Ruby's Diner, born of humble beginnings in an old bait shop, celebrates its 35th anniversary

At the end of the Balboa Pier sat a dilapidated old building once used as a live bait shop.

A redwood cabinet that had stored doomed crayfish and worms sat in the main room and one of the walls had been severely scorched by an incident with a broiler.

Most wouldn’t expect this shabby scene to serve as the genesis for a restaurant empire.

Where many would see the carcass of a former business, Doug Cavanaugh saw a canvas for a new one.

Ruby’s Diner was born 35 years ago in that building.

The company has since sprouted about 30 locations throughout the country, becoming an iconic throwback to classic diners of the mid-20th century.

Cavanaugh, Ruby’s founder, developed the idea for a restaurant when he jogged past the bait shop on the Balboa Pier.

“I thought this was a classic little jewel box of great architecture that was crying out to be restored,” said Cavanaugh, now 61, of Laguna Beach.

He approached the city with the idea for a classic diner at the age of 22, but the lease proposal was turned down when officials told him he hadn’t cultivated enough experience in the restaurant business.

Cavanaugh responded by opening a restaurant on Nantucket Island, then returned to Newport Beach a few years later a wiser businessman.

The city granted his proposal and the resurrection of the dying building began in 1982.

Within the year, the old shack turned into a quaint diner adorned in the red, silver and white colors that have come to define Ruby’s brand.

Over the years, diners have been opened at the Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Oceanside and Malibu piers, along with other locations in various airports and retail centers, including South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

The restaurant’s success, aside from good food and service, is tied to the nostalgia it engenders in its customers. But it doesn’t only cater to those who can actually remember the 1940s.

“It’s a business that meets all the different age groups that are out there,” said Ned Westfall, general manager of the Ruby’s in Laguna Hills. “It’s a place where families can go, where teenagers can bring a date, where older folks can get a great meal.”

Cavanaugh said the nostalgic diner idea stemmed from conversations with his parents, who regularly spoke about the charming diners of the 1940s with big band music and dancing that provided a respite from the anxieties of World War II.

“It was obviously a terrible time but it was also a time when there was a lot of national pride and camaraderie,” Cavanaugh said. “They portrayed this very romantic picture so I kind of embedded that in the restaurant.”

In another nod to his upbringing, Cavanaugh said he named the diner after his mother, Ruby. She died in 2015 at age 93, but he believes her values of selflessness and generosity live on in the restaurant’s “guest-first” approach.

The business will officially celebrate its anniversary Dec. 7 by offering a special burger for a discount. A portion of each sale will go toward the Ruby Dooby Foundation, a children’s wellness charity.

benjamin.brazil@latimes.com

Twitter:@benbrazilpilot

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