As the holiday drew near, managers at the Balboa Bay Club discovered that the round frame for the tiered Fourth of July cake had been crushed in storage.
The reaction was immediate: "We have to have the cake," explained Aaron Trent, director of member relations and club events.
After all, Independence Day at the Balboa Bay Club without one of its legendary outsized cakes is, as Trent posited, like a family Thanksgiving without the turkey.
"Or how about the green bean casserole?" he continued. "Everyone expects it, not that we even want it."
The club on West Coast Highway in Newport Beach is understandably protective of its traditions — a symptom of the once-dominant old guard membership that resisted change. But even the club's Power Burger slathered in secret sauce, its mai tai made from a closely guarded recipe and, yes, the towering Fourth of July cake, could only take the enterprise so far.
No matter how iconic the 65-year-old harborfront locale is, new ownership recognized it would need a major update to thrive in an increasingly competitive landscape. Even tradition-bound mainstays like the Five Crowns restaurant and Big Canyon Country Club underwent recent renovations to change (just enough) with the times.
What once felt elite had begun to feel stuffy. No more did most Balboa Bay Club members want to wear jackets and ties to dinner, be seated at tables covered in white linens or be served food under silver domes.
Likewise, the dark fabrics, woods and carpeting used throughout the property no longer seemed designed for upper-class society. They seemed outdated.
And so it was back to the drawing board for a pair of Newport Beach businessmen, Kevin Martin and Todd Pickup, co-owners and co-managers of the property, who bought the storied spot two years ago from club matriarch Beverly Ray Parkhurst. Drawing from surveys and personal experience, they sought to modernize it for a town that at once prizes tradition and trend, where long-established yacht clubs and restaurants provide its proud foundation while they also work to keep up.
THE NEW PUB
When the Anchors and Oceans pub opened in the club's resort section last week, it marked the end to a multimillion dollar renovation executed in time for the summer rush.
There, as in the rest of the building, patrons will find an open aesthetic and a lighter color palette — a far cry from the den-like feel of Duke's Place, which it replaced.
"We came in with maybe a modern take on things," Martin said. "It just needed a new set of eyes."
Glass doors now offer wider bay front views. Close-up images of anchors, not John Wayne, hang from the walls. The seating is plentiful and varied, as opposed to the simple tables and chairs of times past.
The new food, like the design, reflects national trends. There are, of course, healthier items to meet modern demand, such as Ambrosia, a watermelon Jell-o mixed with red quinoa, tomato and feta, and steamed fish served in a Bloody Mary broth.
Then there is the kitschy-named bar fare with a creative twist, such as When Pigs Fly, a flight of Kobe hot dogs that includes one wrapped in bacon, and beef tartar with a wink-when-its-served name, the Birthday Suit.
Even the bar itself has been replaced. It's now accessible from three sides, instead of just one, and four flat-screen TVs hang above it, accessories "which all bars have to have now," Martin explained.
An interactive bar is a key ingredient for success in a modern restaurant, he continued, offering the recently opened spots at Fashion Island ("Club Fig," anyone?) as proof.
But those are Newport, he said, and this is Newport Beach. He indicated the harbor waters just yards away, a sort of secret weapon the business can levy as it re-enters the competition.
'OLD MEN'S CLUB' IS GONE
The new Balboa Bay Club and Balboa Bay Resort, as the public side is known, isn't meant for fuddy-duddies.
Like Anchors and Oceans, or "A and O," as they expect it to be called, every eatery in the hotel and club has been renovated under a new guise, "elegant resort style," as spokeswoman Pam Devaney put it.
It's the kind of place where shorts can be worn to restaurants. Or, there's a grab-and-go coffee bar, allowing members to catch a morning yoga class or locals to meet someone for a quick bite.
Plush seating arranged near a water fixture in the re-done resort-side lobby waits for guests to spend a few minutes scrolling through their cell phones or iPads.
"The younger demographic is driving the change in taste, quite frankly," said Councilman Ed Selich, who attended a hard-hat tour of the resort when it was under construction. "Old people die, young people keep coming on. Their tastes start becoming more dominant."
As Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce President Steve Rosansky pointed out, "Sometimes you have to be a little more relevant."
This is, after all, the town that replaced a '20s-era restaurant called The Arches with the trendier A Restaurant in 2008. Earlier this year, the city also lost The Ritz, long famous for the red-lipped waitresses in tuxedo shorts and men who filed in for martinis at lunch.
"Boy, you better follow change or you're going to be left behind," said Jane Rivera, one of two female members of the BBC's board of governors, who added, "The old men's club is gone."
MEMBERS AS FAMILY
The trick for a place steeped in tradition is figuring out what is essential to the core and what needs to be replaced. At one extreme, across the harbor, the nearly 100-year-old Newport Harbor Yacht Club has submitted applications to tear down and rebuild its aging facility with a new building that will look largely the same.
At the BBC, as it is affectionately known, input from members was taken closely into account at the outset of the re-do, Martin said. Together their feedback from focus groups and surveys totaled hundreds of pages. (A top complaint was the lack of bathrooms near the resort-side bar and restaurant.)
For members, the club is an extension of family and home. Rivera has a pool in her backyard. She could do her own home cooking. Instead, she says, her mantra has become, "Let's just go to the club."
Rivera's daughter was married at the Bay Club. Her grandchildren all grow up knowing their member number, she joked.
Before her son was 3 months old, Marsha Santry said, she and her husband joined the club so their son could have a social experience similar to what they had growing up.
Now 9 years old, he's participated in swim team and loves to slip into the harbor from the club's beloved water slide.
"It wasn't like going to some place that you were just visiting," she said. "It was going to some place that you were a part of."
The Santrys have appreciated the new friends, the family emphasis and what she called "clean-spirited feel." Still, they worried when membership seemed down during the recession. Sometimes her family made a point to eat there just to help keep the place in business.
The Balboa Bay Club has tried to reassert itself among residents before. In the early 1990s, the club proposed a $60-million renovation that included expansion of the structure to incorporate, among other things, 12 meeting rooms, a 450-person ballroom and — most notably — a 300-room hotel.
Although they were glad that the establishment on city land would open to the public, residents complained that the proposed building would block their views and create too much traffic, according to news reports at the time.
The City Council voted down the proposal, a community survey was conducted, and an estimated $20-million to $30-million plan was put together instead. The scaled-back renovation was intended to increase the club's square footage, add gardens and impose a more contemporary look while still maintaining its mystique.
New hotel rooms were built, totaling 159 rooms today, allowing outsiders in for the first time — a fact Martin and his co-owners find to be little-known in the community.
This time around, they are doing their best to let everyone know they are welcome in the resort side. They removed a once intimidating guard shack and installed new "Balboa Bay Resort" logos outside the building's entry. A small white sign emerging from the exterior landscaping explicitly reads, "PUBLIC WELCOME."
CAKE WITHOUT TIERS
Meanwhile, security for members is tighter than ever.
A key is required to get to the members-only pool and beach. The Members' Grill restaurant is still true to its name. As for the brand new gym equipment? Only members can tone their legs on the sparkling elliptical machines in the members' gym. (A separate gym exists for resort guests.)
They also have a slew of new events: Whereas old leadership worried over icing spilling on the carpet, cookie decorating is now allowed on occasion in the ballroom. For the kick-off burger bash, inflatable water slides were placed on the lawn, without trepidation over the pristine grass getting muddy.
"We weren't giving people what they wanted," said Trent, who has unleashed his creativity in updating the affairs.
Early in the morning Friday, Rivera will be arriving with her husband, children and grandchildren for the Fourth. The day will signify their 10th anniversary as members, and they will mark it with tug of war, water balloon tosses and a pie-eating contest — as they have every year since they joined.
Then out will come that cake, which — thanks to the crumpled frame — will be flat and rectangular this year, instead of round, but monstrous in size nonetheless.