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August 14, 2009 at 6:50 AM

Hussein Khazaal tribute: family celebrates his life today

For those who call Phoenecia at Alki their home away from home, owner Hussein Khazaal always had “something special”: a complimentary bottle of wine or a special dessert to celebrate a happy occasion, or a recipe for soup brimming with kale and lemon, sure to cure the worst cold.

In recent weeks it was the sweet red “magic sauce” he’d proudly concocted, ladled over the lamb or salmon that were staples on his Mediterranean menu. “I could open a restaurant downtown and just serve this!” he said, as excited about his latest special as he was when he opened the original Phoenecia in West Seattle’s Alaska Junction in 1973.

Born in Southern Lebanon, Mr. Khazaal, 63, died in his sleep of natural causes Saturday (Aug. 8) after another busy night at Phoenecia. His generosity knew no bounds, say those who knew him best.

Son William Khazaal, 35, recalls the year he was 10, when the family moved to a poor African village for a year. His parents ran a small store, and when he asked if he could help, his father installed him outside with several boxes and a directive: “There was a lady walking by without a shirt on,” William remembers, and his father reached into a box and gave her one. “He told me, ‘everybody should be able to have a shirt on their back,’ ” and instructed his son to make it so.

A devout Muslim, Mr. Khazaal made certain his children had private-school educations, said his daughter Sonya, 31. “I went to Holy Rosary and Holy Names, and he drove me to school every day,” she recalls. “And every day, without fail he’d tell me, ‘You’ve got to be a good honest person because this life is just a test — and you’re going to Heaven.’ ”

Six weeks ago William was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I was devastated,” he said, “but Dad would just say, ‘Don’t worry!’ ‘Don’t worry’ was the only thing he said more than ‘I love you.’ ” William embarked on a special diet, and his father had prepared every meal for him since, he said.

“When I told him I have to find a way to eat chicken” — a meat he abhors — and medical professionals suggested combating low cholesterol levels by eating squid, Mr. Khazaal filled his son’s fridge with a “special” sauteed chicken dish and his freezer with enough calamari to last 10 days. “He made having MS like treating the flu,” William said.

Mr. Khazaal treated his wife of 40 years, Inaam, “like a princess,” said the couple’s youngest daughter, Nadia, 26. Her parents would have celebrated their 40th anniversary today.

Yes, he was a romantic, agrees family friend Dianne Trani, co-owner of Gaspare Italian restaurant in Greenwood. “Hussein was a yenta — a matchmaker,” said Trani, who remembers meeting Mr. Khazaal in 1988. “Hussein told Gaspare he ought to settle down and get married — to me!”

Before he married Dianne and opened his own restaurant, Gaspare Trani worked for Mr. Khazaal at La Fontana, which shared space in the Hansen Bakery complex with Phoenecia after it relocated from the Admiral District to Lower Queen Anne in 1980. (The complex was later razed, and in 1992 Phoenecia relocated again, to Alki Beach.)

Mr. Khazaal was “the best kind of guy there is,” Dianne Trani said. “He was a kindly uncle to everybody,” always there to lend a hand to anyone in need.

And she means that literally. Gathering with the Khazaal family last weekend, Dianne recalled that while working at La Fontana, Gaspare wore a cast after injuring his hand. “And every day,” she told them, “Hussein would come to Gaspare’s house and tie his shoes.”

The family has yet to decide the fate of the veritable one-man show that was Phoenecia. “I’ve been working with my father since I was a teenager,” said Nadia, who recently earned the master’s degree her father always wanted her to have — then used it to work beside him at his restaurant.

Her brother recalls how patrons would sometimes ask of their father’s food, “If it’s ‘special’ why is it for everyone?” “It was special,” William said, ” because he wanted it to be special.”

A celebration of his life will be at 6:30 p.m. today across from Phoenecia, adjacent to the Alki Bathhouse.

In addition his wife, three children and four grandchildren, Mr. Khazaal is survived by six siblings: sisters Mariam, Wafaa, Joumana, Ilham and Jamal, all of Lebanon; and a brother, Abdul-Raheem, of Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Kind remembrances of the man and his restaurant are most welcome here on the blog.

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