Iconic Orange diner Watson's closing its doors after more than a century

Rob McMillan Image
Tuesday, July 26, 2022
Iconic OC restaurant Watson's to close after more than a century
Watson's Soda Fountain and Cafe has been a fixture in Old Towne Orange for more than a century. But starting next month, new ownership will begin its transition into a Mexican restaurant.

ORANGE, Calif (KABC) -- Watson's Soda Fountain and Cafe, a fixture in Old Towne Orange for more than a century, will soon be closing its doors.

Watson's first opened in 1899 as a drugstore, later becoming a soda fountain where employees served up malts, shakes and sundaes in 1915. But starting next month, new ownership will begin its transition into a Mexican restaurant.

"There's going to be a lot of sadness and resentment because this place has been a part of people's lives as far back as we can remember," said operations manager Abel Rullier. "Depending on your age, you, your parents, your grandparents, maybe even your great-grandparents, always knew of the Watson's here."

Rullier said the current owners took over the property nearly a decade ago, but always struggled to make a profit. Consequently, he said they made changes to try to make the restaurant more appealing to the current generation.

"It was our hope to elevate this into something more modern, keeping the old school, classic soda shop feel, updating the menu," Rullier said. "We gave them a bar, we wanted to elevate this place, but also staying true to the tradition to what this place is and what it's founded on and that's what we tried to do."

But Rullier said not all the changes were popular with the community.

"We understand that the community hadn't always liked the changes we did to Watson's, and they spoke out by not supporting us at times," Rullier said. "We completely understand that and unfortunately, we made some mistakes along the way too, but it was always our intention to do this place justice."

However, the COVID pandemic and sky-high inflation dealt the restaurant such incredible challenges, they were unable to recover.

"We felt the effects just like everybody else did. But unfortunately, we don't have the deep pockets," Rullier said. "We're not a corporation and don't have 10, 15, 20, 30 other restaurants that we can lean back on for financial support.. So, in the end it really crippled us."

The new owners take over next month. On Instagram, they indicate that Watson's will become Hector's on the Circle, a Mexican restaurant.

Longtime Watson's customer Paul Phanner is upset about the change, but hopes its replacement will still provide a unique experience for families.

"It's sad... I just look at what a great experience it is for a young family or kids to have come here over the years," Phanner said. "And I wonder what they'll have that isn't a prepackaged franchise experience. This is unique."