Ritz counts down — to its closing

On New Year's Eve, Beccy Rogers donned a black suit with a fur collar. She selected sparkling earrings and a necklace, and finished the look with a glitzy clip decorating her long hair, pulled back into a tight bun.

She has worn this outfit on Dec. 31 for each of the many years she has spent working at Newport Beach's long-established Ritz Restaurant and Garden. But as the clock struck midnight, ringing in 2014, the turn of the year also indicated a more significant milestone.

After more than 30 years, the night was Rogers' last New Year's Eve in the restaurant's 880 Newport Center Drive location, where it opened in 1982.

The Ritz, first established near the Newport Pier in 1977, will shut its doors Feb. 15.

The Irvine Co. did not renew the restaurant's lease, choosing instead to convert the first floor office building space, referred to as the Pacific Financial Plaza, into something other than a restaurant.

"We want to go in a different direction with the site," said Michael Lyster, vice president of communications for the Irvine Co.

The Ritz's owners, who were initially granted a lease extension only through January 2013, are hoping to find a new location. Nothing has been finalized yet.

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A time passed

With trendy restaurants like Javier's being joined by newer spots like Fig & Olive and Red O, perhaps time simply took its toll on the Ritz, a bastion among Orange County's elite, who would gather for dinners served by a friendly staff adhering to strict formal dining standards.

"It was the movers and shakers that were there," said Jim Allen, who frequented the Ritz for lunch. "It was, at the time, the place to be seen."

Allen likened the restaurant in its heyday to a sort of country club and home base for many businessmen. The most loyal joined the Ritz Brothers, which gathered five times a year and donated to charities. The Ritz Sisters, an equivalent though smaller group for women, formed later.

Allen recalled taking clients out for martinis at lunch and seeing well-dressed women come in at the fashionable hour of 1:30 or 2 p.m.

"There was a time when no other restaurant could even come close," said Ritz Controller Laurie Virtue. "We were it."

But with competition and an evolving clientele, the restaurant has changed. Walk-in booths with privacy curtains were removed and a garden area added. The art was exchanged for more contemporary pieces. In the bar, which reminds many of "Cheers," televisions were installed.

The dress code also loosened up, allowing men to slip in without ties and freeing female employees to wear something other than tuxedo shorts and black heels, although they remain bound to red lipstick.

"Over the years you kind of have to change a little bit to keep things new," Virtue said.

Still, with a decor of dark wood, mirrors and leather booths, the atmosphere evokes a time passed, when the restaurant operated under restaurateur Hans Prager, who transitioned operations over to a new partner in 1997.

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A personal touch

On New Year's Eve, the first female guests to arrive stood in floor-length dresses. In all, between 600 and 700 guests would fill the sold-out restaurant. Some shed a few tears over the impending closure, Rogers said.

Dinner was a $99, four-course menu — entrees typically range between $30 and $50 — that began with the traditional Ritz egg, served with caviar and a vodka shot, and featured a choice of entrees like roast holiday goose and rack of lamb.

Rogers prepped her staff, reviewing the menu, discussing when New Year's tiaras should be passed out and warning servers to keep track of customers and checks when Table 28 was removed and people began to dance.

"We want to go down as the best," she said later. "I don't like change, but I have to accept it."

The staff, devoted to the restaurant and each other, give the Ritz its heart and soul, Rogers said.

A worker would never ask, "Is everything all right?" server Kelly Dye explained. "We don't want it to be just 'all right.'"

Servers know if guests got a haircut and what their drink of choice is. Cuff links made by a co-worker bearing "We are family" exemplify the staff's bond to each other.

Prager, who died in 2004, developed a personal relationship with many of the diners too, Allen said.

After all, Allen didn't just keep coming back because the food always tasted good and the service proved immaculate. Prager greeted guests by name, and in Allen's case, told him when he needed to go see a barber.

As Rogers said, "This is a unique restaurant. It really is."

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