Retro rehab: A new version of Watson’s is set to open Monday

ORANGE – Jim Reeves grew up eating burgers at Watson’s.

The 57-year-old, who says his family moved to Orange in 1893 “in a covered wagon … before Watson’s opened,” says his parents also ate at Watson’s. So did his grandparents.

Watson’s, which opened in 1899 as the drugstore in downtown Orange, is one of the county’s oldest businesses.

It’s where Tom Hanks filmed part of “That Thing You Do!” It’s also where George W. Bush once stopped in for a malt.

In Orange, Watson’s is an icon.

Now, that icon and the town around it are about to change.


A new version of Watson’s – Watson’s Soda Fountain & Cafe – is set to open Monday.

According to Bill Skeffington, who bought Watson’s last summer from longtime owner Scott Parker, the new Watson’s is a modern incarnation of the place that once thrived as a combination drugstore and soda fountain.

The counter is a mix of marble and wood, just like the old counter.

The menu is a foodie nod to Watson’s comfort-food past. Even the malts and shakes remain, though some come infused with booze.

“I didn’t want to see (Watson’s) go away,” Skeffington said.

“I figured I could bring it back and help make it more profitable.”

Many figure to welcome the hipper menu and look.

But some residents look at the new Watson’s and see nothing less than the end of Old Towne Orange.

Though dozens of restaurants have opened in downtown Orange (the city lists 39 eateries within 1 square mile of the its traffic circle), none has the symbolic import of Watson’s.

“Watson’s is a good barometer of how downtown Orange has changed,” said Phil Brigandi, a local historian.

Others say the evolution was underway long before Watson’s remodeled.

Many of the restaurants and bars that have opened in Orange in recent years replaced antique stores, a category of business that, a generation earlier, revived the community’s downtown.

Today, according to city records, there are nine antique or collectible stores in downtown Orange, about half the number from 20 years ago.

For some antique sellers, the transformation has been unsettling.

“Generally, we’re all feeling less secure,” said Kathy Schulte, who has owned Antique Mall of Treasures for 20 years.

“We’re doing well, but … I don’t like that it’s changing,” she said. “A lot of shop owners feel this way.”

Rick Otto, city manager of Orange, says the transformation isn’t an accident. The city has wooed restaurants and bars to boost revenue and respond to changing demand.

Economically, it’s worked. Last year, businesses in downtown Orange generated taxable sales of about $60 million. In 2006, that figure was $42million.

But the change isn’t all about money. The downtown that once went quiet at sundown now is busy late into the night. Police regularly run DUI checkpoints near the area.

A new, trendy Watson’s, some argue, makes the transformation complete.

“For Skeffington to say he needs a liquor license as part of his business plan really says something,” said historian Brigandi.

Or, as Everett Caldwell, owner of Mr. C’s, a vinyl record shop that’s been open in downtown Orange since the 1970s, put it, “It’s changing the nature of the town.”


While some observers wonder what the new version of Watson’s says about downtown Orange, its former owner says the alternative was no Watson’s at all.

“Watson’s did really well for a while, but business started to slow. I was spending retirement money to keep up and add on,” said Parker, who bought Watson’s in 1971.

He’s not bothered by what Skeffington has done with his former business.

“Everything that’s been added is what I would have done if I had the resources,” he said.

Skeffington spent $500,000 on a remodel that keeps some of the old Watson’s alive.

Parts of the original ceiling were restored. And the restaurant’s decorative centerpiece – an early 20th-century pharmaceutical cabinet – is filled with cloudy vials and hand-blown glass bottles with aging, handwritten labels. All were found in Watson’s basement during the reconstruction.

The nods to the 21st century include a few high-definition TVs, silently playing old black-and-white movies and 24-hour news.

There are menu items such as “Cotton Candy Martini” and “Penicillin,” a cocktail with Scotch, fresh lemon, ginger, honey and candied ginger.

Longtime Orange resident Reeves turned out for Watson’s soft opening last week.

He ordered a burger and a soda, and said he generally approved of the changes.

So did Bill and Connie Castle, who’ve been coming to Watson’s since they moved to Orange 40 years ago.

“We love that they’ve kept that old feel,” said Bill Castle, 79.

Skeffington hopes enough people feel that way that he can turn the Watson’s brand into something that will work in other downtowns.

“I’m planning on expanding the restaurant and opening Watson’s in other places,” he said.

“Maybe Orange County, maybe other parts of Southern California.

“I hope we help Watson’s last another 116 years.”

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