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Five-Star General

Dining: Hans Prager is turning over day-to-day affairs at his acclaimed Newport Beach restaurant, the Ritz.

February 12, 1997|LESLEY WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — First went the nude oils on the wall. Then the red velvet chairs were discreetly whisked away for a trip to the upholsterer.

In came a subdued but richly detailed peach brocade to match the swirls on the original wallpaper. Up went the witty Guy Buffet lithographs. And slowly, very slowly, the shorts that the waitresses have sported for two decades are being traded for trousers.

Now, Hans Prager has taken the ultimate step to ensure that his legendary house of fine dining, the Ritz, will continue to flourish into the new millennium. After two decades of tending to every minute detail and greeting diners with his customary old-world graciousness, Prager, 67, will turn over the daily chores of running the restaurant to a new partner.

Philip Crowley, who was groomed for 25 years at Lawry's Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar, will oversee the five distinct rooms serving critically acclaimed continental cuisine. Crowley also will be responsible for instituting the inevitable changes the five-star restaurant will have to make to avoid the pitfalls that toppled such famed fine-dining establishments as the original Chasen's and Le St. Germain in Los Angeles, both of which closed during the brutal recession of the early 1990s.

"Change is so rapid in this world, if we don't keep up with it we're history," Prager said.

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For his first assignment, Crowley will preside over the opening this spring of a 100-table garden dining area designed to attract the more casual diner.

Change in the fussy world of fine dining can be a perilous thing, analysts say. Move too fast and restaurateurs risk alienating their most loyal customers. Move too slowly and they fail to attract younger diners who generally prefer more casual restaurants that offer excellent food and good service without all the fanfare.

"If you change radically, you compromise the market you have," says Los Angeles restaurant consultant Robert Patterson. "You need to change dishes and make subtle changes in decor. If McDonald's had never changed its menu, they wouldn't be in business today."

For two decades, the Ritz has borne Prager's imprint--reflected in the elegant, oak-paneled rooms and the black leather booths that he long ago decided would give it the "masculine" and "clubby" look he wanted to achieve.

But Prager, whose instincts for the subtleties of the high-wire restaurant business are as impeccable as his manners, is getting tired. He still plans to spend many hours at the restaurant, tinkering with the menu, chatting with his customers and mulling over long-term plans. But the daily work will be done by Crowley, allowing Prager "to retreat to an area I really feel comfortable in--the kitchen and the bar."

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There were no independent restaurants in Orange County to equal the Ritz when Prager opened for business at an oceanfront location in 1977, said veteran restaurant consultant Phyllis Ann Marshall. The establishment was small--only 12 tables--but the Ritz quickly developed a reputation as the place where the county's elite could hobnob over white tablecloths.

Five years later, one of the regulars, Pacific Mutual chief executive Walter Gerkin, persuaded Prager to move to its current much larger site at Fashion Island--which was a stone's throw from Gerkin's office.

Drawing on 40 years of experience gained in some of the country's best eateries, Prager set out to develop an elegant restaurant in a county that had long taken a back seat to L.A.'s fine-dining establishments.

"Orange County has always had very elegant restaurants within our hotels," Marshall said. "But we didn't really have anything of this grandeur or size. It attracted the core business and social set almost immediately. This came at a time when it was needed and wanted."

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The road to the Ritz was a circuitous one for Prager.

He was born in the small town of Oppeln, Germany, where his father owned a prosperous liquor company. "We had a nanny, a cook, a chauffeur, and I never really knew anything else," Prager recalled.

When the Nazis gained control, his father moved the family to Shanghai, China, one of the few cities that offered sanctuary to Jewish refugees who did not have sponsors.

That's where Prager landed his first restaurant job--peeling potatoes and busing at the Fiaker. Fritz Strehlen, a dislocated actor from Vienna, had opened the restaurant, placing a window between the dining room and the kitchen so the guests could watch his dramatic cooking technique.

Prager, then 15, thought it was the best show around. "I liked the part of the business that was stage business," he said. "I liked being on a stage. . . . I think the restaurant business got me over being shy."

He was nearly 18 years old when the Pragers got word from the Red Cross that a relative in Beverly Hills was searching for the family. Prager is still awed that the Red Cross and the United Jewish Welfare Fund would search them out and bring them to the United States.

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