Warning diners to "get under the table if an earthquake hits" Hans Prager, owner of the Ritz in Newport Beach, celebrated the restaurant's fifth birthday with a benefit dinner for the Rehabilitation Institute of Southern California (RIO).
While guests rubbed elbows under a sprawling canopy erected outside the restaurant, they relished Sevruga caviar spooned up from tins the size of ladies' cocktail hats (actually kilos, priced at a staggering $1,000 each), lobster medallions, smoked salmon, trout and albacore; Mexican prawns; mussels, clams and oysters--all with the requisite trimmings.
"I guess you could say we put most of our effort into the seafood buffet," Prager said during the benefit Sunday, the day a 5.5-magnitude aftershock and sweltering heat hit Orange County.
"I just wish the weather was cooler," he said. "It has to be 85 out here."
Ah, but the weather was champagne-bucket cool inside the Ritz, where the 240 guests--after a fireworks salute--gathered for dinner in its taper-lit rooms.
Settling into high-back chairs, they feasted on cuisine that combined nouvelle with the classic: baby quail salad with Bavarian slaw; Chateaubriand with truffle sauce and souffle Rothschild--a crusty pouf of vanilla laced with candied fruit marinated in Goldwasser, a brandy liqueur flecked with 24-carat gold.
During the cocktail reception, Prager spoke of his involvement with RIO, a nonprofit facility in Orange that provides therapy treatment and services for the physically and functionally disabled: "We opened the Ritz five years ago with a benefit for RIO, an organization I'm happy to report puts 93 cents of every charity dollar into patient care.
"After I visited the institute five years ago, I showed a film about the facility to my staff. And the Ritz, with my staff volunteering their time, has put on this dinner every year since," he said.
Among the guests was Fred Vescial, 22, a spina-bifida patient once a client of RIO's. "I was a patient there for 10 years," said Vescial, now a student at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
"I learned to walk there. I hated my therapist, Tony Davis. But now he's my best friend. He was tough--pushed me beyond what I thought were my limits. Even when I'd start crying, he'd make me stick with it. That really helped. Otherwise, I think I would have given up."
His parents taught him never to feel sorry for himself, Vescial said, never to feel he needed exceptions. "I always attended public school. My parents were responsible for that," he said. "Fifteen years ago, schools didn't want a kid with braces or crutches. They thought I was such a liability they didn't want to risk it. But my parents kept at it and finally found a school willing to take a chance."
Architect Eugene Tutt, a volunteer with RIO since 1957, said he became involved with the institute after seeing a disabled child there who resembled his son, Patrick. "I went home that night and told my wife, Rita, that we were more fortunate than we recognized. Seeing that little disabled boy got me hooked on RIO."
RIO's executive director, Praim Singh, said the institute was Southern California's "only comprehensive outpatient rehabilitation facility."
"We have all the resources needed by disabled people--regardless of age or condition--to assist them back into functional living. And we write off about $300,000 per year in free care. Many people simply don't have the money. Our annual budget is $2 million."
Net benefit proceeds of $40,000 would go toward building the institute's new $650,000 day-care facility--the Marias Center--a planned 5,000-square-foot complex that will serve up to 125 disabled adults, Singh said.
Prager's wife, Charlene, said: "We can't begin to thank the community enough for the success of the Ritz. We never dreamed . . ."
Also attending were Bob and Mary Moore Young, co-hosts for the benefit with the Pragers; Hal and Nora Lehman, who patted her cheeks with moisture from a dripping ice sculpture; Kathleen Peck, director of development for RIO, and Bob Casey of Santa Ana, a patient of RIO's senior citizens program.