The Hunan Chef is back in business. A victim of the controversial purchase and subsequent eviction of seven businesses at the Southgate Shopping Center by the Falls Church Episcopal Church in 2003, it’s taken almost three years to re-open.
But owner Jenny Chau patiently waited to find a location in Falls Church near her old address, which had been home to the restaurant since 1967.
This June, she finally did, and how she’s open for business at 7175 Lee Highway, near the legendary Italian Café, and only blocks away from her old location.
“I didn’t want to leave Falls Church,” she said. “I know a lot of people here and they are very nice.” Chau told the News-Press her old landlord offered her a good deal on a space out west in Fairfax County, but she declined because she wanted to be in Falls Church, even though it took three years to re-open.
The Hunan Chef was a casualty in 2003 of the seemingly star-crossed efforts by the Falls Church Episcopal Church since the late 1990s to acquire, vacate and demolish a thriving strip shopping center, home for years to seven successful local businesses that contributed an estimated $200,000 in net tax revenues to the City of Falls Church, in order to build a “parish life center.”
Now, the Southgate Center still stands, vacant for three years of all business activity and utilized somewhat as is by the church for some of its activities. Turmoil within the wider Episcopal Church over the consecration of an openly-gay bishop in the fall of 2003 brought the Falls Church Episcopal’s development plans to a sudden halt.
Mulling the consequences of a potential schism within the denomination over the development, the arch-conservative leadership of the Falls Church Episcopal suddenly found it could not convince parishioners to commit to the $18 million parish life center. If the local church was to leave or otherwise separate from the wider denomination, the Diocese of Virginia would have the right to seize all of its properties.
One of the businesses forced to vacate the shopping center between 2001 and 2003, the Flynn and O’Hara School Uniforms company, re-located to the City of Fairfax. Two others, the Halalco Books and Gifts and Halal Meat Market, combined to relocate with barely a hitch to just behind the center into larger facilities at the Tower Square Center on Hillwood Avenue.
The others, however, were not so lucky. The forced expulsion of the Ceilov Restaurant, which offered Kurdish cuisine, made headlines in the Washington Post in June, 2001. Sarita’s Restaurant, the Yas Bakery and the Hunan Chef were also compelled to leave without provisions for close-by relocation.
While the church wrestled with the Falls Church City Council over a three-year period from 2000 to 2003 to modify E. Fairfax Drive separating the church’s main sanctuary from its Southgate property, leases on the units occupied by the existing businesses there either expired, or the businesses voluntarily relocated with the blessing of the church in advance of their expiration dates.
Many loyal customers of the Hunan Chef, which first opened at the location in 1967, were particularly unhappy, inspiring owner Jenny Chau to wait for an opportunity to reopen close by. It took her nearly three years, but now she’s back.
The menu is virtually identical to the old one, she said, including a wide variety of Chinese appetizers, soups, seafood, poultry, beef and pork items. All entrees include inexpensive lunch options ranging in price from $4.55 to $5.95 and, in addition, there are 18 luncheon combination specials. Nothing on the dinner menu is above $10.95, except for the Yu Ling Duck and Crispy Duck. The menu now includes five “weight watchers” entrees, also. There is free delivery for orders over $10 within a three-mile radius of the restaurant. It is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. (11:30 on weekends) to 10 p.m. (10:30 on Fridays and Saturdays).
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the church plans to revive its parish care center development any time soon. After acquiring the Southgate property, the church first unveiled its plan, and with it, a push to convince the City to close E. Fairfax and sell it to the church for a seamless church “campus,” in August 2000. It officially petitioned for closure of the street in December 2000, and that met with stiff resistance, including from the over 400 residents living along E. Fairfax.
The church did not abandon its hopes to have the street closed until May 2002, but then sought to convince the City Council to make it a one-way street, officially petitioning for that outcome in August 2002. In February 2003, the church gave up on that idea, also virulently opposed by residents on the street, and June 2003 the church finally persuaded the Council to grant it air rights over the street and a slight narrowing of the street, at the expense of about 40 on-street parking spaces.
That was not accomplished without more controversy. The church opposed having to comply with the City’s non-discrimination policy as a condition for offering occasional use of its proposed new facility by the City. But the Council insisted.
However, almost as soon as that approval was given, the controversy over the impending consecration of an openly gay Episcopal priest as a bishop at an upcoming national gathering of the church set the conservative leadership at the Falls Church Episcopal at sharp odds with the national church.
As talk of a potential schism within the church grew, the Rev. Eugene Robinson was consecrated as a bishop in November 2003, and the Falls Church Episcopal has sat on its hands regarding its Southgate property since.