A new restaurant quietly opened last week at the tip of the Huntington Beach Pier where the fabled Ruby’s Diner once served up burgers and milkshakes.
Then it debuted with more fanfare Tuesday, July 26, with an official ribbon cutting.
The rest of the story, however, is still a work in progress.
Bud & Gene’s, named after two of the city’s first lifeguards a century back, is a “pop-up” eatery of sorts. Specializing in sustainable seafood — and burgers, for old time’s sake — the restaurant may or may not shift shape over the next year. It may or may not remain open without pause. It may or may not expand in size.
“Everything is on the table with respect to change,” said John Cunin, director of development for restaurant group RAV LLC, the developer for Bud & Gene’s. “But there’s also remains. I don’t mean to be cryptic — it’s just the truth.”
Mainly, the company wanted to get Bud & Gene’s going in time for the Vans US Open of Surfing, which runs July 30 through Aug. 7 and attract thousands of visitors from all over. It offers a menu that ranges from casual to gourmet food and is open daily 11 am to 6 pm
However, this is only the “first phase while we finalize the concept,” Cunin said. In a few months, the site may take a hiatus for additional renovation.
Ruby’s came to town in 1996, replacing The End Cafe, which plummeted into the ocean during a 1988 storm.
Part of a 32-restaurant chain, the ’50s-style diner was best known for its burgers, fries, and malts, served inside and at a takeout window. The Ruby’s enterprise began to struggle financially in 2012 after borrowing money to buy out disgruntled partners. It filed for bankruptcy in 2018.
The Huntington Beach restaurant suddenly, albeit not unexpectedly, closed in February of 2021.
Bud & Gene’s chef and co-operator Jason Witzl enhanced Ruby’s down-home cooking with more upscale cuisine, such as raw ahi ($19), chili prawns ($24), and grilled whole fish ($36), for the new joint.
“I think this is some of the best food we’ve ever made,” said Witzl, who owns popular Lupe’s de la Mar and Ellie’s in Long Beach as well as Jolie in San Diego.
Although somewhat fancier than the former Ruby’s, Bud & Gene’s also offers a burger or fried chicken sandwich for $14, a kid’s burger for $10, fries for $3, and soft-serve ice cream for $6. Diners can order at the takeout window or sit down inside.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Witzl said. “If tourists and surfers want to drop by for a snack, we got that, too. We are going for high-quality, non-pretentious.”
In case they decide to grow the building’s footprint on the pier, stakeholders have already submitted permits for approval from the California Coastal Commission. But Cunin said it could be months before they get a response.
“There are so many variables of what could happen, depending on our level of ambition,” said Cunin.
Meanwhile, RAV will use the wait for marketing research.
“We are learning every day — learning the audience, learning the flow of life on the pier,” Cunin said. “We may end up rolling with this iteration for a long time. Or we might do something totally different, like rooftop dining.”
Prior to its potentially temporary opening, RAV remodeled the space’s interior — replacing tables, chairs, and lighting fixtures. The walls now feature a wrap-around mural of waves painted by local artist Melissa Murphy. Developers also spruced up the exterior.
“We’ve already spent a considerable amount of money on a complete renovation,” Cunin said. “We did not just scrub up Ruby’s and slap a coat of paint on it. We wanted to respect the history of the pier and our landlord, the city.”
“The facility is almost 30 years old and didn’t act so gracefully in the harsh environment of the beach,” Cunin added.
Some remnants of Ruby’s kitschy Jan & Dean’s Tiki Lounge upstairs, with its bamboo walls and totem poles, remain for the time being. Bud & Gene’s now serves beer and wine and is awaiting a full liquor license.
But one detail has remained: the red roof.
“It’s a very iconic look,” Cunin said.
Witzl agreed with that wisdom: “The red roof will outlive us all.”
“Tradition and history drive our every decision,” Cunin added. “We are not just a corporate entity here to leverage the beach culture and the city’s rich history; we are here to embrace it. We cannot realize our full potential unless locals really believe we are here to be a part of and to serve the community.”
That’s the reason they chose the name.
Lifeguards Delbert “Bud” Higgins and Gene Belshe, who surfed on 135-pound boards, organized the city’s first surf contest in 1933. Higgins later became the Huntington Beach fire chief and Belshe the assistant police chief.
Whatever transformations the new restaurant does or does not undergo in the near future, one thing is absolute: Bud & Gene’s, with its 270-degree ocean panorama, boasts one of the most breathtaking views of any restaurant in Southern California.
“This is the most on the water you can be,” Witzl noted, “unless you’re in it.”
And although stakeholders call it a pop-up, they plan for Bud & Gene’s to serve customers on the pier for the long term — albeit, maybe with a potential hiatus for more tweaks.