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Owner of Newport Beach’s popular Crab Cooker looks to reopen by July

Jim Wasko is the owner of the Crab Cooker in Newport Beach.
Jim Wasko is the owner of the Crab Cooker in Newport Beach. The restored restaurant is getting ready to open in this summer after a total rebuild.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Jim Wasko initially thought the reconstruction of the Crab Cooker would have taken a year, or maybe as long as 18 months, back when he shut down the iconic Newport Beach seafood restaurant in 2018 and it went under the wrecking ball.

Instead, it’s taken nearly three years, Wasko said in an interview Friday, to give the venerable restaurant its sea legs once again. Plumbing issues caused an eight-month delay that involved an intensive re-engineering of the restaurant’s foundation in 2019. Then Wasko had to deal with the arrival of the pandemic shortly afterward.

“We couldn’t have more than 10 people on a job [at one time],” Wasko said of the construction work last year. “Everything had to be spaced out. You could have guys on the roof, but you couldn’t have people in the same vicinity [because of social distancing]. With a year of that ... and we’re still being affected of it to some extent, some of it’s loosened up, but it was kind of a double whammy.”

But things are starting to look up as work begins to close on the Crab Cooker, Wasko is aiming to open the doors and start handing out disposable plates full of food again, hopefully no later than July.

Jim Wasko, the owner of the new Crab Cooker in Newport Beach, looks around at the interior.
Jim Wasko, the owner of the new Crab Cooker in Newport Beach, looks around at the interior of the restaurant on Friday, May 14.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“It feels fabulous,” said Wasko, laughing. “It’s been a long haul from the original damage and figuring out what we’re going to do to correct the problem. There’s the permitting process, the design, the planning — it’s a lot of red tape.”

The Crab Cooker is a landmark on the Balboa Peninsula that began operating at the same location, on Newport Boulevard at 22nd Street, in 1951.

The building’s foundation suffered irreparable damage in 2014 during the construction of the Vue Newport condominium development next door. The city said the Crab Cooker’s building, which was originally built in 1938 for another business, was still safe to occupy. But when Wasko began looking into renovations, he determined it was more cost-effective to demolish and rebuild.

Wasko owns and operates the Crab Cooker with his family. He is the son-in-law of the eatery’s late founder Bob Roubian.

The restaurant has another location in Tustin — they’ve been at that site for about 30 years, Wasko said — that has continued operating through the pandemic, jumping through the same hoops that other businesses have contended with throughout the last year. It’s currently operating indoor dining at 50% and offering outdoor dining.

The new Crab Cooker building in Newport Beach is getting ready to reopen this summer.
The new Crab Cooker building in Newport Beach is getting ready to reopen this summer. Photo taken on Friday, May 14.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Wasko said the Tustin location has come close to record sales recently, but he and his family have gone without pay during the pandemic in an effort to keep their employees on board. The restaurant’s to-go and delivery sales have also become more robust in the past year, helping to keep the business afloat.

But not a day goes by that Wasko doesn’t hear from customers who want to know when the Newport Beach location will open again.

“I’m working on that day by day,” he said.

The hope is to reopen no later than the first week of July, but he said he’ll have a firmer date to offer patrons soon. Once the work is complete, they’ll be able to walk through the doors and see the 12-foot taxidermy shark hanging in the dining room again. They’ll also find the same menu items that have become favorites with guests over the years.

“What [people] can expect is the same old family recipes that we’ve had in the past. The same guys that made the chowder in Newport are making it in Tustin and the same guys are baking the bread,” said Wasko. “The chowder, the bread, the potatoes — they’re the same people and we’ll bring back a lot of the same broiler guys.”

“They can look forward to the same food and the same friendly faces that they’ve seen in the past. We’re not changing anything,” he said. “We just want to be back in business, serving the beautiful people of Orange County.”

Garrett Sickels with Richard and Richard Construction, looks at the lights in the the new Crab Cooker.
Garrett Sickels with Richard and Richard Construction, looks at the lights in the new Crab Cooker building in Newport Beach on Friday, May 14.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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