Fire Ravages Newport's Villa Nova Restaurant : Landmark: Much of building is ruined, but no one is hurt. Patrons over years have included film, sports stars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A waterfront restaurant popular with Hollywood and sports luminaries was ravaged by flames early Tuesday, but no injuries were reported, authorities said.

Flames as high as 20 feet shot from the Villa Nova Inc. restaurant, which has been a popular hub for socialites since it relocated to the Newport Beach harbor from the Sunset Strip in 1967. Michael Bolton crooned at the piano bar at a fund-raiser earlier this year, and regulars have included Gene Kelly's sidekick Donald O'Connor, radio humorist Stan Freberg, actress Jane Withers, Barry Bonds, Buddy Ebsen and Joey Bishop.

Firefighters arrived about 3:30 a.m. to see an upstairs banquet room engulfed in flames, with smoke pouring over the whole building.

It took 50 firefighters about 90 minutes to control the blaze, which gutted about a third of the West Coast Highway restaurant and caused an estimated $600,000 in damage, said employees and Newport Beach Fire Marshal Dennis Lockard. An electrical or mechanical malfunction in the kitchen's refrigerator sparked the fire, firefighters said.

The restaurant opened in Hollywood in 1933 and in its heyday was a hangout for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and a host of other stars before they made it big, said head chef Sonny Mergenthaler.

Andrew and Charlene Crean bought the restaurant in 1993 after it filed for bankruptcy and poured about $200,000 into it, adding new docks and a patio, among other renovations. The owners were in Germany and could not reached for comment Tuesday. But those close to them said there is little doubt that the place will be rebuilt.

"We'll definitely be back," said Crean's 21-year-old daughter, Kelly Crean. "There's a lot of people who have come here for years and years. This is going to break their hearts. We don't want to let them down."

Said Mergenthaler: "With all that has been invested in it, you can bet that we're going to pull together and put this place back together again. This place is a tradition here and we can't let it die."

Several restaurant employees, including Mergenthaler and bar manager John Farrell, spent Tuesday morning helping investigators sort through the rubble. They also consoled dozens of other employees and patrons who stood outside shaking their heads and wondering about the fate of the landmark.

"This is my home," Mergenthaler said. "And the people who work here are like my family."

Many of the staff of 45 employees wondered Tuesday if they'll have jobs to return to. Kelly Crean said that whether the employees can remain on the payroll will depend on whether rebuilding the two-story structure will take months or years, which hasn't been determined.

The blaze was difficult to control, Lockard said, because it was partly shielded by the small compartments and nooks built into the restaurant's facade, which resembles a small Italian village.

There were no fire detectors and no overall sprinkling system in the restaurant because fire codes did not require them when the building was built years ago, Lockard said. Firefighters said such devices might have helped contain the fire to a smaller area.

Kelly Crean said a sprinkler system was installed but only in the kitchen. The fire spread so fast that "it wouldn't have helped," she said.

Part of an adjacent apartment building was damaged by heat from the fire, and some of the residents said they left their smoke-filled rooms for a few hours.

Todd Cossman, who lives in the neighboring building, said that he heard an explosion and that within minutes smoke had seeped through his windows. Cossman said he, his parents and several other residents evacuated their apartments.

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