NEIGHBORS: After two years, and against the odds, a downtown Anchorage restaurant returns to life

This is the second story of the NEIGHBORS project, published in the Anchorage Daily News and on the Anchorage Museum website. Here’s how it begins:

By the time Chef Eric DuBey flipped on the lights in the kitchen at Orso earlier this year, every surface sat under nearly two years of dust. A 22-year fixture on Fifth Avenue in downtown Anchorage, the restaurant closed hastily in March 2020. No one had been back.

“I was completely shocked. Just how the whole room felt, you know, from the last time I had been in there. It just felt deserted and abandoned,” DuBey said.

A restaurant isn’t meant to go quiet. A restaurant in a city’s core is part of a larger organism, and a lot of them have to be working — moving food, moving people, moving money — to give a downtown a pulse. Stove pilot lights stay aglow, the walk-in fridges hum, delivery trucks come and go. Line cooks, servers, dishwashers, bussers, hostesses clock-in. By 5, they welcome the town to their tables. After dinner, there are shows to catch, ice cream to buy, drinks at another bar. This is the way it always was in downtown Anchorage.

But the pandemic — the lockdowns, customers’ fear of infection, the lack of cruise ships, the labor crunch — shut that all down in Anchorage like it did everywhere else. Some blocks kept a few lights on, but only now are others beginning to flicker back. On show nights at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, it’s getting a little harder to park on Fifth Avenue. The Westmark Hotel, boarded up for years, is accepting reservations for May. And just this month, against the odds, Orso lit up again.