Ritz Prime Seafood Returns With Reenergized Look

When Rick McCormack stepped into the space that was once Chart House restaurant, he scanned over a completely gutted interior stripped to the studs and beams.

“That’s a great thing,” he says. This renovation, if nothing else, was a reboot built on a foundation of fresh beginnings. The plan was for Ritz Prime Seafood to resuscitate The Ritz, a Newport Beach, California, icon that opened in 1977 and operated until it flamed out in 2014. Late chef Han Prager, who died in 2004 and was revered for his work at the reliable venue, started the concept. When Los Angeles-based group Grill Concepts purchased the brand, a balance needed to be struck. The unit would have to honor its roots while re-entering the modern market. Naturally, that challenge began superficially.

McCormack, who founded Studio McCormack, set off on a $5 million project that began with a clear—literally—perspective. The new location was situated on the Newport Beach waterfront, lending to an obvious thought. “There are not that many restaurants being built on the bay front in Newport,” McCormack says. “And our hope was to really blur the lines between outside and in, and the best way to do that would be to maximize the amount of glass.”

Floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around the entire space, providing unobstructed sightlines of the bay. Even the kitchen, due to health code requirements for the hybrid setup, is enclosed completely in glass. “It’s by far the most exposed or exhibition kitchen I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve been doing this almost 40 years. You pretty much see every part of the kitchen, including parts that you normally don’t want to see,” he quips. “… It really gives you, instead of one special chef’s table you might see at a restaurant, 12 chef’s tables. Every table that’s around that glass in the kitchen feels like you’re right there in the action, with just that glass separating you. So in that respect it was very powerful.”

The nearly 7,000-square-foot, 180-seat restaurant threads a coastal theme throughout. There’s a wall sculpture akin to a swimming school of fish, and a three-spout, blue-tiled fountain in the courtyard. McCormack was proud of the leafy, feathery-type coral pattern woven throughout the space. “We introduced that as soon as people really approached the restaurant,” he explains. “It’s used in the decorative overhead metal screen that we designed for the entry courtyard ceiling; we have that pattern cutouts in that; We had it sandblasted on the stone tile side walls as you approach the entry walls; it’s the backdrop to the front desk; we had it carved into the wood bar dye; and we also had it etched onto the mirror finish stainless steel expo counter in the kitchen. We tried to make it somewhat subtle, but we’re really happy with how it turned out.”

There was some additional interest, McCormack notes, given the restaurant's footprint. The unit is housed on the ground floor of a three-story office building. “The structural ceiling above us was quite low compared to what we normally get at a restaurant,” he explains. “And that was probably our biggest challenge with the design, was how to create a perceived height without actually having it. We had to get real creative. … Sometimes I wish people could actually see through the decorative ceiling and see how we crammed everything required to make a restaurant operate between the mechanical ducts … and fire extinguishers, and on and on and on. It’s like a can of sardines above that ceiling. It’s remarkable.”

At the same time, that challenge provided a logistical benefit for the floor-to-ceiling glass design. McCormack’s team had to install glass that was about 9 feet at the perimeter walls.

Aside from the views, one of the restaurant’s most striking features is its outdoor space, specifically the patio cover. McCormack had to search for a retractable cover to meet city guidelines, which required that people passing the restaurant still be able to see the bay. The process sent his search overseas. The result was a structure that required sizable columns and a long beam that went the full length of the space to mount the awning on. Although trying, the hearty design allows for heaters, lights, and eventually created an open environment that rivals the comfort of the indoor space.

“Really, it was about trying to blur that line between indoor and out and make the patio feel just as special as when you’re sitting inside,” McCormack says.

The project took around 15 months to complete and the restaurant opened in October 2015. 

Danny Klein

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