Saturday, April 28, 2012

Aloha to the Royal Hawaiian

After 65 years, the Royal Hawaiian -- one of the last Polynesian/Tiki themed restaurants in Southern California, one of the oldest restaurants in Orange County, and a Laguna Beach landmark -- closed yesterday. Francis Cabang opened the Royal Hawaiian at 331 N. Coast Highway in 1947 and members of the Cabang family ran the place until 2006 when it changed ownership and underwent a major remodel.

I'm sad but not entirely surprised that the place closed. The key reasons given for the closing are the economy and high rent, which makes sense. But a number of major changes since 2006 probably didn't help either. Prices went up, the amazing and enchanting jungle village decor all but disappeared, their lapu-lapu shrank (a common problem when reaching age 65), and it was not uncommon for meals to be accompanied by modern rock music rather than something from the islands. Stu News Laguna is reporting that another key cause of the closure was the city cracking down on how late live music could be played. Of course, it wasn't that long ago that the place didn't have live music at all.

But even the watered down Royal Hawaiian was far better than no Royal Hawaiian at all, and it will be missed.
There are articles about the restaurant's closure in both the L.A. Times and the O.C. Register.

The placemat at the top of today's post is from the late 1940s and was given by Royal Hawaiian owner Junior Cabang to the guys at Oceanic Arts in Whittier. The illustrations of the restaurant immediately above and below are from the late 1940s or early 1950s. I wish I had photos of the old interior. It was  truly remarkable. At one point, the place was so popular that a second Royal Hawaiian was opened in Anaheim. It stood at 1025 S. Los Angeles St. (now Anaheim Blvd).

 The Royal Hawaiian's Facebook page reads, "It's with heavy hearts that we announce the closing of a Laguna Beach icon. After 65 years of business we served our last lapu lapu last night. We can't express how much gratitude we have for all of our guests, regulars and staff who have supported us."
The photo above shows two of the tikis by carver Andreas Bumatay that stood in front of the restaurant prior to it's remodeling in 2006. The photo below shows the Royal Hawaiian's back bar after the remodel. It was probably the most visually interesting bit of the new stuff.
It's getting more and more difficult to get an authentic fix of Mid-Century tiki style in Orange County. Don the Beachcomber's (the former Sam's Seafood) in Sunset Beach and Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room are just about all that's left. (And the Disney version, while delightful, was always pretty,... Disneyfied.)

Like those "doomsday preppers" hiding guns and canned food in their lead-lined cellars while waiting for the apocalypse, perhaps I need to build my own authentic tiki room -- Insurance against the sad day when Orange County's last vintage tiki torch is snuffed out.


Anonymous said...

Another sad loss of regional culture. I regret never being able to visit either location, although I remember seeing the Anaheim version as a child.

Major Pepperidge said...

Oh man; how can this be going away? I wish I could have seen it in its heyday. This makes me sad....

Anonymous said...

I remember dining at the Royal Hawaiian when prices were reasonable. I took a date there recently and shortly after we ordered I discovered I didnt have enough cash. So then I QUICKLY drove back to Dana Point to grab my wallet and 30 minutes later, my date surprisingly was still there and the broiled steak just arrived. The old charm of the Royal Hawaiian mustve been scrapped along with the aging walls and old carpet from its heyday.

Lovely Orange Correspondent said...

Oh Chris this makes me sad :-(
What are they going to do with all that wonderful polynesian decor? Are they going to sell it off or are they going to do the absolute horrible and trash it all. Please say they won't, if they do, I will be dumpster diving in the middle of the night to get my hands on all the wonderful tropical decor. I remember the last time you and I had dinner there we were all but shooed out of our table so they could set up the live band so the 'meat market' could begin, it was very disheartening. :-/
Thanks for the update and a great blog post!

Chris Jepsen said...

Yes, I thought of that too. I think that evening was probably a perfect example of how the new management didn't know what they had and certainly didn't know what to do with it.

I can't imagine them throwing out the decor. That stuff is expensive! I would assume they either sent it to auction or sold it back to Bob and Leroy at Oceanic Arts.

Darla said...

I have no memory of it, but my mom told me the Anaheim restaurant was one of our last stops on the way out of town when my father was transferred from NAS Los Alamitos to NAS Norfolk. I still have the recipes they gave us for the dressing and the barbecue sauce, but sadly we were never able to get quite the same taste whenever we made them--at least in part due to the fact it just wasn't feasible for us to make them in those volumes!

Anonymous said...

Hi Darla,
Would it be possible to get a copy of your recipes? My parents spent their honeymoon in Laguna and started our family tradition when they stumbled upon this restaurant. We've been going there for over 60 years for all our special occasions. This would be a huge find for me. Thanks so much, Laurie Hodson

Anonymous said...

The new owner destroyed the place. I told that moron he was making a big mistake but he seemed to think his business model was progressive.

Chris Jepsen said...

Anonymous: "Progressive" is frequently code for "stupid."

Anonymous said...

I have owned and operated four businesses for over forty one years so I speak with some experience. Those of you who frequently posted negative blogs played a big part in this restaurant's demise. Had I never been there and just judged the place by the negative reviews I most likely never would have tried the place. Fortunately, I have been there many times and loved it and will miss it terribly. Nothing stays the same, prices go up on everything especially on food the owner pays more for his purchases and has to pass it along to the consumer this is not a new concept people. Next time you consider a bad review for a business THINK before you post it maybe there is a new chef, new server, etc. I would love to have our old Royal Hawaiian back no matter what you negative people have to say about it. Bet you would too.

Chris Jepsen said...

Anonymous: As for the notion that this blog post somehow helped drag the RH down, please note that it wasn't even written until AFTER the restaurant had already closed its doors for the last time.

I -- like most of the folks who have posted in the comments section here -- am certainly sad that the Royal Hawaiian is gone. In the days before Yelp, I always did what I could via word-of-mouth to encourage people to go.

I don't think its at all unfair to point out that while the drinks were very good and the food was affordably priced, it was the AMBIANCE and themeing that made the Royal Hawaiian downright magical. So when the ambiance went away and the prices went up, there was bound to be some disappointment.