The lights are out. The shades are drawn. The pink doors are locked, and on the window, someone has taped up a paper place mat with the word “closed” written in orange highlighter.
But the sign in front of the Oronoka, on Route 2 in Orono, still says “Food You’ll Remember.”
That’s an understatement.
Who could forget the three-hour dining experience? The Fred Flintstone-size steaks? The rounds of appetizers that filled diners up long before their entrees arrived? The free birthday cakes? The glass boots full of beer?
But the taps have stopped flowing and the refrigerator is empty now. The Oronoka closed without fanfare on Oct. 13, several weeks after the death of its owner, Nathan Kobritz.
He was known for his jokes, for his generosity, and for his kindness to strangers. He was a passionate World War II veteran who felt honored to have served in Guadalcanal. He loved the Red Sox and he was so dedicated to his work that illness couldn’t keep him away. And he was a good dad, both to his children and to the hundreds of UMaine students that considered him family.
“He had a way of making friends of strangers,” his daughter, Sharon Kobritz, said recently.
She had planned to keep the restaurant open through the middle of this month, but grief and the fear of a flood of customers similar to what happened when Pilots Grill closed caused her to reconsider. She is unsure what the future will hold for the building.
“We would’ve been deluged and it just would’ve been so sad,” Kobritz said. “[The weekend before the restaurant closed], people were actually crying in the dining room. It wasn’t going to be a part of their family anymore. … They loved the fact that they made it feel like home. It was kind of a family that engulfed other families.”
At the Oronoka, food and friendship was a family affair. Nathan Kobritz and his brother John, who died in 1993, bought the building in 1954. In 1957, a young Husson basketball star named Ellen Severance joined the staff. Nathan spent most of his time at the family’s other business, Star Beef Co. in Bangor, while John and Ellen made thousands of locals, pilots and University of Maine students feel welcome at the restaurant and inn.
In the early years, the restaurant was all white linen and candlelight, but in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a bar called Someplace Else opened in the basement, and a new era began. The lounge grew in popularity, and little by little, the bar crept upstairs. It became what Severance called “an elegant hodgepodge.”
“Everybody thought the Oronoka was their place,” Severance said earlier this week in her Bangor home. “Every group felt at home there. Everyone felt equal.”
Though John Kobritz had his share of run-ins with local and state officials – he once barred an inspector from the restaurant, claiming he was biased – he embraced his customers warmly. Whether a guest was a fraternity brother, an international student, a renowned professor or the guy down the street, Severance and the Kobritz brothers treated everyone like family. They didn’t see students as a nuisance – they welcomed them as warmly as they would a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
“You’ll never find a restaurant like that again, anywhere,” said Drew Cota, 29, an Orono High School graduate who started going to the Oronoka as a boy. When Nathan Kobritz took over in 1993, he and Cota became the best of friends. Their similar political views and love for the Red Sox transcended their age difference (Nathan was 84 when he died). “He was always there for everybody. He and Ellen were always there. They always took care of the poor. They always took care of people who needed a job. They were always good to people.”
And they were always there. Even if the restaurant was empty, Ellen and John, and later Ellen and Nathan, would stay open until 1 a.m. every day.
“Nate would say, ‘What if somebody stops in and needs a place to stay?'” Cota said. “Just in case that one lonely traveler came through and didn’t have a place to stay.”
The Oronoka was a place where time stood still, and that continuity earned it a following. A visitor from Texas liked it so much he reviewed the restaurant for his local newspaper. Rumor has it that Stephen King wrote part of “It” by the fireplace in the dining room, and in the novel, the author refers to the Oronoka experience as “the meal that never ends.” Phish played there. Jerry Brown stayed there. And the hundreds of pilots who flew through Bangor spread word of the Oronoka across the country and around the world.
Delta employee Jeanne Beem of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., first came to the Oronoka in the late 1980s, and though she stopped flying into Bangor, she still made the annual pilgrimage to Orono.
“It’s that type of place – it gets its hooks into you,” Jeanne’s husband, Charles Beem, said by phone. “It was because of John, Nathan and Ellen.”
The Oronoka became so many things to so many people – for Orono High School students, it was a place to gather and reunite during the holidays. For the pilots, it was a place to stop over and have a leisurely meal. For UMaine students, it was a place of celebration, as the hundreds of Polaroids taped up near the bar will attest. For professors, it was a special place to take visitors and student groups.
“People loved the place,” said Doug Allen, an Orono resident and philosophy professor who started coming to the Oronoka in 1974. “Every person I brought from out of state didn’t just like it, they loved it. … There were just so many wonderful experiences there.”
And it’s those experiences that will live on – the memories, the people, the celebrations. Of course, people will remember the food – the steaks, the beer, the honey biscuits. But the endless meal finally has come to an end.
“It’s the end of an era,” Beem said. “It truly is.”