The Arches restaurant lives on in spirit

General manager and operating partner Jordan Otterbein, left, and chef Jonathan Blackford of A Restaurant in Newport Beach.
General manager and operating partner Jordan Otterbein, left, and chef Jonathan Blackford of A Restaurant in Newport Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Weekend)

The Arches restaurant was a Newport Beach institution that welcomed celebrities and Marines and everyone in between.

It opened in 1926 and served the likes of Shirley Temple and John Wayne among other Hollywood stars from its original West Coast Highway building.

But after several decades of having Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Bob Hope stop in for dinner, the Arches — which by then had moved to a new location — abruptly closed in 2011.

Buddies Jordan Otterbein and Joseph McGinty “McG” Nichol, friends since they were both students at the former Lincoln Middle School in Newport Beach, would go to the Arches with classmates and marvel at this piece of city history.

So it might have come as no surprise when, 40 years later, the two buddies would choose to become business partners and that their thoughts would return to the Arches.

Though they didn’t know anything about the restaurant business, Nichol jumped on the opportunity to preserve the original building and run an eatery, and he quickly brought onboard Otterbein, who has business experience.

Eight years ago, they bought the structure on West Coast Highway, though it needed a complete renovation. Now the one-story, red building, which they immediately renamed A Restaurant, is a similar, yet hipper, fine-dining establishment.

The restaurant has flourished under the ownership of Nichol and Otterbein, who give credit to chef Jonathan Blackford for revitalizing the kitchen five years ago.

A Restaurant is celebrating the 90th anniversary of the landmark venue. Such a celebration, Otterbein said, calls for celebratory menu items that will remain available for several months.

“It’s iconic,” Otterbein said as he sat in one of the restaurant’s brown-leather chairs. “We wanted to give a nod to the past and honor what was here, and give it that updated feel of an old-school steakhouse.”

Framed black-and-white photographs of local attractions like the Ferris wheel at the Balboa Fun Zone and the Lido Theater hang on the wood-paneled walls that surround a dining room of lipstick-red booths.

But the emphasis was on modernizing the menu, Otterbein said, noting that the options are changed seasonally. A Restaurant is mainly touted for its house and specialty cuts, like the boneless rib eye, filet mignon and Japanese A5 Miyazaki Beef.

The specialty cut is known for its cherry-red color, tender texture and dense meat taste that yields the highest grade in the Japanese beef grading system. The grading system rates beef on marbling, firmness, meat color and quality of fat.

A Restaurant’s attention to detail, its welcoming feel — bartenders are known to pour a loyal customer’s drink before he or she orders it — and reputation for serving an award-winning menu contributes to its popularity and longevity, Otterbein said.

It’s the historic building too, Otterbein said.

Construction began on the Arches, which was originally built as a roadside diner and service station, in 1925, the same year the Coast Highway opened from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach. The menu featured steak and seafood and was acclaimed for its French food by the early 1970s.

The Arches was reportedly the first restaurant in Newport Beach to get a liquor license.

After several decades in its original location, the Arches moved in 2007 to Westcliff Drive, but the owner struggled to keep it afloat and closed it in 2011.

Many customers who dined at the Arches are now regular patrons at A Restaurant, Otterbein said.

“It has the neighborhood ‘Cheers’ feel here,” he said, referring to the television series focused on the regulars at a Boston bar.

Blackford created a contemporary new American menu, building relationships with local farms and other purveyors, most of whom are within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant.

The new menu will feature a special dish for $90 in honor of the property’s 90th anniversary — a 30-day, dry-aged, 32-ounce Porterhouse bone-in filet and New York strip, carved to order.

And to toast the celebration, the bar will showcase a Black Tie Martini, composed of Ketel Citroen Vodka and Nolet Gin with lillet blanc for $14.

Blackford, who is commemorating his 20th year of cooking, said he likes to refresh the restaurant’s menu with more technical dishes, like the suckling pig starter that calls for a four-day preparation.

“We keep evolving with new ideas and trends that I find in big cities,” Blackford said. “We have a clientele that looks for something different, and that’s given me the freedom to do more complicated dishes.”

Added Otterbein: “There aren’t many places doing what we’re doing. We’re really fortunate that we have the elements that make up a successful restaurant, and we’re lucky to have that great ambience and the cuisine that’s second to none. This is a tip of the hat to the old and honoring what was here.”

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