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Newport Beach’s landmark Crab Cooker draws closer to reopening

Crab Cooker
A rendering of the rebuilt Crab Cooker in Newport Beach shows it will look much like its predecessor (inset) upon the restaurant’s expected reopening in 2020.
(Hillary Davis / Times Community News)

Framing will begin next month on the Crab Cooker’s new building in Newport Beach.

For the proprietors of the landmark seafood restaurant and its fans, it’s a long time coming and a sign that the establishment’s reopening is getting closer — as soon as Memorial Day and no later than Labor Day, owner Jim Wasko said this week.

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The family-owned restaurant, where generations have eaten Dungeness crab cakes off paper plates, stood at 2200 Newport Blvd. for 67 years before being demolished in September 2018 because of foundation damage related to construction of condominiums next door. Tearing down and rebuilding on the same spot made more economic sense to Wasko than renovations.

Many loyal customers drive to the Crab Cooker’s sister in Tustin, and “there’s not a day that goes by in Tustin where 10 people don’t ask” about the progress in Newport Beach, Wasko said.

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Crab Cooker owner Jim Wasko, left, and his son, Jimmy, walk atop the Newport Beach restaurant’s new foundation
Crab Cooker owner Jim Wasko, left, and his son, Jimmy, walk atop the Newport Beach restaurant’s new foundation.
(Hillary Davis / Times Community News)

He had hoped for a reopening last summer. But around April, his plumbing contractor realized the restaurant couldn’t connect to the Newport Beach sewer system at the proper angle.

So began complex re-engineering of the new foundation that put the reopening about a year behind schedule.

The specialized design and construction ate up eight months and were capped Dec. 16 with the final concrete pour.

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“Basically,” said manager Jimmy Wasko, Jim Wasko’s son, “our foundation will survive a bunker-blasting bomb.”

Engineering was already complicated for the site, which is steps from the harbor. Digging much deeper than four feet would hit water. The foundation required 20 caissons planted 65 feet deep and linked together with rebar arranged into cage-like beams before being topped with a double-mat concrete slab.

Geographic constraints meant the Waskos needed to build an underground vault weighing about 100,000 pounds, cantilevered off the rear end of the foundation, to house a lift station that would act as an elevator to pump wastewater to the sewer main.

The replacement building will be roughly the same size as its predecessor and have a similar layout, with an airy, semi-enclosed patio, larger restrooms and a second floor for storage.

The exterior will retain its familiar fire engine-hued walls, green-and-white-striped awnings, green benches, large neon halibut sign — the one telling people “Don’t look up here” — and old world-style street clock.

The location of the Crab Cooker’s market case is marked on the foundation of the restaurant’s new building in Newport Beach
The location of the Crab Cooker’s market case is marked on the foundation of the restaurant’s new building in Newport Beach.
(Hillary Davis / Times Community News)

Inside, the case with fresh cuts, shellfish and house-made sauces to go will again be just past the front door. Blue spray paint already marks the spot.

The taxidermy 12-foot great white shark will again dangle from the ceiling above the front dining room and will be joined by a preserved blue marlin donated by a Crab Cooker admirer on Lido Isle who caught it years ago off Lanai in Hawaii.

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The great white has been refurbished during the hiatus. Its gray skin now gleams.

The sign asking customers to wait for a server — hand-lettered by Bob Roubian, Crab Cooker’s late founder — is worn around the edges from years of absent-minded rubbing by waiting diners.

Jim Wasko, Roubian’s son-in-law, thinks he’ll leave that lived-in touch as is.


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