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Ritz counts down — to its closing

Revelers celebrate the last New Year's Eve at the long-established restaurant in Newport.

January 03, 2014|By Emily Foxhall
  • Juvenal Mejia sets the table in the wine cellar for New Year's Eve dinner at the Ritz Restaurant and Garden on Tuesday.
Juvenal Mejia sets the table in the wine cellar for New… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

On New Year's Eve, Beccy Rogers donned a black suit with a fur collar. She selected sparkling earrings and a necklace, and finished the look with a glitzy clip decorating her long hair, pulled back into a tight bun.

She has worn this outfit on Dec. 31 for each of the many years she has spent working at Newport Beach's long-established Ritz Restaurant and Garden. But as the clock struck midnight, ringing in 2014, the turn of the year also indicated a more significant milestone.

After more than 30 years, the night was Rogers' last New Year's Eve in the restaurant's 880 Newport Center Drive location, where it opened in 1982.

The Ritz, first established near the Newport Pier in 1977, will shut its doors Feb. 15.

The Irvine Co. did not renew the restaurant's lease, choosing instead to convert the first floor office building space, referred to as the Pacific Financial Plaza, into something other than a restaurant.

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"We want to go in a different direction with the site," said Michael Lyster, vice president of communications for the Irvine Co.

The Ritz's owners, who were initially granted a lease extension only through January 2013, are hoping to find a new location. Nothing has been finalized yet.

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A time passed

With trendy restaurants like Javier's being joined by newer spots like Fig & Olive and Red O, perhaps time simply took its toll on the Ritz, a bastion among Orange County's elite, who would gather for dinners served by a friendly staff adhering to strict formal dining standards.

"It was the movers and shakers that were there," said Jim Allen, who frequented the Ritz for lunch. "It was, at the time, the place to be seen."

Allen likened the restaurant in its heyday to a sort of country club and home base for many businessmen. The most loyal joined the Ritz Brothers, which gathered five times a year and donated to charities. The Ritz Sisters, an equivalent though smaller group for women, formed later.

Allen recalled taking clients out for martinis at lunch and seeing well-dressed women come in at the fashionable hour of 1:30 or 2 p.m.

"There was a time when no other restaurant could even come close," said Ritz Controller Laurie Virtue. "We were it."

But with competition and an evolving clientele, the restaurant has changed. Walk-in booths with privacy curtains were removed and a garden area added. The art was exchanged for more contemporary pieces. In the bar, which reminds many of "Cheers," televisions were installed.

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