Column: Orange Garden, Chicago’s oldest Chinese restaurant, has a long history, with a gangster legend, an iconic neon sign and a family hoping to…

Posted By on May 27, 2022

Orange Garden, the oldest Chinese restaurant in Chicago, which recently sold its iconic neon sign, and was reportedly selling next year, may not be for sale after all.

I dont want to sell, said owner Hui Ruan. He spoke in Cantonese, seated in a booth at the historic dining room in the North Center neighborhood. Im 72 years old this year. Before, I didnt want to work anymore, because of my age, and because Im tired. But now my kids say they really like this restaurant, so I cant bear to sell it.

The kids, an adult son and daughter, now manage the business, perhaps best known for Chinese American classics including egg foo young and Chicago-style peanut butter egg rolls.

If I can move, if I can walk, if Im healthy, Ruan said. Then Ill absolutely help them.

Current Orange Garden owner Hui Ruan and his son and restaurant manager Ben Ruan outside of their North Center location. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

His children, however, dont want to take over the family restaurant.

I could take over, or my sister, or the both of us, said son Ben Ruan. But the thing is, for my dad to mentally get away from Orange Garden, we need to have closure. Because if our family owns it, hell still think about coming to work, and then worry.

His sister agrees.

I want someone to take over who will care about this restaurant and keep this place as it is, Julie Ruan said. Or make it even better if they can.

Its a new wrinkle in the long disputed history of Orange Garden. The Ruans believe the restaurant opened in 1932. Daughters of a previous owner, George Chen, believe their father founded the restaurant.

Orange Garden was, in fact, open at least by 1927, with an owner unknown to descendants of both families. The 1928-1929 city directory is the first to list the restaurant, and it was put together in late 1927, according to Matt Rutherford, Newberry Library curator of genealogy and local history.

The listing names Chan Woods as the proprietor, who likely lived above or behind the restaurant, Rutherford said in an email.

Even though phones werent commonplace back then, a restaurant would have been most likely to have one, and many were listed in 1925 and 1926.

My hunch is that the restaurant started about 1927, he added.

Thats the same year Won Kow, once the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, was built. Legend has it that Al Capone was a regular customer, with a table overlooking Wentworth Avenue.

Orange Garden had another gangster connection.

Many people came to George Chens restaurants, wrote Tribune columnist Anne Keegan in a profile. One of his best customers was a good looking man who was always polite. It was not until he was killed and his pictures were all over the newspapers that George Chen realized his best customer had been John Dillinger.

Chen bought Orange Garden in the early 1930s. He already owned Jade Cafe in the Old Irving Park neighborhood.

A photograph, possibly from the 1920s, of former Orange Garden owner George Chen. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

In 1932 or 1933, Chen hired an artist, who came to Chicago to work at the Century of Progress Worlds Fair, to paint murals at both restaurants.

That detail was told to me by my father, said Phillip Chen. His father, Alfred Chen, was one of George Chens younger brothers. He actually told me the name of the Russian Jewish artist, but I have forgotten it.

Phillip Chen, the family historian and an art professor at Drake University, was born and raised in Chicago at Jade Cafe, which his father eventually took over.

Much of my work is about family history, Chen said. He did an exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City about the Chinese American experience with images about immigration, marginalization and labor.

An original mural still on the wall at Orange Garden. Owner George Chen hired an artist, who came to Chicago to work at the Century of Progress Worlds Fair, to paint murals at both of his restaurants. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

By 1938, the Chens helped a third brother open a third family restaurant, Oriental Garden in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where celebrated jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway was a customer. There was a striking similarity between the facades of Oriental Garden and Orange Garden, with the same silver-fluted features.

Six years later, the probable founder of Orange Garden seemed to have still listed his address at the restaurants location. A 1942 draft registration for Chan Woot listed the man as a restaurant owner residing at 1942 W. Irving Park Road, Rutherford said.

In the 1950s or 60s, George Chens middle daughter, Julie, helped out at Orange Garden as a teenager. Her younger sister, Donna, never worked at the restaurant, but remembers going there to eat and putting money in the jukeboxes.

There were jukeboxes in each of the booths, said Donna Chen, a retired French teacher who taught at Lake View High School. I was little, running back and forth. I would make my father crazy.

It remains unclear who commissioned the iconic neon sign and when it was installed over the sidewalk out front. The curvaceous sign which reads on three lines, Orange Garden. Chop Suey. Chow Mein was made by Flashtric, one of the oldest sign companies in Chicago.

I have the original signed contract for $9 to maintain it from Feb. 16, 1961, said Angela Demir, owner of Flashtric. Her father, Alexander Demir, purchased the business in the early 70s from Fred Parker, who founded the company in 1911. She acquired the business about five years ago.

In 1970, a popular, offbeat restaurant column in the Tribune, The Motley Crew by John R. Thomson, may be the earliest mention of Orange Garden in the paper: We had an order of chicken chow mein ($1.95); two orders of subgum chow mein ($1.95 each); an order of mushroom fried rice ($1.30); and an order of sweet-sour pork ($1.80).

By the mid-1970s George Chen had retired, according to the profile by Tribune columnist Keegan. The front-page headline in 1982 read: Chinese family finds real meaning in Fourth of July.

In 1983, Charn Yuen, older brother by eight years of the current owner, bought Orange Garden.

Ten years later, he ordered new neon signs from Flashtric to hang in the windows on either side of the double front doors.

My father made the neon window signs, Demir said. And back then they were $475.

Yuens niece and nephew began helping their uncle, while they were in high school, at the restaurant they would someday run.

I never really encountered Chinese food like that before, said Julie Ruan. She was born in Taishan, China, as was the rest of her family. The old-fashioned egg foo young and shrimp lobster sauce, I didnt know what that was all about until I came over here and tasted it. And the process for the pressed duck is so long.

At that point, her father was working as the kitchen manager at Youngs, the Chinese restaurant in Glenview owned by his uncle.

In 2008, when his older brother was ready to retire, Hui Ruan took over.

Managing the kitchen was not a new thing for him, said his son. But managing the restaurant was, so thats when my sister and I came in.

The neon sign outside of Orange Garden restaurant, seen on April 28, 2022, which has been purchased in an auction by Chloe Mendel, wife of musician Billy Corgan, to be displayed at their tea cafe Madame Zuzu's in Highland Park. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Two years later, they started requesting estimates from Flashtric to fix the famous sign.

We were trying to see how we could refurbish it to keep its original aesthetic, Demir said. The last proposal in 2013, to fix falling rust and to get the neon back to fully working order, was for $4,100.

In 2016, it was Hui Ruans turn to retire, more or less.

I went back to China for about a month and a half, he said in Cantonese. People didnt even know me anymore. Its been decades since I left.

Despite the vintage murals on the walls, and the air of another eras glamour, takeout has become the main business at Orange Garden.

Even pre-pandemic, dining in was basically second, Ben Ruan said. Of course, business was a little bit slower than before, because of the pandemic, but overall, we retained about the same amount of business.

On April 30, they sold the so-called blade neon sign for $17,000 by auction to Chloe Mendel, owner of Madame Zuzus, a vegan tea cafe in Highland Park, where she plans to display it. Mendel bought the sign as a gift for her husband and business partner, Billy Corgan, lead singer of the rock band the Smashing Pumpkins.

At least we found somebody who really appreciates the sign, Ben Ruan said. Its in good hands.

[Iconic neon sign at Orange Garden restaurant winds up in surprising hands after auction]

Now Orange Garden may or may not be up for sale, but not the building, which the Ruans do not own.

Were hoping the new owner will keep our current employees, Ben Ruan said. We have three cooks and two part-time servers.

Theyre looking for a potential buyer to continue the tradition of the restaurant.

We have clients from many, many years ago, Ruan said. Ive heard theyve been here in the 30s, 40s, 50s. Their first date. They proposed here. They came back with their firstborn. Anniversaries, birthdays, a lot of birthdays, have been held at Orange Garden.

Price doesnt really make a big difference, he said, declining to publicly disclose their selling price.


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When I get old, I would like to sit down and bring back memories for my grandkids like other people did, Ruan said. Thats what we want.

Orange chicken at Orange Garden. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Meanwhile, Orange Garden still serves Chinese American cuisine.

We have egg foo young and orange chicken, Ruan said. Those are the popular entrees.

Peanut butter is an essential ingredient in their egg rolls, he added.

Its almost like cheese in a hamburger, Ruan said. Without the peanut butter, theyre not, people say, authentic egg rolls.

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Column: Orange Garden, Chicago's oldest Chinese restaurant, has a long history, with a gangster legend, an iconic neon sign and a family hoping to...

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