Wayne Judah sat in the dimly lit dining room of the Admiral Risty, surrounded by cooks and servers and bartenders gathered for a group photo.
The restaurant’s owner and a man of few words, Judah wore a Mona Lisa smile as he told his employees to wave farewell.
“Bon voyage, everybody,” he said quietly.
Then, he straightened his dark suit jacket, took his place by the front door and greeted dinner guests by name, gently brushing aside questions about what comes next.
The Admiral Risty, a venerable 53-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes steak and seafood restaurant, has long been a favorite spot for a fancy night out on the peninsula.
But the eatery, squeezed out by rising rents, will close for good in August. Dinner reservations have been filled for weeks, and each night has become a wake of sorts for longtime diners saying final goodbyes and for a staff whose tenures can be measured by decades.
“Closing is like a death in the family,” said Judah, 74. “The emotion of it. The stress of it. I’ve probably lost 10 pounds over the last few weeks.”
Situated high above the water in a Palos Verdes Drive shopping center, the restaurant building is owned by the Golden Cove Center company, which is managed by Tucson Zarrabian, public records show. Zarrabian could not be reached for comment.
For half a century, little changed at the Admiral Risty, even as the world changed around it.
The restaurant was opened by Ralph Wood Jr., a World War II veteran who had served in Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army in Germany.
Wood started a chain of hamburger restaurants in the 1950s called Woody’s Smorgasburger, known for its self-serve condiment bars where people could dress up their own patties. When a Smorgasburger opened in Monterey Park in 1962, a blurb in the Los Angeles Times called it the latest “gimmickful hamburger spot,” mentioning a bar where customers “can build their own boatload sundaes (Sounds wild!).”
In 1966, Wood opened his first upscale restaurant, the Admiral Risty, in the newly built Golden Cove Shopping Center in Rancho Palos Verdes. He named it after his wife, Barbara “Risty” Ristrom Wood, his sweetheart since their days at South Pasadena High School. Wood filled it with whaling decor as a testament to their love of the sea.
Judah was a 24-year-old Army sergeant stationed at Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro when he took a bartending gig at the Admiral Risty in 1969.
The restaurant was treading water, and Wood’s attention was focused on trying to expand Woody’s Smorgasburger. Judah had been tending bar for a few months when the manager had a heart attack. He stepped in.
Judah and his wife, Jan, acquired full ownership of the restaurant in 2015 after Wood died at age 90.
Most of the Admiral Risty’s seafaring artwork — original pieces designed by South Bay artists — was installed in the 1970s and 1980s. A cut-metal screen that takes up the east wall of the dining room depicts an old whaling station at nearby Portuguese Bend. There’s a seashell chandelier, and a ceramic tile mural in the entryway features bearded whalers and the words of a 1902 John Masefield poem:
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, to the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife.
There also are hand-carved, wooden leviathan centerpieces. A few have been swiped in recent weeks. One customer told an employee that she knew someone who had taken one and would try to guilt that person into bringing it back. It showed up in a sack outside the front door a few days later.
Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Susan Brooks said the Admiral Risty never seemed to change, and there was comfort in that. She often took her children — now 37 and 40 and both working in marine science — when they were young. Her daughter would sneak away from the table, and she’d usually be in the ladies’ room, tracing a huge tile whale tail with her fingers.
“It’s still the exact same design,” Brooks said. “It always just looks unique and memorable and lovely, and it’s got a place in our hearts. That restaurant will be sorely missed. I am very disappointed with the owner of the shopping center for making it so difficult, but there was nothing the city could do.”
Brooks said she has tried reaching out to Zarrabian several times but never heard back.
The restaurant’s lease ends this year, and Judah said he and the property owner could not agree to the terms of a new one. He wouldn’t discuss specifics but said the conditions would have made it too tough to sell.
“The cost of occupancy has gotten to where it’s prohibitive to make very much profit, so I just decided it’s time to retire,” Judah said. “And we’ll just leave it at that.”
In January, Kathy Berg, who has done marketing for the restaurant for three decades, put out a news release announcing the Admiral Risty’s closure. Legions of customers, she said, were in shock and denial.
“Oh my word, my email, my texts, my phone — the whole hill was on fire,” Berg said.
Among the things at the Admiral Risty that rarely changed was the staff.
The longest-serving member was Dan Heller, who worked as a bartender and host for 42 years. Heller took pride in serving groups of former employees of nearby Marineland of the Pacific, one of Southern California’s first theme parks. It abruptly closed in 1987 after trucking its killer whales, Corky and Orky, to SeaWorld in the middle of the night.
Heller died last week, shortly after learning he had liver cancer. Judah said he had longed to see the Risty through to the end.
In its final months, the Admiral Risty has been so busy that Judah hired extra staff. It’s been emotionally taxing. Everyone wants to say goodbye.
“There are good customers we’ve had for decades who will say, ‘I don’t know if I’ll make it back, so best of luck to you,’” said Tim Roderick, the 61-year-old floor manager who has worked there for nearly 20 years. “It’s hugs, all that stuff. … It’s hard to think about because it’s been a big chunk of my life. A third of my life.”
“I think the odd part is just to think it’s been crazy busy for the last six months of the business — then it’s just going to stop.”
Jan Jay Judah said she’s looking forward to seeing her husband of 28 years much more after the closure. She first met Wayne when her two adult sons worked in the restaurant as high schoolers.
One was working long hours, and Jay Judah called Wayne, incredulous, asking him to cut the boy some slack. Wayne responded: “Ma’am, I’ve got a business to run.”
But her boys said Wayne would mention her, and they suspected he liked her. After they graduated and moved on, she came in for a meal and he quietly asked her out. Jay Judah said her sons credit him for instilling a lifelong work ethic in them.
Last week, Wayne Judah sat beside a window in the restaurant’s lounge, where binoculars rested on the sill. Sometimes you can see spouts from migrating gray whales, he said. He never tires of the view.
Judah’s blue eyes were tired. He doesn’t like talking about himself, and he’s been overwhelmed by the response to the closure.
He knows the place, with its wicker chairs and old tables, is a little dated. Young people said so in reviews. But mostly, he said, there hasn’t been much need to change.
“It takes time to build tradition,” he said. “It takes experience to build tradition.”