Villa Nova bids arrivederci to Newport

Andy Crean never really thought of himself as the owner of Newport Beach's historic Villa Nova restaurant.

"I considered myself almost like a custodian," he said Tuesday of the Mariner's Mile hot spot he took over 20 years ago. "It's like a landmark. The employees and all that — it's like a family."

Villa Nova — whose original Sunset Strip location opened in 1933 and attracted the likes of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack — has drawn lovers of Italian classics and vino with an ocean view for since 1967 when the owners relocated to the beach.

But, as is so often the case with places that conjure times gone by, nostalgia started to overtake reality, Crean said.

"I consider it sort of like the Fun Zone at Balboa," he said. "People say they shouldn't take it out, it should be there forever, but you say, 'When was the last time you were there?' And they say, '15 years ago.'"

So, Crean said, it was time to move on.

Thursday, the property sold at auction for about $6.3 million, according to an executive at Tranzon Asset Strategies, which ran the sale.

"[Crean] decided he wanted to retire and marketed the property himself, and I think he got somewhat frustrated," said Michael Walters, regional president of Tranzon, "so he engaged us to sell the property."

Walters said Tranzon marketed the space for "just over a month," and got about 180 inquiries. Those marketing efforts culminated in Thursday's auction. Bidding started at about $2 million, he said.

The winner of the auction, Mike Moshayedi, is in talks with the owners of The Winery, an upscale contemporary restaurant and wine bar in Tustin, to move in.

"We've been listening for the last several years for opportunities that have come our way," said JC Clow, one of the owners. "We were looking at another property in Newport when this came up, so it was great timing."

He said he'd "love to have the doors open by Nov. 1," after a significant remodel.

And that's fine with Crean — sad as the changes may seem to the regulars who frequent Villa Nova's bar area to hear Richie Fauno or celebrate birthdays in the dining room.

"Bob Dylan had a song: 'The Times They Are A-Changin''," he said. "If you can't change with the times, then get out of the way."

A number of considerations — both financial and personal, he said — inspired him to sell.

Crean said he jointly owned the property with his parents, and when the second of the two died last year, estate taxes got to be a major expense.

At 62, Crean said he plans to focus on helping some of his "offspring" run their own businesses.

"I'm going to tell them how to run their business, since they've told me how to run mine," he quipped. "It's Get Even time."

Susan Emmett, Villa Nova's general manager who's been at the restaurant for 24 years, said that over the years, Crean has bred a "sense of loyalty" in employees.

At least a quarter of the 67-member staff has worked there for more than 15 years, Crean estimated. That, in turn, has inspired loyalty from the Newport community.

In the mid-1990s, when the restaurant closed for nearly a year following a fire that ravaged Villa Nova, Emmett said employees were worried that customers would forget about it.

Instead, she said, "people couldn't wait for us to reopen."

Then, like now, it's "a double-edged sword."

The restaurant is scheduled to close March 28, but that may change depending on the new owners, Emmett said. 

While employees have started looking for new jobs, she said the connections they've made in the community mean some waiters "have their own clientele."

In the meantime, Emmett said, it will be "sort of a party every night in the bar for the next few weeks."

"It's hard on the employees," Crean said, but "We want to go out in style."

Really, he said, it's just another transition.

Twitter: @jillcowan

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