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New restaurant to honor family behind St. Pete’s iconic China City

For many years, the old restaurant was a landmark. Now, it’s reborn as Chicken Salad Chick.
For nearly 60 years, Mar Fee “Yee” Moon worked at and ran China City, an iconic mainstay in St. Petersburg. He's pictured here with his children and grandchildren. He died March 2, 2019.
For nearly 60 years, Mar Fee “Yee” Moon worked at and ran China City, an iconic mainstay in St. Petersburg. He's pictured here with his children and grandchildren. He died March 2, 2019. [ (Courtesy Lon Martin) ]
Published Mar. 15
Updated Mar. 15

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.

Mr. Moon and his wife, Dixie, had 11 children.
Mr. Moon and his wife, Dixie, had 11 children. [ (Courtesy Lon Martin) ]

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.

Before it was Chicken Salad Chick, before it was China City, it was Chick’s, a restaurant Mr. Moon’s friend bought. He changed it to China City.
Before it was Chicken Salad Chick, before it was China City, it was Chick’s, a restaurant Mr. Moon’s friend bought. He changed it to China City. [ (Courtesy Lon Martin) ]

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.

Before he was the owner, Mr. Moon worked as the head chef and met his wife, who was a waitress. Mr. Moon retired from the restaurant in 2005 but still came by nearly every day.
Before he was the owner, Mr. Moon worked as the head chef and met his wife, who was a waitress. Mr. Moon retired from the restaurant in 2005 but still came by nearly every day. [ (Courtesy Lon Martin) ]

March 2

“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.”

Some of Mr. Moon's children and grandchildren went to the soft opening of the new restaurant. "It‘s not just a restaurant, it’s part of their history, part of their life. That’s just really cool," said Paul Rohr, the owner of Chicken Salad Chick.
Some of Mr. Moon's children and grandchildren went to the soft opening of the new restaurant. "It‘s not just a restaurant, it’s part of their history, part of their life. That’s just really cool," said Paul Rohr, the owner of Chicken Salad Chick. [ (Courtesy Lon Martin) ]

Like Dad

“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.”

Paul and Linsay Rohr, left, with some of Mr. Moon’s family. The photo of China City and story about Mr. Moon’s life will be hung inside the restaurant in a few weeks. "We feel honored that we’re able to honor him," Paul Rohr said. "I told them, 'I hope we can have half the success that your father had.’ "
Paul and Linsay Rohr, left, with some of Mr. Moon’s family. The photo of China City and story about Mr. Moon’s life will be hung inside the restaurant in a few weeks. "We feel honored that we’re able to honor him," Paul Rohr said. "I told them, 'I hope we can have half the success that your father had.’ " [ (Courtesy Lon Martin) ]

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