Jimmy Wasko and his father, Jim, pose under a preserved great white shark at the Crab Cooker, their Newport Beach restaurant that will be torn down and rebuilt. The shark was caught in Newport in 1960, according to the sign dangling above it.(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)
The owner of the Crab Cooker in Newport Beach closed its doors in preparation to tear down the restaurant and rebuild it after it was damaged during construction of the condominiums next door.(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)
An icon within an icon: Workers guide the Crab Cooker’s great white shark out a dining room window for a quick trip to storage.(Photo by Hillary Davis)
The shark is rolled a short distance down Newport Boulevard on a dolly.(Photo by Hillary Davis)
A greeting near Crab Cooker’s fish market reads “Welcome Dear Fish Eaters.”(Photo by Hillary Davis)
Every crab must molt, but only one shark hibernates.
Newport Beach’s landmark Crab Cooker restaurant closed for rebuilding Sunday, and by Wednesday almost all the decor that made the four walls and a roof a local institution were gone, shuttled to the restaurant’s warehouse across the street — the hostess stand and the 8-foot-tall mahogany mermaid that stood over it like a siren sentry, the artfully mismatched chairs, the street signs and barber pole, the framed photo of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, the price tags that pressed against the display case that held house-made clam chowder and tartar sauce to go.
The centerpiece of the dining room, the 12-foot preserved great white shark that hung from the ceiling, was one of the last pieces to exit as workers pried out a window and carried the open-mouthed creature out to Newport Boulevard. It’s now in the warehouse — which most recently was a swimwear boutique — on a pallet that carpenters will fashion into a custom crate to protect the big fish during the closure.
But the shark, like the restaurant, will be back.
Legend has it, and is so inscribed on a wooden sign over the shark’s dorsal fin, that the specimen was caught off the Newport Pier in 1960. It weighed 1,400 pounds at the time. It now weighs about 300. It has been with the restaurant almost as long as late founder Bob Roubian served mesquite-broiled fish on unpretentious paper plates.
The cherry-red Crab Cooker building, which has stood at the corner of Newport Boulevard and 22nd Street since 1938 and has housed the restaurant since 1951, sustained irreparable foundation damage four years ago during construction of the Vue Newport condominium complex next door.
The city determined it was still safe to occupy, but when owner Jim Wasko researched renovations, he concluded it was more cost-effective to tear down and rebuild than attempt remodels that would bring the historic building to current code.
Wasko hopes to reopen the restaurant by next summer. The Crab Cooker’s sister in Tustin, which also is home to a hanging shark, remains open.
The rebuilt Newport Crab Cooker will stand on the same spot with a similar layout and the same red and green exterior color scheme. It will keep recognizable elements such as the striped awnings, the “Don’t look up here” sign and all the quirky decor — like the shark.
As the construction crew contemplated the physics and geometry of lifting the shark off its hooks and out the window, one cautioned: “That’s taxidermy. That’s a work of art.”