The lobby of the new Balboa Bay Club and Resort is nearly complete. People check-in for the holiday weekend. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / July 3, 2014)

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As the holiday drew near, managers at the Balboa Bay Club discovered that the round frame for the tiered Fourth of July cake had been crushed in storage.

The reaction was immediate: "We have to have the cake," explained Aaron Trent, director of member relations and club events.

After all, Independence Day at the Balboa Bay Club without one of its legendary outsized cakes is, as Trent posited, like a family Thanksgiving without the turkey.

"Or how about the green bean casserole?" he continued. "Everyone expects it, not that we even want it."

The club on West Coast Highway in Newport Beach is understandably protective of its traditions — a symptom of the once-dominant old guard membership that resisted change. But even the club's Power Burger slathered in secret sauce, its mai tai made from a closely guarded recipe and, yes, the towering Fourth of July cake, could only take the enterprise so far.

No matter how iconic the 65-year-old harborfront locale is, new ownership recognized it would need a major update to thrive in an increasingly competitive landscape. Even tradition-bound mainstays like the Five Crowns restaurant and Big Canyon Country Club underwent recent renovations to change (just enough) with the times.

What once felt elite had begun to feel stuffy. No more did most Balboa Bay Club members want to wear jackets and ties to dinner, be seated at tables covered in white linens or be served food under silver domes.

Likewise, the dark fabrics, woods and carpeting used throughout the property no longer seemed designed for upper-class society. They seemed outdated.

And so it was back to the drawing board for a pair of Newport Beach businessmen, Kevin Martin and Todd Pickup, co-owners and co-managers of the property, who bought the storied spot two years ago from club matriarch Beverly Ray Parkhurst. Drawing from surveys and personal experience, they sought to modernize it for a town that at once prizes tradition and trend, where long-established yacht clubs and restaurants provide its proud foundation while they also work to keep up.



When the Anchors and Oceans pub opened in the club's resort section last week, it marked the end to a multimillion dollar renovation executed in time for the summer rush.

There, as in the rest of the building, patrons will find an open aesthetic and a lighter color palette — a far cry from the den-like feel of Duke's Place, which it replaced.

"We came in with maybe a modern take on things," Martin said. "It just needed a new set of eyes."

Glass doors now offer wider bay front views. Close-up images of anchors, not John Wayne, hang from the walls. The seating is plentiful and varied, as opposed to the simple tables and chairs of times past.

The new food, like the design, reflects national trends. There are, of course, healthier items to meet modern demand, such as Ambrosia, a watermelon Jell-o mixed with red quinoa, tomato and feta, and steamed fish served in a Bloody Mary broth.

Then there is the kitschy-named bar fare with a creative twist, such as When Pigs Fly, a flight of Kobe hot dogs that includes one wrapped in bacon, and beef tartar with a wink-when-its-served name, the Birthday Suit.

Even the bar itself has been replaced. It's now accessible from three sides, instead of just one, and four flat-screen TVs hang above it, accessories "which all bars have to have now," Martin explained.

An interactive bar is a key ingredient for success in a modern restaurant, he continued, offering the recently opened spots at Fashion Island ("Club Fig," anyone?) as proof.

But those are Newport, he said, and this is Newport Beach. He indicated the harbor waters just yards away, a sort of secret weapon the business can levy as it re-enters the competition.