Ruby returns to Ruby’s

Ruby Cavanaugh, the original Ruby, waves to guests as she made a guest appearance at the original restaurant at the end of Balboa Pier on Monday. The Irvine-based chain has some other changes coming ahead to fit the changing times.
(Don Leach, Daily Pilot)

This post has been corrected, as noted below.

The woman who put the Ruby in Ruby’s Diner was all smiles Monday as she arrived at the restaurant where it all began.

And though it was her 91st birthday, Ruby Cavanaugh remains forever young as the inspiration for a teenage mascot who delivers all-American comfort food to hungry diners.

Cavanaugh laughed, posed for photos and signed autographs in front of the Ruby’s Diner on the Balboa Pier for fans, employees and onlookers alike, some of whom made the long trip down the concrete pier just to see her. The Newport Beach location, which opened on Dec. 7, 1982, was the Irvine-based chain’s first.

“It’s wonderful,” Cavanaugh said of returning to the original spot. “Lots of memories, lots of memories. Lots of fun!”

And what of the food, nearly 31 years later?

“Well, you know, the original burger is my favorite,” she said. “And it’s just as good as it ever was.”

Ruby’s Diner founder Doug Cavanaugh, Ruby’s son, said the effort that was put into the restaurant was hands-on, right down to installing the 1,000-gallon holding tank underneath the pier.

Doug Cavanaugh also discussed some of the changes ahead for certain Ruby’s locations. The 37-restaurant chain, which features 1940s decor, is staying retro but to a slightly later era: late 1950s and 1960s.

Doug Cavanaugh calls it “post-Sputnik, pre-acid.” It’s an era that fits with his own youth, he said, with the beginning of the Space Race and car culture.

The interior will convey “a warm, contemporary setting with a nod to the Googie-inspired Los Angeles coffee shops of the late ‘60s,” according to a Ruby’s news release.

It will also have mid-century modern motifs and decor, with amoeba-shaped cutouts and circle patterns, mellow woods, marmoleum — marbelized linoleum — and “retro-modern” tiles and laminate.

“The food will be more in line with what’s happening in the food trends today, more artisan products, farm-to-market, a little bit more current,” Doug Cavanaugh said.

One of the new items will be the Next Gen Ruby’s Burger, which features a new sauce and artisan bun. Ruby’s diners on Monday got the new item for a special price: $3.10, in recognition of the chain’s nearly 31 years.

At this time, only a few locations — including the Ruby’s on Costa Mesa’s East 17th Street — will be transformed in the coming months with the new design and logo, said Jaime DeJong, Ruby’s director of marketing and franchise services.

The other Ruby’s locations in the Newport-Mesa area — South Coast Plaza, Corona del Mar, John Wayne Airport and Newport Coast — are set to remain the same.

“A lot of people are concerned that we’re going to change everything,” Doug Cavanaugh said. “We’re not.”

The original Balboa Pier location, which has a lot of sentimental value to him, won’t change either, he said.

“It’s my favorite,” he said. “Always has been, always will be.”

[For the record, 9 a.m. July 31: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Doug Cavanaugh’s first name was Dave.]