The menu of local restaurants shrank by two entries unexpectedly with closures at either end of town.
Patrons of Royal Hawaiian, a landmark watering hole since 1947 in North Laguna, on Sunday drank up the inventory, including its signature lapu lapu cocktail, in a free-for-all send-off and quasi wake.
The Sunday before, Café Vienna, a 10-year fixture in South Laguna, served its last health bar and steaming bowl of cappuccino.
And even as different issues beset the operators of both restaurants, another local favorite, Zpizza, facing eviction from the Aliso Shopping Center on April 15, received a reprieve and will continue to bake its popular pies sprinkled with fresh ingredients through August.
As for Royal Hawaiian’s aloha, owner Lyndon Douglas Cole blamed restrictions on playing live music that accelerated losses in the last year. On Monday, as Cole liquidated fixtures in order to pay wages to 25 employees and bills of vendors, he conceded he also no longer held a valid lease, though he declined to discuss specifics of negotiations with his out-of-town landlord.
“There wasn’t any way to make this work out without music,” said Cole, who bought the restaurant with a partner six years ago from the founding Cabang family. After a rocky start and management turnover, chef James Harris and general manager Colleen Oyler reversed the restaurant’s slipping reputation. “They’ve done a fantastic job turning it around,” Cole said.
Even so, on March 28 the city’s Planning Commission put Royal Hawaiian on notice its permit was in jeopardy if there were further violations of noise conditions or the playing of live music after set hours.
“When they put us on probation, I couldn’t risk it,” said Cole, who estimated his cumulative losses since 2006 at $5 million. “In the best month, I lost $26,000,” he said. When musicians unplugged at 11 p.m., Royal Hawaiian patrons rushed the door for the White House and Sandpiper, taking a nightly tab estimated at up to $3,000, Cole said.
Though Cole maintains the restaurant’s longevity should have exempted it from complying with time limits on performances, he never documented a history of live entertainers, said city planning manager Anne Larson.
City records show the restaurant’s first noise complaint in January 2009, Larson said. Though the nightspot was booking live acts without city approval, Cole did seek a permit in September 2010 and was urged at a hearing Dec. 8, 2010, to hire an acoustic engineer to dampen noise, Larson said. When Royal Hawaiian’s live-music permit was approved in February 2011, conditions were subject to a six-month review. Due to fresh complaints, the commission ordered an inquiry by staff, which took three ambient sound readings that all exceeded set limits and after-hours violations, the March 28 staff report says.
“We don’t want to come down hard on businesses,” said Larson, adding that verified violations weigh more heavily in commission decisions than hearsay complaints. Losing a landmark, “is not in our best interests,” she said.
For his part, Cole, a former Broadcom engineer who lives in Corona del Mar, intends to take his first vacation in more than three years.
In South Laguna, lanky Ferdinand Lettner owned and operated Café Vienna since 2002, but now remains behind the counter of Aliso Beach’s Sands Café. The county concession he co-owns with Dana Point’s Michael Weiss opens Memorial Day weekend, May 26.
“Business was going well even through the recession,” said Lettner, who nevertheless three times received rent reductions at Café Vienna in recent years to $4,000 from $6,000 monthly due to personal issues and penalties from a sales-tax audit.
“If I can’t pay what they expect from the place, they’ll move on,” said Lettner, who was offered but declined to commit to a 10-year lease renewal with standard 3.5 percent annual rent bumps because he felt the terms too steep.
“We can’t let him be there for free,” said Jim Vermilya, who has owned the property with a Dana Point partner for 12 years.
Apparently the terms don’t faze young David C. Mainiero, a former Florida resident who lives in Newport Coast. With his father’s help, Mainiero earlier this year received the city’s blessing to open Urbun, a take-out natural-beef burger joint in Laguna at a former Kentucky Fried Chicken location. He briefly re-christened the concept BurgerFi, but the renaming was recently reversed. It may be tied to a lawsuit filed in Florida: the BurgerFi franchiser on March 27 sued both the younger and older Mainiero, an erstwhile partner.
The younger one now holds Café Vienna’s keys and his broker says he intends to reopen it as a pizza shop by summer. In an email, Mainiero confirmed signing a 10-year lease on the property but declined to comment further.
Vermilya, though, expresses excitement about a fresh direction for Café Vienna.
Meanwhile, Zpizza’s Sid Fanaroff fields phone calls from brokers offering potential sites where he can relocate his flagship pizza shop. “We’re actively looking at spaces outside the center,” he said, adding that he was third in line behind Mainiero and a back-up offer at Café Vienna.
Last year Fanaroff failed to solidify lease terms with his landlord, which lined up Chase Bank as a prospective tenant for two storefronts in the center. Though the landlord withdrew an order evicting Zpizza, the deal with Chase has yet to finalize, said Zpizza’s operations manager Summer Garango. “There’s still a teeny tiny chance Chase won’t go,” she said.
Chase is negotiating over the purchase of a former bank building in Laguna’s downtown on Ocean Avenue, said Lee & Associates broker Ryan Harmon. “If they get Ocean, they may pull the plug on South Laguna,” he said.
Though Fanaroff dislikes prospecting for new digs, he’s seen a “heart opening” outpouring of community support since patrons learned of the threat. In fact, the shop front is experiencing “its busiest days since the word is out,” he said.
Photos by Mitch Ridder.