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UPDATED: Royal Hawaiian Shuts Its Doors After 65 Years

The owner cites an oppressive city environment regarding the restaurant's live music permit.

*Updated with fresh quotes from Laguna Beach Planning Commission members Anne Johnson and Norm Grossman*

Laguna Beach Planning Commission members Norm Grossman and Anne Johnson, both of whom are cited below by Royal Hawaiian owner Doug Cole as being partially responsible for his decision to close his restaurant/nightspot, have each just spoken seperately to Laguna Beach Patch.

"It's too bad, because we always hate to lose a business," Johnson tells Laguna Beach Patch. "I did not know they were closing. I had heard they having financial problems. I'm sorry to hear they couldn't make it."

Regarding the noise complaints, Johnson says "we always have problems when residential and commercial areas are contiguous to each other. We had them with the Pottery Place, Mozambique, and Mosun when they first opened, so I was reluctant to let (Royal Hawaiian) have amplified music. They claimed it was just one neighbor who complained, but we had several complaints from the property manager and a couple of tenants. We had complaints from as far away as up the hill and across the street. We have noise ordinances in the city and it’s the Planning Commission’s job to enforce the rules. I’m surprised they didn’t appeal to the city council, because the council has the power to overrule any of our decisions. But they never did that."

“It’s sad to see any business close,” Grossman says. “But I think we make every effort to keep businesses in the city going.”

Grossman denied to Patch that he personally knows any of the people who complained about Royal Hawaiian’s noise levels.

“(Royal Hawaiian) requested the ability to do live music, and we gave it to them, with some conditions. We planned a six-month review, and during that time, we got a report they were in violation of their conditional use permit. What was critical was that it was a legitimate complaint, so we had to put them on notice.”

Grossman agrees with Royal Hawaiian owner Doug Cole's claim that one person did most of the complaining, but he says that the commission also heard from a nearby apartment manager who said that his tenants had complained to him, but were too afraid to come forward and file formal complaints with the city.

 

ORIGINAL STORY:

A jovial crowd of friends and regulars gathered around the bar Sunday night at the Royal Hawaiian, Laguna Beach’s venerable Coast Highway institution since 1947.

But the smiles were deceptive, despite the free beer and flowing . Instead, this was more like a wake—after 65 years, the Royal Hawaiian was closing for good. It served its last meal to paying customers the previous night.

Doug Cole, who bought the restaurant in 2006 from the children of the original owner and put several hundred thousand dollars worth of renovations into the business, blames his decision to shut down the Royal Hawaiian primarily on the Laguna Beach city planning commission, which restricted his live music permit. Bands that used to be able to play until 1 a.m. on busy Friday and Saturday nights were being forced to pull the plug at 11 p.m., which cost Cole the alcohol-and-good-time-loving crowds he needed to stay in business.

“I was losing at least $25,000 a month, and $15,000 of that was because of that one hour between 11 and 12 on Friday and Saturday,” Cole told Laguna Beach Patch Sunday. “I probably could have stayed open if I had that.”

“The loss of revenue hurt us beyond belief,” said General Manager Colleen Oyler. “The rent is very high, and that was a factor as well. The landlord would not budge on the rent.”

Oyler was taking the loss of the Royal Hawaiian pretty hard, her eyes welling up when asked to contemplate her next move.

“I’m OK, I’m good. I’ve got two kids—one going to college—but I always land on my feet. I’m a positive person.”

“The planning commission put me on probation because one person complained about noise,” said Cole. “The trouble is, she personally knows several of the people on the planning commission, so her complaint meant more than anything else. There's lots of cronyism."

Asked to cite who these commission members are, Cole mentions Norm Grossman and Anne Johnson. Laguna Beach Patch attempted to contact Grossman and Johnson via phone and email Sunday night for comment, but they have yet to respond.

“They’re going to say we were violating the noise levels, but we were not,” Cole says. “This business shouldn’t have even needed the music permit. It should have been grandfathered in, because there was live music here before I ever bought it. And there was no evidence there was a sound problem. Just because someone complains to the police doesn’t mean there’s a violation, but they were treating it as if there was. You can’t fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Fans of the Royal Hawaiian were throwing back one last round Sunday, and sharing some favorite memories.

“Part of me died when I heard the news it was closing,” said Jon Blanciak. “It’s like Cheers, everybody knows your name, and they treat you like family. There’s a legacy that’s being left behind. Part of Laguna is being taken out.”

Blanciak also took issue with the restaurant’s alleged noise violations.

“I live down the street and I walk here. I get within half a block, and you can’t hear anything. Maybe if the people complaining came in and had a drink, they wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”

Derek Gray, a Royal regular since 1996 who was “shocked and dismayed” upon hearing of the closure, says he’ll always remember the, ummm … interesting effect of the Lapu Lapu.

“One of my neighbors, this beautiful brunette, she and I walked in to the bar, we’re having Lapus, then I began licking her toes. What happened after that I can’t say, but it was a beautiful evening in Lapu Lapu land.”

Ronald Kaufman has been coming to the Hawaiian since 1960, a peak year in tiki bar culture.

“It’s a major loss, and leaves a big empty hole in Laguna Beach restaurant history. I’m going to miss this place, it has more atmosphere than most restaurants do.” 

As the Royal Hawaiian's final night stretched on and the crowd thinned, a reflective Cole was asked what he plans to do next.

"Recover," he said. "And find a job, now that I've lost almost everything I own."

SM September 09, 2012 at 12:40 AM
I have resided in Laguna Beach for almost 10 years and recently moved. I'll return back when I'm 70 years old. Laguna may have the coastal beauty of the southern Mediterranean, but European it is not. There is absolutley no selection of socialized networking for my age group (late 20's to 40's). You see, elders, this is very important and should be categorized as relevant to growth of future generations. And yes, I do belive in a plot-like conspiracy in RH closure. The older people get, many times unhappiness ensues (I.e., not wanting to see others happy),
Saddened October 25, 2012 at 09:34 PM
Sad to see the Royal Hawaiian close. I've been eating there for over 50 years. BUT, when the new owners took over, things did change; mostly the ribs they've been famous for. Supposedly the chef changed the sauce recipe but when they first reopened the sauce was pretty much the same. The last few times I was there the pork wasn't the same and the sauce tasted like ketchup! As far as the music they had every right to have live, BUT again, it was so loud you couldn't talk to your dining companions. Live music is one thing, deafening is another. Maybe the previous owners will rethink their decision to sell and come back....
Matt Colver December 01, 2012 at 03:47 PM
I'm sorry to read the RH closed down. My favorite restaurant in the whole world for many years was the Royal Hawaiian. I always loved to eat there then walk down to Las Brisas afterward for coffee. I cashed out of California and moved to Colorado (The California I grew up in was gone) in early 2007. So I've only been back to the RH a few times since. I was looking forward to eating there this Christmas season when out to see family. Too bad it's gone. More of the California I knew growing up, is gone. I traded the beach for the mountains and haven't regretted it.
Inland Steve December 09, 2012 at 05:43 PM
My fiance took me to the "old" RH when we first started dating 11 years ago, and I loved it. She had been there many, many times over the years, first with her parents and then later with friends and family. Combo ribs and shrimp, and two pints of ono-ono dressing to go were our standard order. When the remodel started, we still went, dining under the roof with the gaping spaces between boards. As the remodel progressed, we could see that it was going to be a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT restaurant, but as long as the food stayed the same, we'd keep going. The last time we were in, the changes had just become too much. The prices too high, the TV too loud, the decor too sterile, and the dressing too different. Decided right then that we would not be going back. Too fond of how it used to be to accept this INO of the Royal Hawaiian. I'm sorry the new owners lost everything on it. Something tells me they should have renovated only enough to bring it up to code, and then left it the same as it ever was.
Bummed out local February 08, 2013 at 03:11 AM
Can't believe it has been that long since it closed. I began going to the RH in 1982 on dates. The atmosphere was everything. The staff wore Hawaiian dress and it was the place to be. Mid 80's took my wife there and we had the Lapu Lapu. Super sweet super punch. The Ribs and Shrimp Combo was my perennial favorite till they sold. As was fair, we gave the new owners several opportunities to maintain our business. The decor became sterile, the food and drink changed way to rapid. Had an early day at the bar watching TV by myself. They had four TV's. People started coming including some of the new 'regulars'. The program I was watching got changed on me twice -- WT#$%? After the second time I was to move to watch my sports program, I politely asked the bar gal why was I being messed with. This loud mouth, white haired old man yelled across the bar that his program was more important. I walked up to this arrogant piece and his wife turned pale. True RH locals of lore never behave like him. I politely let him know that letting people like him into iconic locales will be the establishment's demise. That was my last time. Call it like it was. The music angle described for two hours a week is a patsy.

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