Sun sets on Gaslamp's Moon Cafe

Atmosphere around Fourth and G wasn't quite as chipper

— Mistake. As soon as I mentioned the storyline, the Chinese lady waiting tables in the Gaslamp Quarter's Moon Cafe clammed up. "We don't talk to the newspapers," she said. That was that. Of course, she'd let me stay to eat the bok choy and chicken I'd ordered. And nothing prevented me from looking around. It was Wednesday, the week of the fires, and I'd already noticed the unhappy sign. "On Friday, October 26, at 7 pm, we are closing after 26 years in business. Thanks to our many valued customers. The Liang family."

You got a low-priced meal in the Moon Cafe. Even the coffee I drank with my food was only 65 cents. Not much on the menu cost more than five and a half dollars. The highest price I saw was $6.99 for sirloin steak. Two pork chops went for $5.50, chicken-fried steak for $4.25. One side of the laminated menu was for breakfast, standard fare over at 10:00 a.m., and the other for dinner. The supper menu had two halves, American meals above and Chinese below. At the menu's top, a note read that all full entrées came with mashed potatoes and gravy, rice, vegetables, either soup or salad, and dessert.

Chinese dishes included chop suey and chow mein, each with chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp. You could also order "pork foo young," shrimp fried rice, wonton soup, and lemon flower soup, among other dishes.

The narrow restaurant ran deep into a building on Fourth Avenue's east side, two doors north of G Street. Customers sat mostly at long picnic-style furniture, though a few smaller tables inhabited an alcove near the front entrance. Chinese-language newspapers were strewn on the long table closest to the cash register counter in the back. Paintings of Chinese buildings adorned plain walls. Others appeared to be classic Chinese flower paintings behind glass. Stylized representations of Confucius, Lao-tzu, and Buddha hung on a back wall near the counter. Two elevated minitrays of oranges had been placed on a platform before them.

The waitress would go behind the counter to hand orders to the cook through a shoulder-high opening. I judged the grinning man in the chef's hat to be her husband. The two often had short, pleasant-sounding conversations in Chinese before returning to their respective tasks. As I ate, customers approached the counter to pay their bills and express sadness at the café's demise. I overheard the cook tell one man that, no, he would not open somewhere else. "Well, then," said the man, "good luck to you, Moon."

When I later searched on the San Diego County Recorder's Office web page, I found neither a fictitious business name of Moon Cafe nor a business owner named Moon Liang. The office did show, however, nearly 30 business owners in the county named Liang.

On my way out, I saw that KD Donuts, one door south of the Moon, was closing its doors that day. Another message of thanks to customers had been taped to the window. Inside, an Asian couple was cleaning the place. I remembered them from as far back as 1992, when I drove a taxi and would stop in to fuel up with caffeine. Persuading Chhay Tea with hand signals to open his door, I asked what was going on.

"The landlord sold this building," said Tea, who is Cambodian. He pointed to his wife inside sweeping the floors. "Sing has been with me for 16 years. I started doing business here in 1988. We have two and a half years left on our contract, but the new owner is almost doubling the rent from the $3000 I was paying. I'm going to work for my brother-in-law -- today, as soon as I finish here and get out. He has a pool-service business, and with the fires starting, we're going to get busy right away."

"The same thing must be happening next door," I said. "They say they've been in business there 26 years."

"No," said Tea, "they must have started out somewhere else then, because they weren't here when I came. I think they came in the early 1990s."

A young woman walked by holding a Starbucks cup. "Hello, my sister," said Tea. Jennifer Navarro, who was 24, lit up and greeted him in return. "Four of us girls would stop here every day on our way to work up the street," she told me. "Eighty-five cents for coffee. They had sandwiches too. My favorite was the turkey. And these are the friendliest people you'll ever meet."

The atmosphere around Fourth and G wasn't quite as chipper as my meeting with Navarro might suggest. Many, if not most, of both KD's and the Moon's patrons were alcoholic, mentally ill, down-and-out, or elderly with meager incomes. The 14-story low-rent Horton House for seniors is located on the intersection's southwest corner. Constructed in 1981, the building has 153 residences.

On Fourth and G's northwest corner sits the single-room-occupancy Golden West Hotel, built in the early part of the last century by city father John D. Spreckels. A friend who worked in the F Street card rooms of the 1970s told me that the "bust outs," who lost most of their checks by the fifth day of the month, used to stay there then. Today the hotel has achieved a new notoriety among some visitors, who've left their comments on evaluation websites. Says one review called "Disgusting Place," "I didn't actually stay at the Golden West. I visited a friend who lived there and brought him Thanksgiving dinner.... The rooms are tiny and there are cockroaches climbing on the walls."

Several reviewers complained about the staff being rude. And one wrote, "It's cheap but you get what you pay for." At my own inquiry into prices, a desk clerk quoted $170 as the weekly rate and $470 as the monthly. He acted as though I were nuts for asking about a nightly rate. "There aren't any vacancies anyway," he said.

The remarks of a resident standing out front of the hotel reminded me of elements in Hemingway's story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," sans the suicide. In the story, a little café is a temporary refuge for a man in despair. My Golden West resident told me he used to "have at least a little something" at the Moon Cafe every day. "I liked to hang out there. The owners were especially nice to us guys who came all the time," he said. "And you couldn't beat the prices."

The man probably wouldn't transfer his loyalty to the restaurant two doors north of the Moon. He might not be allowed into the fancier place anyway. The restaurant is called Blue Ginger: Fine Chinese Cuisine. To get the edge on its competitors in the neighborhood, Blue Ginger had a sign out front reading, "All Entrées $9."

The resident said he would start eating more often at the Sun Cafe on the south side of Market between Fourth and Fifth. The Sun's menu and prices are similar to the Moon's. At the Sun, I encountered a reluctance to discuss the business situation similar to the one I experienced at the Moon. Likewise, I could find at the Recorder's Office no such fictitious business name as the Sun Cafe. I did get a comment out of the waitress, who appeared to be an owner at the Sun. To my question about having to move, she answered, "No, but things are constantly changing around here."

Eminent domain, recently used by Centre City Development Corporation against a downtown cigar-store owner, isn't the only kind of pressure on businesses that don't fit downtown revitalization efforts. Real estate pressures may yet force out the Golden West Hotel, on top of the KD Donuts and Moon Cafe departures. A sign of the recent times is that all three have been situated on Fourth squarely in between the Hard Rock Cafe at F Street to the north and Hooters at Market to the south. A little north of Hooters, the Shout! House advertises "Rock and Roll Dueling Bands."

Strolling out of the area toward the Blue Line trolley, I met a woman who had high praise for the Moon Cafe. Mickey Green came to San Diego eight years ago, when the first restaurant she visited was the Moon. She now worked in food services at the San Diego Convention Center. On her walks to and from work, Green had regularly stopped at the Moon Cafe. "They had excellent food," she said, "and I'm a certified food manager. I'm very sorry to see them go. They were always courteous and clean, and the food was fresh. My favorite dish was fried liver and onions. Next was the meatloaf with the mashed potatoes and green beans. I am very sorry to see them go."

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