By Elisabeth Andonian
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Orange King, the iconic restaurant in the U-District, closed last December after struggles with the pandemic among other unknown factors. Known for its heaping portions and homey feeling, many current University of Washington (UW) students, as well as alumni, are mourning the loss of an established paragon of the Ave.
“Having Orange King as a place to go on a bad day was a lifesaver for the beginning of college. I’m sad other people won’t get that experience,” said Raeny Nichols, a UW junior. Nichols was a regular at Orange King, the Katsu burger being her favorite dish.
“It’s more than just the food, it’s the familiarity, the nostalgia, the little pocket of happiness they provided,” she said. The interior featured small seating arrangements, retro wood floors, and a lengthy, diverse menu.
The owners were a Korean couple well-known for their hospitality.
“You didn’t need to have long conversations to feel how much they cared about students,” said UW alum Christine Tran.
The many options on their menu included American, Korean, and a fusion of the two cuisines. Orange King was an eclectic mix that demonstrated the diversity and potential of food to bring cultures together.
The restaurant is notorious for its portion-to-cost ratios and feeding broke college students. “Beyond the mom & pop identity, there was a familial feel in the way that the owners treated students…the portions were big and it was one of those places where you could get a meal that would last you for more than one sitting,” said Tran.
Vanishing Seattle, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “documenting the displaced & disappearing institutions, small businesses, & cultures of Seattle,” posted about Orange King on their social media sites, obtaining over 4,500 likes and 700 comments.
Kathleen Flenniken commented, “It was the only restaurant in my life where I could order ‘the usual.’”
Roland Boe remarked, “Best burgers in the U District! Started going there in the 70s, could’ve sworn it started as an Orange Julius. No matter, if I die from a heart attack it’ll be because of all the delicious burgers I ate there.”
“Coming from Eastern Washington in 1997 to the University, that was the first place I ever ate teriyaki. I was fortunate enough to take my family there once before they closed. Big part of my history at the campus,” reflected Oscar Gavan.
A community surrounded this restaurant, with many tagging their friends, sending condolences, and reminiscing on how Orange King helped them through finals and other trials.
“Even though these places are closing, it’s a chance for people to celebrate… to share memories, to share stories, to just really uplift why these places were so special and meaningful for them,” said Cynthia Brothers, the founder of Vanishing Seattle.
News outlet Eater Seattle included Orange King in a line-up of the casualties from this year’s trials. Many restaurants on the Ave and throughout Seattle have closed their doors since the pandemic began.
Although it is unclear exactly why Orange King shut its doors, the pandemic undoubtedly contributed. Once the university went remote, many students did not return to campus, and much of the flow of traffic through restaurants on the Ave died out, in addition to having to pivot to no-contact options like Doordash or UberEats.
“Pre-pandemic, we sensed a lot of the changes in the Seattle community, but I think there were pockets, especially on the Ave, and Orange King was one of them, where you never thought it would go away,” said Tran.
As the executive director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, Tran helps legacy businesses transform with sustainable practices, revamps, and assists small business owners make the changes they would like to make.
“The fact that Orange King existed for so long because of the college scene says a lot… How are we investing in our businesses?” said Tran.
“The community that is UW and the Ave is built on the labor and the legacy of small businesses, yet when we think about things that are being transformed ‘for the better,’ we shouldn’t lose sight of that foundational memory because that may have been the ‘better.’”
This iconic, movie-worthy diner won’t be easily forgotten.
Vanishing Seattle put up a sign on their window, commemorating their dedication to cultivating a cozy environment for anyone passing by to see. “The value in Orange King wasn’t necessarily about being trendy per se, or being exclusive or inaccessible, it was the opposite of that,” said Brothers.
Elisabeth can be reached at email@example.com.