Many years ago, on this blog, I postulated that, in vibrant downtown areas with lots of small, family-run businesses, an aging, outdated exterior sign might actually be a selling point. Even if the paint is a little chipped or the letters a bit rusty—a tiny bit (not too much!)—a visibly old sign is a tacit indicator that the business has been around a long time. It has endured. It’s an institution. I used a tour through Cambridge, Massachusetts as my example, where busy Harvard Square offered (way back in 2009) a fairly balanced mix between edgy, eclectic new establishments and high-profile national chains, peppered lightly with long-running old standbys. And the latter were the most obvious. Cardullo’s, Planet Records, and Charlie’s Kitchen all had exterior signs that stood out because they were old and in need of a refresh—but at the same time, too much of a refresh would have nullified the sense of endurability. (And yes, twelve years later, all three businesses are still hanging in there.)
And now, a decade later and over 4,500 miles away, I find an example of a faded storefront sign that achieves the exact opposite effect, evoking neglect and desuetude.
All things considered, neither one of the rectangular plates for the defunct Sizzlin’ Cafe in downtown Anchorage are in that bad of shape. No rust, no peeling paint. And though I didn’t photograph the interior through the window, I peered in enough to see that, while almost certainly closed, it didn’t hint at the degree of blight one might expect: a lot of dust, but furniture was intact, glasses were still lined on the shelves, and a dry erase board clearly indicated the daily specials. It looked like it might have closed a few weeks ago.
But all evidence indicates Sizzlin’ Cafe has been closed a long time. The website is inactive; domain purchased by a Chinese firm. Its only two Google reviews date from nine and thirteen years ago. TripAdvisor references a Sizzlin’ Cafe about a mile away (at East 6th Avenue) with considerably more reviews, suggesting a relocation from this dusty site, but the most recent review on TripAdvisor is 2018. The relocation closed too.
I prefer this spot on West 3rd Avenue, mostly because of these two forlorn signs evoke a time period far older than I suspect is indicative of Sizzlin’ Cafe’s founding date. The oldest archived photos of Google Street View, dating from September 2007, suggest that it was in operation back then (corroborated by those two customer reviews), with that same ugly signage that looks like the 1970s. More interestingly, the sign on the right reflects the founding proprietors’ tin ear for a good slogan. “Where Food Tantalizes Your Taste Buds”—with florid clichés like these, how could it have gone wrong? After all, no other restaurant offers food that tantalizes your taste buds. This is it.
It’s possible that Sizzlin’ Cafe’s relocation, which I’d estimate took place around 2012 or so, owes more to the state of the building itself than lack of business.
All the storefronts in this green mid-rise appeared vacant during my August 2021 visit; the other structure to the right (just out of the photo’s frame) also seemed to be approaching complete vacancy. The block wasn’t completely derelict; the brew pub to the left had a new tenant, and the upper floors in the green building most likely still hosted residences. But it wasn’t a great look for Anchorage’s downtown, especially as this block faces the Hilton Anchorage, unquestionably one of the city’s largest hotels; it would be fairly big even by the standards of an alpha city. Plenty of prospective customers fill the units in the twin Hilton towers across the street.
So, while the vintage signs in Cambridge demonstrated the ability of certain mom-and-pops to run a successful operation for decades within a thriving urban node, the aging sign to Sizzlin’ Cafe in Anchorage hints at a greater economic malaise, despite offering an empirically similar concept. Why do those old signs that sweeten the streetscape in one city leave such a sour tone in another? Both are tourist nodes: the Massachusetts city in part because of its proximity to Boston but primarily because it’s the home to America’s oldest higher ed institution (Harvard University). Meanwhile, Anchorage is the major hub for most Alaska-related tourism; even if much of this state’s appeal is the landscapes that sprawl across both its vast coastline and interior, the majority of visitors must fly into the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) and linger in the city at least a day or two. It no doubt helps that Cambridge is much more densely populated, better scaled for pedestrians, and replete with good mass transit. Anchorage is not. But Anchorage does still feature its share of restaurants, bars, uniquely Alaskan tourist attractions, and various touristy tchotchke shops. On a weekend night, live music radiates from the bars along 4th and 5th avenues. The business mix offers a mild degree of vibrancy.
But Anchorage owes a considerable degree of its downtown pedestrian scene to these tourists. And, outside of the prime Alaska tourist season of May through September, downtown Anchorage can apparently feel a little drab, with huge numbers of surface parking lots. And, since the city and state forfeited nearly all of the 2020 tourist season due to coronavirus lockdowns, many of the businesses most dependent on summer tourist dollars are struggling. Unlike most American cities of Anchorage’s size, Alaska’s largest city has not impelled very many of its 300,000 residents to move downtown. While it offers a few minor multifamily residential structures (like, presumably, the four floors above the old Sizzlin’ Cafe), and some attractive, scattershot single-family detached housing in small neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the central business district, developers have only constructed about 80 residential units in recent years, many of which are moderate income and affordable (courtesy of Cook Inlet Housing Authority). Anchorage does not feature any large-scale, market-rate developments primarily catering to a demographic seeking downtown apartment/condo living. Land costs, construction costs, and mitigation of seismic impacts (which undoubtedly influence those costs) are huge barriers to entry among local or national real estate developers.
Lacking the density of residences that would afford a permanent clientele in the immediate area, Anchorage enjoys touristic pedestrianism for five months of the year, office workers on weekdays all year long, and next to nothing on those dark winter weekends. And it means not only that a greasy spoon like Sizzlin’ Cafe fails to tantalize a sufficient number of taste buds, but that, even when it was in operation, its owner couldn’t justify the money for a smartly conceived or designed sign. And that it lingers or eight years after it closes, as a relic of underutilized real estate, since there just haven’t been enough tourists for the last two summer to prompt new entrepreneurial activity amidst Anchorage’s restaurant scene. Better find your reindeer sausage somewhere else.