Orange Garden at 1942 W. Irving Park Rd. Owners have sold the 1930s era illuminated sign and plan to sell the business to new owners who will keep the neighborhood restaurant open. Credit: Noah Asimow/Block Club Chicago

NORTH CENTER — The owners of Orange Garden Chinese Restaurant are selling the 90-year-old business after auctioning its iconic neon “Chop Suey” sign, hoping to find a buyer to preserve the eatery specializing in Cantonese fare.

A relic of pre-war Chicago dating at least to the early 1930s, the Orange Garden sign was sold Saturday during the weekend’s Chicago Joe auction that sparked intense interest in local restaurant memorabilia. Auctioneer Randy Donley said the nearly 10-foot red sign sold for $17,000 to a suburban Highland Park woman who hopes to repurpose it for a different eatery.

Preservation Chicago tweeted about the Orange Garden auction, sparking fears the North Center staple may be closing. Ben Ruan, who helps manage Orange Garden for his parents, told Block Club Tuesday the restaurant is still open but the family is ready to move on and put the business up for sale.

Though the real estate listing invites prospective buyers to open a new restaurant in the space, Ruan said the family hopes to find someone who will keep operating Orange Garden and keep its half-dozen employees on board. The family does not own the Irving Park Road building. 

“The main reason we want to put it on the market is to find people who want to take care of it,” Ruan said. “We want to make sure Orange Garden is continuing to operate in the North Center area for our customers.”

Orange Garden in North Center. Credit: Noah Asimow/Block Club Chicago

The Ruan family has owned Orange Garden since the 1980’s. The exact opening date isn’t clear, but co-owner Julie Ruan said the restaurant has existed in the same location since the early 1930’s — the bright neon sign shining as an instantly recognizable welcome mat and for North Center residents and visitors wanting homemade egg rolls and generous portions.

The Ruans said they had been working long hours running the restaurant in recent years, and their father, who is in his 70s, wants to retire. Instead of closing, they said they would try to find a buyer to preserve Orange Garden under new ownership. 

“If we close it down, and don’t find another person to continue it, it seems like a waste,” Ruan said. “This place has been well known for many, many years. We have stories of people who had their first date here, proposals, people who had their anniversary here, people who had their child’s first birthday here. There’s a lot of history here.”

Ruan said the family had long been interested in selling the aging sign, and had received various offers from prospective buyers. Donley said he also inquired about the sign years ago.

Ruan said the sign had become more expensive and arduous to maintain with city zoning regulations and rising permit fees. According to city codes, any sign that extends over a public way requires a public way use permit and City Council approval. The large red sign with green neon — almost as old as the restaurant itself — nearly protrudes to the curb-cut.

Ruan wanted to sell it before any changing city rules forced the family to take it down.

“Doing business in the city of Chicago is not easy,” Ruan said. “Sooner or later, the city will change the requirement further. I don’t want to take it down then, and then go through that hassle.”

When Ruan heard about the Chicago Joe’s auction, he said he thought it seemed like a prime opportunity to find a preservation-minded buyer.

“The sign was getting older, it needed to be refurbished,” Ruan said. “We wanted to make sure it went to someone who appreciated that.”

Along with Orange Garden’s art deco exterior, the stretch of Irving Park Road between Damen and Ashland has other businesses reminiscent of a bygone era: old-school bar signs, a retro 24-hour diner and an eight-lane, manual-score bowling alley dot the streetscape. The closing of Chicago Joe’s and the sale of the Orange Garden sign comes as the area is seeing more condo developments and parking lots. 

Other neon signs on the North Side also have gone up for auction. Donley said the Chicago Joe’s sign sold for $27,500 to an anonymous buyer.

Donley said he also plans to sell the massive Dinkel’s Bakery sign later this month, after the 100-year-old business closed over the weekend. The auction proceeds will go to Misercordia and Sisters of the Poor, Donley said. A date for the auction has not been set.

Ruan said the lights going out on Orange Garden’s neon sign doesn’t mean they can’t stay on in the restaurant itself. He said he will help train any new owner, and all the homemade recipes will be included in the sale. 

“I will be very selective on the buyer, because I don’t want them to flip it and make a McDonald’s,” Ruan said.

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