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‘Papa Fish’ Bob Roubian, founder of Newport’s landmark Crab Cooker, dies at 91

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Crab Cooker founder Bob Roubian cradles a Chinook salmon circa 2003. He died Friday of a heart attack at age 91.
(Courtesy of Wasko family)

Bob Roubian, who made a tourist draw out of simple paper cups of red clam chowder with his Crab Cooker restaurants, died Friday in Newport Beach. He was 91.

By coincidence, all of Roubian’s grandchildren were in Newport Beach last week and took him out to dinner the night before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

The Crab Cooker, which he launched in Newport Beach in 1951, served luminaries such as John Wayne, Richard Nixon, James Cagney and Nicolas Cage. But Roubian wanted everyone who ate at his restaurant to be happier for it.

His son-in-law, Jim Wasko, said he created beauty in the world, whether through art or fish.

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Roubian was born July 7, 1926, a first-generation American to a mother from Sicily and a father from Armenia. He grew up in Pasadena and right after high school joined the Navy, where he saw combat as a Seabee in World War II.

Roubian was a Renaissance man — an accomplished carpenter, musician and visual artist.

He carved the restaurant’s front door. He was a painter and photographer and took up sculpting with marble in his 30s. He wrote songs for Capitol Records in the 1950s and released records as a pianist and vocalist.

He lived humbly in a Balboa Peninsula bungalow, with a darkroom and bocce ball court, a block from the restaurant. He enjoyed gardening, and bird watching on the Back Bay. And he was, of course, a fisherman.

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He didn’t consider himself a chef but rather a seafood expert who learned the art of mesquite broiling at age 11. He was steadfast in his belief that only bad fish smells fishy and that good food doesn’t need a lot of seasoning.

“The biggest trick to this is to know there are no tricks,” Roubian said in 2006. “People are not stupid.”

Wasko, who now owns the restaurant at 2200 Newport Blvd., said the old-country values of Roubian’s parents drew the tight-knit family together for weekly dinners.

“Out of the 52 Sundays in a year, we were together, in the worst-case scenario, 45,” Wasko said.

As a toddler, eldest grandchild Jimmy Wasko, now 31, gave Roubian a nickname that stuck: “Papa Fish.”

Words were among Roubian’s currencies. During the Crab Cooker’s lean early years, he paid off a mounting back-tax bill by writing a rockabilly ditty called “The Popcorn Song (Too Pooped to Pop)” with influential country music personality Cliffie Stone.

Roubian also was a poet who dispensed idiomatic wisdom.

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“Eat life, or life will eat you,” he would tell young Jimmy, who now manages day-to-day operations at the Newport location with his sister, Jessie. (The family also runs a Crab Cooker in Tustin.)

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” according to a sign outside the restaurant.

“Common sense is not so common — improve your mind, eat lots of salmon,” the Crab Cooker website proclaims.

In the 1950s, business was about understandings sealed with gentlemanly handshakes — a culture Roubian thrived in, Jimmy said.

The Newport Crab Cooker, a landmark with its cherry-red walls, green-and-white awnings and quirky interior decor, will temporarily close soon for demolition and rebuilding after underground construction mishaps at a neighboring condominium complex left the 79-year-old building with irreparable damage to its foundation. Jim Wasko said he is still working on city permits and is unsure when the restaurant will close, but he expects it will be in the first half of 2018.

The family hopes to maintain a business presence during the construction.

Roubian is survived by his wife of 58 years, Helen; children, Robbie Roubian and Rhonda Wasko; and three grandchildren, Jimmy Wasko, Jessie Wasko and Claire Carminati.

A public memorial service is planned for noon Friday at Fairhaven Memorial Park, 1702 Fairhaven Ave., Santa Ana.

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Roubian’s family is honoring his military service by flying the flag outside the Newport location at half staff.

hillary.davis@latimes.com

Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD


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