Waiting for me to arrive for lunch, giddy as schoolgirls playing hooky, my mother and her friends were having a grand time in the bar of the Ritz. Not the posh hotel, but the newly expanded Newport Beach restaurant, the glitzy spot that has welcomed a veritable Who's Who of Orange County swells.
At the entrance, smartly dressed valets whisk away your fully loaded Land Rover or Land Cruiser. And when I approach the maitre d's podium to see if our table might be ready early, she tells me sternly, "It will be ready at 1 o'clock." I should have known better than to ask. The Ritz prides itself on running like clockwork.
At 1 sharp, we trail a waiter toward the restaurant's new garden room, through the bar and a dark dining room lined with the kind of paintings that used to grace bordellos, i.e., reclining naked ladies painted vaguely in the style of various masters. Classy.
Though owner Hans Prager has reportedly spent half a million dollars on this outdoor terrace, it's hard, at least for a layperson, to see where all the money went. The floor is poured concrete. So are the garden's walls, which don't do much to disguise the fact that we're eating on the outskirts of a shopping mall. Once the plants grow in and trumpet vines twine on the trellises high above, replacing the industrial-looking structure that shades the space now, it may look more romantic. But those green plastic garden chairs with faux-cane inserts certainly don't help.
Waiters, all beautiful blonds wearing full makeup in the heat, are now attired in dark slacks and vests instead of the Ritz's signature hot pants. (That particular indignity is now reserved for the bar.) I did wonder about the Ritz's famous service when we asked our bored server if someone could please move an umbrella to shade one person whose seat was directly in the broiling sun. In the end, we had to flag down a bus person ourselves.
The food at lunch is decent, nothing more. There's a cool, crunchy gazpacho or a soothing chilled cucumber soup laced with yogurt. Cobb salad is fine, except for the dull dressing, but a tomato and sweet onion salad should have better-tasting tomatoes, given that it's the height of tomato season. Calves' liver is nicely cooked with applewood smoked bacon. And cold poached king salmon with a sweetish mustard dill sauce and a little celery root salad is the perfect entree for a hot summer day.
The Ritz, Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach; (714) 720-0936. Open Monday to Friday for lunch; daily for dinner. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking. Lunch appetizers $4.95 to $12.50; lunch entrees $7.95 to $16.95.