except here.”

“I think it’s great they do this.  I love eating here; it’s my favorite spot,” said Mark Tripson.  “I don’t know of any other restaurant in town that closes its doors, invites in all these people and gives them free food.  That’s about as generous as you can get.”

At some point they realized they needed to make the party adults only.  “People had started bringing their whole families,” said Chris.  “But now that it’s gone on so long, we’re working on a second generation party list.  It’s almost like a rite of passage when the kids are finally old enough to come.”

That goes for the Liang’s two daughters also.  “When we first met John, their daughter Julie was in his arms,” remembered Chris.

Today Julie is a student at Stetson Law School and Jenny, back from a tour in Afghanistan, is a dentist at the Naval Hospital in San Diego.

The landmark building that houses the restaurant was the last of Waldo Sexton’s projects, and is endowed with his characteristic decorative flair.  “Waldo was always a patron of the arts, and he originally built this as a center for the arts,” said Ralph Sexton.

And, like the Ocean Grill, Driftwood and Patio properties, this building literally oozes history.  Murals on beams around the ceiling were painted by popular Florida landscape artists Jim and Joan Hutchinson; then just a young couple out of college. Sadly, the years have taken their toll on the once vibrantly colored paintings but it doesn’t stop patrons from taking it all in.

Lillian Tutsick painted other historically themed murals, including a recognizable Waldo sitting around a campfire with Seminole Indians.  “One of my sisters, Karen, is in there as a little girl,” added Waldo’s grandson Mark Tripson.  “Everyone always enjoys wandering around, looking at everything. People love the history of things.”

And they all have their favorite early Florida, and especially old-time Waldo, stories.  When asked about his father, Ralph Sexton simply says, “He was very smart.  He was a genius.”

Tripson agreed, saying, “In the 20’s and 30’s when Miami was hot, he was always thinking of ways to get people who were on their way down to stop in Vero Beach.”

The odd maze of rooms in the building that houses the restaurant is a testament to its multiple uses and growth over the years.  As it was not originally built with a kitchen, one man who leased it in the early days actually cooked steaks in the fireplace.  Eventually, a kitchen, air conditioning and an upstairs bar were added.  The building has been home to numerous restaurants over the years, including Italian, German and Greek fare, but as Ralph commented to John, “I’ll say one thing – you sure have stick to!”   {igallery 228}

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