ORONO, Maine — The Oronoka restaurant and inn was more than a place to get a meal and a room for many of its customers for nearly 50 years. University of Maine students and airline crews flying through Bangor often thought of it as a second home.
“Their hospitality was unequaled,” Tim Pinette, a 1980 UMaine graduate who lives in South Portland, said Thursday. He recalled the many nights he stayed at the local landmark that closed a decade ago and will soon be torn down to make room for a new medical facility.
“My friend Mark [Simoneau] and I, both UMaine grads, were regulars at the bar and the buffet in the years around 1980,” Pinette said. “In the 10 years or so prior to its closing, we visited with Ellen [Severance] and Nathan [Kobritz] at least once each year when we were in Orono for hockey games.”
Nathan Kobritz and his brother John Kobritz, who died in 1993, bought the building in 1954 and opened the Oronoka as a fine dining establishment, with diners served by candlelight on tables covered with white linen. In 1957, a young Husson basketball star named Ellen Severance joined the staff and stayed on until the restaurant and inn closed Oct. 13, 2003, several weeks after the death of Nathan Kobritz.
“Everybody thought the Oronoka was their place,” Severance said shortly after the restaurant closed. “Every group felt at home there. Everyone felt equal.”
She watched the restaurant change in the late 1960s and early-1970s, when 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.”
Severance and Kobritz were always on hand to welcome those who walked through the pink doors, said Kobritz’s daughter, Sharon J. Kobritz. She said when people talk about the restaurant, there are always kind words about her father.
“Across the board people remember him so fondly,” she said Monday by email. “I hear that wherever I go. It keeps his memory alive for me. Mostly, I think, they remember his jokes!”
Her father loved to have fun and often played jokes on friends and customers, and he and Severance were known for their generosity and kindness to strangers, including international students from all over the globe, she said.
Simoneau worked across the street at the Penobscot Valley Country Club while in college and on a regular basis, “Ellen would fix him a dinner plate of leftovers from the buffet,” Pinette recalled.
Nathan Kobritz 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, according to a 2003 Bangor Daily News story.
His daughter sold the 6.5-acre parcel to Dr. Orville Hartford last summer. When Hartford purchased the shuttered Oronoka, he was entrusted with a pile of memorabilia left behind, including framed photos, old menus, new unopened postcards of the Oronoka in its heyday and a photo album stuffed full of Polaroids and other photos taken over the 50 years the business operated, some that once hung behind the bar.
“Some people may not want these photos public,” Hartford joked Thursday as he thumbed through the album, which starts with what appears to be a Halloween party inside the bar.
Hartford never had the pleasure of a three-hour dining experience at the Oronoka that was well known for its super large steaks, homemade honey biscuits and beer served in a glass cowboy boot, but he said, “I certainly have heard a lot of stories” since purchasing the site.
The darkened restaurant still has partially set up tables with salt and pepper shakers on top of them covered with dust and cobwebs. Some items have been removed and given to Habitat for Humanity’s Resale Store, some dishes and glassware went to local restaurant owners, and the plan is to have a charity auction or sale sometime in the future to disperse the remaining items.
“The [glass cowboy] boots were one of the most popular [items stolen] for vandals or people pillaging through the building,” Hartford said. “There are no more boots left.”
Hartford said he needed a larger location for his business, Penobscot Valley Dermatology, and looked at a number of sites, including some in Bangor, Brewer and Orono. He attempted to purchase the vacant MedNow location, just a mile down the street, but “that deal fell through,” the doctor said.
The plan is to name the 9,600-square foot facility, estimated to cost about $2 million, the Oronoka Plaza in honor of the former landmark. Hartford requested and received tax increment financing from the town earlier this week to help with financing the new location.
“We’ll have five [medical] providers, but there is room for five additional providers in the building,” Hartford said of the Oronoka project.
Whenever Pinette passes through Orono, he drives by the place he called home during his college years.
“I’ve often pulled into the parking lot, even looked in the windows, observing the slow decay of what was once a beautiful dining room and bar,” he said.
Pinette and Simoneau rented a couple rooms at the Oronoka the night before the business closed, and the two ended up shedding some tears recalling their many adventures.
“We spent a wonderful evening at the bar reminiscing with Ellen about all of the good times she’d seen in that space over the years,” Pinette said. “She didn’t know the exact fate of the Oronoka that evening — Nathan’s family wasn’t telling her much — but she acknowledged that the kitchen hadn’t been stocked since his death and that there wasn’t much left. [The BDN] article confirmed what we’ve always wanted to believe — that we were the last overnight guests at the Oronoka Hotel, and that we may well have had the last two steak dinners.
“Thank you for the trip down memory lane.”