Lon Martin kept the bell that chimed “order up.” The black gate that led to the entrance now hangs in Tonya Downing’s backyard. Treona Lovelady took the plates and menus from their family’s iconic St. Petersburg restaurant.
And the red arrow that lit up 4th Street North for more than 60 years is in storage.
In 2016, the Moon family sold China City. Mar Fee “Yee” Moon, the patriarch, owner and chef, died in 2019. Several of his 11 children went back last year as the inside of the building was demolished.
They wanted to say goodbye.
They didn’t know they’d have a reason to go back soon.
Empty spot, full of history
Paul and Linsay Rohr planned to expand their restaurant franchise to St. Pete, and they wanted to be on 4th Street. When someone at their bank mentioned a building that had been vacant for years, the Rohrs found the location they wanted in a spot that needed a lot of work.
They started to clean out the inside of the old China City, and every time someone stopped by, they told the Rohrs a story about the people and place that came before them.
The Rohrs, who live in Palm Harbor, didn’t know any of it.
Paul Rohr started doing research to learn more, and soon, he reached out to … well, me.
A tribute and a meal
In 2019, I read an obituary for Mr. Moon. Sixteen days after his death, I wrote about a Chinese immigrant who married a waitress named Dixie, had a huge family and ran a restaurant that became a landmark.
When Rohr researched China City, he found that story.
“I was wondering if we could possibly get a copy of the picture you shared of the restaurant and the family that ran the restaurant,” he wrote me. “We would like to frame it and put it on the wall in our new restaurant.”
I’ll check with the family, I told him.
Rohr wrote back — did they want to come to the restaurant for the soft opening?
They did. And the timing was accidentally pretty special.
“I’m not sure if you knew,” Martin, the oldest of Mr. Moon’s children, emailed Rohr after I introduced them, “but the date of your grand opening, March 2, is especially dear to our hearts as this is the date our Dad graduated to his heavenly home two years ago.”
Rohr didn’t know. The opening had been delayed for months.
“We both agreed it had to be a good omen,” he said.
Before that day, several of Mr. Moon’s children and their families went back to the place he worked six days a week, 12 hours a day; where their mom drove through the alley with them to honk and pick up supper; where they learned to cook and waited tables as teenagers; where they celebrated birthdays, held rehearsal dinners and baby showers.
China City was a huge part of their lives.
“It existed in our life before we existed,” Martin said, “so we didn’t know life without it.”
“Hold on, hold on,” an employee said excitedly when Martin, Downing, Lovelady, John Moon and their families walked into Chicken Salad Chick. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
She came back with a potted yellow frangipani, like the one that bloomed brightly for years outside China City. The Rohrs plan to plant a new one outside Chicken Salad Chick, too.
When the Moon family learned about the new restaurant and how it will honor their dad by displaying his photo and the story about his life, it felt like a hug from him. Inside the restaurant, meeting the Rohrs, they felt his blessing.
“They’re like dad,” Downing said of the new owners. “They care about other people. You could tell they cared about their workers.”
China City helped the Moon kids get their first cars and put them through college.
“You could see that this restaurant was going to do the same thing for his family,” Lovelady said.
That’s how their dad would have wanted the space to be used.
While the family sat and ate, they tried to figure out where they were in the old space. By the cash register? They weren’t sure. A lot had changed. But not the things that matter.
“For me, it felt like we were still in the restaurant,” Lovelady said. “You just felt like you were back at home.”
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