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Bits and Bites: The story behind Ritz’s new interior design and reviving a charitable group

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The interior of the Ritz Prime Seafood restaurant in Newport Beach.
(Barbara Venezia / Daily Pilot)

I receive lots of interesting feedback on my columns, both the political ones and the monthly Barbara’s Bits and Bites, which discovers and rediscovers fun places to eat in Newport-Mesa.

Last month I reviewed the new Ritz Prime Seafood restaurant in Newport Beach.

Pretty much the only thing liked about the place was the décor, which prompted the restaurant’s designer, Rick McCormack, to check in and thank me for my comments.

McCormack is an interesting guy. He grew up in Costa Mesa and has been in the hospitality design biz for more than 40 years.

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“My claim to fame was being head of design for the Cheesecake Factory for almost 14 years,” says McCormack.

After designing 150 restaurants, McCormack left the Cheesecake Factory in 2008 to start his own firm, Studio McCormack, in Costa Mesa.

His clients include the Yard House, BJ’s, Seasons 52 ,Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill, Ruby’s Diner, Pizza Nova, The Winery, Bruxie and, of course, the new Ritz.

Never having interviewed a restaurant designer before, I took the opportunity to address one complaint I constantly hear from readers: noise levels in new restaurants, like the Ritz and Winery.

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“There’s a fine line between too noisy and too quiet. Everyone wants an energetic atmosphere, and that happened at The Winery,” he says.

McCormack explained that noise issues had to be addressed there after the fact, using acoustical material and consulting with an acoustical engineer.

In the case of the Ritz, a great deal of money went into acoustical materials, including a perforated wood ceiling that acts as an acoustical damper.

But what McCormack’s team didn’t anticipate was that the Ritz’s live musical duo performances would kick up the sound level for diners, creating some complaints.

He’s meeting with the owners now to address the issue.

So what about trends in restaurant interior design?

“Trends come and go,” he says. McCormack has seen his share of concrete floors, barn wood interiors and exposed rafters, all of which he feels are now overdone.

That was a good look for the recession days, he says, but now trends are leaning more toward “refinement” and fine dining.

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And as his clients see their clientele aging, there’s a shift toward wanting to attract millennials, because their sheer numbers make them a driving economic force.

Millennials look for design characteristics that reflect local flavor, which is difficult when designing for a chain, says McCormack. But this can be accomplished by simply hanging local photographs, he explained.

And though none of his clients have asked him for this specifically, McCormack says dog friendly is another trend that’s here to stay.

“Without a doubt, people are taking their dogs everywhere. It’s a nice thing to see,” he says.

Each restaurant design has its own unique inspiration.

In the case of the Ritz, McCormack originally wanted to reflect more of the original restaurant, but the new owners, Grill Concepts, chose to focus on the waterfront location. McCormack calls it a “contemporary seaside” look with the use of coral patterns reflected throughout.

In the new Ruby’s Diner in San Clemente opening later this year, the local flavor of surfing will be injected into design elements, McCormack tells me.

McCormack wasn’t the only one who reached out after my Ritz review ran. Reader Doug Forde gave me the 411 on the group formally known as the Ritz Brothers.

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For those unfamiliar with their legacy, the Ritz Brothers was founded by Hans Prager, the original owner of the Ritz Restaurant in Fashion Island.

The group met regularly at his restaurant and donated millions to local charities over the years.

Ron Salisbury, owner of the Cannery on the Peninsula and El Cholo in Corona del Mar, has been a member since the 1970s. In their heyday, the Ritz Brothers had approximately 600 members and donations of more than $100,000 annually, he says.

Salisbury is now reviving the group at the Cannery. The first luncheon was March 14, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

Charlene Prager, Prager’s widow, was there too.

Salisbury says with her help they are renaming the group. Apparently they can’t use the Ritz Brothers name or “we’ll be sued,” he told me.

“Maybe we’ll be Hans’ Cannery Boys,” says Salisbury.

But regardless of what they call themselves, Prager’s tradition of meeting five times a year — for a clam bake, Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo and Christmas — will continue, according to Salisbury.

Membership is $150, with each member choosing to donate to some pre-selected local charities. Those charities are still being determined.

At 83, Salisbury is very enthusiastic about this effort.

Though the name will change, the group Prager started many years ago will continue, as will its good works.

And if you’re interested in joining, just email Salisbury at ron@elcholo.com. The next gathering will be May 2 at the Cannery.

BARBARA VENEZIA, whose column appears Fridays, lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.


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