Ruby Cavanaugh dies at 93; namesake of Orange County chain of diners

Ruby Cavanaugh, whose son named the Ruby's Diner chain after her, holds a photo of herself as a young woman.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Ruby Cavanaugh never intended to be the namesake of a single restaurant — let alone a chain that spans five states and has become synonymous with all-American nostalgia.

In fact, when she saw the first Ruby’s Diner sign in Newport Beach, it came as a shock. But she grew to love being the face of the family-friendly restaurants that her son named in her honor.

Cavanaugh, who often was besieged for crayon autographs by young diners at Ruby’s, died Sunday at age 93, the Irvine company announced Tuesday.

Cavanaugh was born Ruby Michael on July 29, 1922, in Jefferson City, Mo., to Edwin and Victoria Michael. She moved with her family to California in 1936, attended Fremont High School in Los Angeles and met her future husband, Doug Cavanaugh Sr., a Navy veteran, when she was 18.


The pair, who shared a love of swing music and dancing, married in 1944 and had two children, Doug Jr. and Jane. Eventually the family moved to Tustin, where Ruby Cavanaugh lived for more than 47 years. Her husband died in 1983.

“Ruby was known for her quick smile, warm personality and inner strength,” the company said in a statement. “Her friends could count on her for warm support during their own trials and tribulations, and more than anything, she put family first.”

Her son ran a restaurant on the East Coast before he returned to Orange County and opened his own restaurant, themed after his mother’s favorite era, the 1940s. He named the restaurant after her, and on Dec. 7, 1982, the first Ruby’s Diner opened in a remodeled building at the end of the Balboa Pier, which Doug Cavanaugh Jr. had seen while jogging in Newport Beach. The red-and-white interior, ‘40s Americana decor and photos of Ruby completed the look.

Ruby’s Diner now has 35 locations in California, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas.


“Ruby enjoyed being part of the company’s growth, serving as a greeter at openings, sweetly meeting fans and admirers,” the company said. “This past July 29, on her 93rd birthday, Ruby made a surprise appearance at the Corona del Mar restaurant and was greeted by rousing cheers of fans who were enjoying a burger meal special in honor of her special day.”

Doug Cavanaugh Jr. recalled in a 2012 Daily Pilot article that his mother wasn’t always keen on the idea of having her name and likeness on the restaurant.

“We were originally going to call it the Balboa Diner, but that didn’t have a lot of longevity to it,” he said. “So we decided I was going to call it Ruby’s Diner, and I asked Mom for her permission, and she immediately said, ‘Absolutely not.’

“So, like any good son, I completely ignored her and did it. And so, on opening day, I had her walking out and I gave everybody the high sign, flipped on the neon sign where it said ‘Ruby’s.’ She immediately began to pummel me. She got over it very quickly when she realized she was the star of the show.”


Ruby told the Pilot that she hadn’t really been offended. “It was quite a thrill, really it was,” she said. “It was cute.”

Ruby Cavanaugh is survived by Jane and Doug Jr., her sister Dorothy, grandchildren Doug III, Shawn and Kate, and many nieces and nephews.

A public memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Jan. 9 at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 185 S. Center St., Orange.