Part of a series. The Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Museum collaborate to Neighbors: Stories from Anchorage’s Pandemic Years. We collect stories and provide opportunities for residents to share their experiences from the past two years. We would love to hear from you. E-mail [email protected].
By the time chef Eric DuBey turned on the lights in Orso’s kitchen earlier this year, every surface had remained under nearly two years of dust. Established for 22 years on Fifth Avenue in downtown Anchorage, the restaurant hastily closed in March 2020. No one had returned.
“I was completely shocked. Just how the whole room felt, you know, since the last time I was there. It just felt deserted and abandoned,” DuBey said.
A restaurant is not made to be silent. A restaurant in the heart of a city is part of a larger organism, and many of them have to work – moving food, moving people, moving money – to provide momentum downtown. Stove pilot lights stay on, walk-in fridges hum, delivery trucks come and go. Line cooks, waiters, dishwashers, bussers, hostesses pointing. From 5, they welcome the city to their tables. After dinner there are shows to see, ice cream to buy, drinks at another bar. That’s how it’s always been in downtown Anchorage.
But the pandemic — lockdowns, customers’ fear of getting infected, lack of cruise ships, labor shortages — has shut everything down in Anchorage like everywhere else. Some blocks have kept a few lights on, but only now others are starting to flash. On show nights at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, parking on Fifth Avenue becomes a bit more difficult. The Westmark Hotel, closed for years, is accepting bookings for the month of May. And this month, against all odds, Orso lit up again.
It almost didn’t happen. It was owned by Bob Acree and Chris Anderson, who also own Glacier Brewhouse next door. Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, Anderson decided to sell. At one point, potential new occupants made a tour but decided not to make a deal. Robert McCormick, a longtime management employee, decided to buy Anderson’s stock to keep Orso alive.
“I just believe in the restaurant,” he said.
Orso’s original concept was an upscale hangout with an Alaskan twist, a contrast to the more laid-back brasserie. Before it closed, the place was often crowded, especially during the tourist season. The regulars had well-rehearsed routines. Maybe it was a glass of wine and gemelli seafood on a bad day. Or maybe they liked to slip into the leather bar chairs before a show at PAC and sip a signature Old-Fashioned.
Rebuilding a restaurant is not easy. On the one hand, people with restaurant work experience have all seen their lives turned upside down and many have left the profession. DuBey was running his own catering business from the kitchen of the Golden Lion when the pandemic hit and catering for big events evaporated. Then the building sold.
“I didn’t plan that I would be working for someone else again,” he said.
The opportunity arose to work at Orso and he took it. He had been a chef at Brewhouse years before. He trusted the owners.
“I’m happy to work,” he said. “I am grateful.”
Over the winter, McCormick and manager Robson Abbott revamped the menu to bring back quirky “Italian-inspired” dishes – Orso insalata with salami and candied pecans, calamari misto with thin slices of fried lemon, a cashew in redfish crust – a nod to the original spirit of the place. They also wanted the menu to rely as much as possible on local suppliers, including meat distributors and farmers. They reintroduced Alaska Pasta Company Fresh Pasta.
“Robert was keen to reconnect with these local businesses and especially now that there are supply chain issues,” DuBey said. “All the restaurant-oriented, restaurant-oriented businesses, they’re struggling, we wanted to spread that money around as much as possible.”
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The restaurant needed dishes and glasses, but they were slowed down on their way to Alaska by supply chain issues. Everything had to be deep cleaned.
“One of the things when you close a restaurant for two years and you’re going to turn on the lights and you’re going to turn on the ovens and you’re going to turn on the freezers. Even if nothing has changed, half the time they just don’t work,” Abbott said.
Repairing the equipment took months. Men worked six- and seven-day weeks. Hiring was the biggest challenge. When the restaurant closed, its 40 employees dispersed. Many found employment at Brewhouse. Orso had to build an entirely new kitchen staff. They have re-examined their compensation structure, with a view to paying a living wage, Abbott said. They also offered a bonus to employees who stay the whole summer.
“I had gotten to a place with my previous team where we were really ready to do some really cool things before the summer of 2020…so it was really devastating to lose that and then watch it sit empty for two years,” he said. It also motivated him to rebuild.
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A few employees who worked in the front of the house kept in touch and came back.
Jamie Lamb tended Orso’s bar for five years before the pandemic. A few weeks after the restaurant closed, she landed a job at the PubHouse at the Inlet Tower Hotel.
“They had a takeaway bottle service for people staying at the hotel. A lot of people have been quarantined there,” she said.
It was a stroke of luck. Then the place installed plastic igloos outside. And it got crazy.
“I mean, we were 45 days in, got solid reservations at the entrance to these igloos,” she said.
Orso offered to let her keep the benefits she left when the restaurant closed. And she was attached to the bar and its regulars. So when they asked her to come back, she agreed.
“I know a lot of people (working in restaurants) were like, I’m going to do something else. It’s the job I love,” she said.
Orso has hired just enough staff to operate at 60% of pre-pandemic capacity doing dinners only, five nights a week, Abbott said. Finally, one Wednesday evening in early April, the longtime hostess was back, straightening out the stack of menus at the desk by the door. Customers started arriving.
Portia Erickson, who works for Mayor Dave Bronson, was among the first in the restaurant after its initial launch. She’s been going to Orso since she was little, she says. She and her husband, Alan, had regular dates there before the pandemic. Coming back was always the same, she said. She is optimistic that downtown will bounce back and happy to return to a nightly date night routine.
“I’m just extremely grateful that they took the risk,” she said.
Another Orso regular, Karen Zeman, who works in nonprofits, came with her husband the first Saturday night it was open. It was a little surreal, she said, considering the past two years. It wasn’t full that night. She wondered how it would turn out.
“It was almost like a high school reunion a bit in that you reflect, like, on your moments in that space,” she said. “And then you just wonder how things are going to be in the future.”
Each evening, McCormick and Abbott watch the door for guests arriving.
“Every day, for the past two years, I have walked through the restaurant. It was cold, dark and quiet and seeing him come back to life is an amazing experience,” McCormick said. “Maybe I’m crazy because there’s definitely a lot of risk and I’ve invested a lot of money, but there’s a lot of upside if we get there, and I believe in this team and I think that we will.”