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Eat your heart out: Restaurant celebrates couples' stories
A couple has their names framed in a heart and hung above a booth at Oriental Garden Chinese Restaurant on Dawsonville Highway in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Peter Soh was early to decorate for Valentine’s Day this year.

The restaurant he manages, Oriental Garden 2 on Dawsonville Highway in Gainesville, is sprinkled with red hearts above its booths. A few of the hearts, though, have been up for months — some clock in at more than a year.

It turns out it’s last year’s Valentine’s Day decor that became a year-round celebration of love.

“I started on Valentine’s, and I would put it out on Valentine’s only,” Soh said. “Then I thought, hmmm, I might as well do this year-round. Because some couples would come in, like, regular, for their date and some had been dating for a little while and got married.”

The result? Dozens of hearts bearing the names of sweethearts in Hall county — and beyond.

Some are relatively new. Take Patrick and Irene Cason, who met about six months ago through an online dating service. Not long after their first date, they were tying the knot.

And the site of their second date? Oriental Garden.

“Until we ran across each other, we weren’t interested in anybody,” he said of their online dating matches. “First we went to the Olive Garden in Sandy Springs (where Irene lived), then we came here.”

They were married three months later. And above their favorite booth is a heart bearing their names and the date they posted it on the wall for all to see.

Soh said the hearts not only allow people to declare their love, but it’s a chance for relatives and friends to note the relationship, too.

“At first (customers) were wondering, what is this heart all about?” Soh said. “And I would tell them, people are here for their first date, anniversary. It kind of encourages them to come in for their special day, or people say, ‘Hey, there’s my friend, there’s my uncle or aunt, on the wall over there.’”

Not all the hearts are for new couples. Clermont residents Linnea and Mike Normand often eat at the restaurant with family members Lee Fike and Baldy Van Anderberg, who visit from North Carolina.

They always try to sit at “their” booth, they say. But the heart that denotes their favorite booth holds the name of Lee’s sister and Linnea’s cousin — Lottie and her husband, Leonard.

The group visited Oriental Garden last year on Lottie and Leonard’s 52nd anniversary. Cousins Lee and Linnea are more or less regulars at the restaurant, coming with their spouses. But because Lottie and Leonard spend much of their time as humanitarian missionaries in Honduras, the group thought the heart would be better served honoring them.

“We put the heart up for my sister and them,” said Fike. “And we were going to put up a heart for us but the walls were getting a little bit thick.”

That’s because there’s less space on the walls for hearts; many booths have at least one heart hovering above, and often more.
Fike added that the group tries to sit under the heart when they visit.

“For us, I think, you see the heart — it’s our heart that brings us back a lot,” she said. “And it’s his heart — Peter is what makes it a special thing for us.”

Soh will often pull up a chair and talk with the friends, who like to come in for an early dinner.

Patrick Cason said the hearts aren’t so much about Valentine’s Day as they are representative of Soh

“I thought it was a neat idea for Peter to have some couples put up come hearts,” he said. “He’s kind of a romantico himself.”