CITY HALL — Kitsch beat glam for space on the Santa Monica Pier when the City Council voted to extend the lease for Rusty’s Surf Ranch over a new operator, preserving a nearly two-decade old business in the process.
The 18-year-old restaurant with its homage to Santa Monica surf culture and laid back vibe beat out the offering of a high-powered restaurant development group called Quintessential, which planned to invest over $1 million at the 256 Santa Monica Pier location to create a sports bar crossed with a gastropub complete with rooftop dining and a menu a la reality television star Chef Antonia Lofaso.
The Quintessential team, which runs other restaurants in the Los Angeles area like the Happy Ending in Hollywood and the Local Peasant, proposed to “up the game on the pier,” but the City Council wasn’t ready for the change.
“One of the things we do honor here in Santa Monica is history,” said Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis before the council voted unanimously to keep Rusty’s.
In return, owner Russ Barnard has promised a new menu, rooftop dining and the same casual atmosphere that he believes makes Rusty’s as good for a children’s birthday party as a night out for adults.
“There will be changes, mostly in the décor, the design and the menu,” Barnard said after the meeting. “There will be many things that won’t change at all, including the family-friendliness.”
Hundreds of people reached out to Barnard to support his bid to stay in place, Barnard said, and several came to the meeting to speak in favor of the family restaurant, which they felt offered the right atmosphere at the right price for the community.
Barnard has also proven his propensity to respect the fabric of Santa Monica and showed that he was willing to meet the $200,000 base rent requested by City Hall for the location, said Bruce Cameron, an active member of the preservation community.
“If we’re talking about money, give it to Rusty’s, period,” Cameron said. “If you’re talking about non-monetary value, I think the choice is very clear.”
Although Quintessential and Rusty’s had emerged in the top two, Pier Manager Rod Merl was not inclined to suggest that the council select either for a semi-permanent home on the pier.
Instead, Merl recommended that staff go back to the drawing board and begin the restaurant recruitment process using a broker, a new method approved by the City Council last year as part of an overhaul of pier operations.
Pier leases must be filled through a competitive bidding process, which usually involves putting out a request for proposals and encouraging companies to come to the bidding table with concepts and promises already considered.
Although that’s the norm for most city contracts, officials noted that it’s not how the restaurant or service industry works. They felt the city might be losing out on some of the best operators because restaurateurs were not used to the proposal process and did not know that the opportunities on the pier existed.
This would be the last opportunity to fill a long-term lease on the pier until 2020, Merl said.
Barnard and the Quintessential Group protested that asking them to start from scratch after almost a year-long process would be unfair, and the City Council agreed.
Rusty’s was not the only Santa Monica classic risking sacrifice to the vagaries of public process.
Chez Jay’s, a historic restaurant that sits right on the edge of what will be the $47 million Palisades Garden Walk park, also must fight for survival on two fronts.
The location, which boasts a peanut that’s traveled to space and is believed to be the location that Daniel Ellsberg passed the Pentagon Papers to New York Times reporters in 1971, was asked to transform itself to conform with the new park or risk losing its position.
The restaurant also found itself threatened with a potential sale because the land on which it sits is owned by Santa Monica’s former Redevelopment Agency, an entity that was dissolved by an act of the state legislature in February.