For chef Jason Witzl, like many other kids who grew up in the Southland, summer meant spending time in Huntington Beach.
“Every summer you’d end up at the end of this pier, watching the fishermen and having a milkshake and then going to the beach,” said Witzl, who grew up in Whittier. “You’d drive to Beach Boulevard, go right to Dairy Queen and then go to the beach.”
Witzl hopes residents and tourists alike will enjoy his new twist on the landmark.
For over a year, the former Ruby’s Diner building sat empty as the venue closed its doors for good in early 2021 after filing for bankruptcy. But the coveted spot at the end of the Huntington Beach pier is reimagined, under new ownership, and a welcoming business.
Bud & Gene’s opened a takeout window earlier this week, offering favorites like burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches and soft serve ice cream. Inside, the new restaurant will also serve seafood options like shrimp, fish and chips, or a Baja-style grilled whole fish.
A larger 13-item menu debuted Thursday afternoon when the restaurant opened for indoor dining.
“We’ll try to get it to about 22 [items]” said Witzl. “It’s a unique style of dining experience, where there will be counter service. You go and order everything, and we’ll ship it to you ready-made. Everything will be family-style.”
The formal opening ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for Tuesday at 11 a.m. Witzl, who has opened three restaurants in the Long Beach area and has a high-end butcher and seafood shop opening soon in Coronado, is excited about the opportunity.
“It’s quite flattering and generally exciting to be able to reinvent this space into something that fits a little more with the times and the kind of movement that Huntington Beach is,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most exciting things I’ve done since our first place [Ellie’s Italian restaurant].”
John Cunin, who represents the RAV ownership group, said the plan is to stay respectful of Surf City’s heritage. The restaurant is named after Delbert “Bud” Higgins and Gene Belshe, who were two of the city’s first lifeguards in the 1920s. They went on to become fire chief and deputy police chief, respectively.
Higgins is also credited with being the first surfer to “shoot” the Huntington Beach pier — riding between the support pillars below without falling off.
“We want to be a part of the community, and I think it starts with respecting the history,” Cunin said. “That’s what this tribute to Bud and Gene is all about.”
Local artist Melissa Murphy, aka Melissa Murals, provided some decorations for the interior of the space.
The new ownership group, which also has leases at the Malibu and Oceanside piers, plans to keep tweaking. Cunin said they could open some of the windows inside the facility, to let the sounds and smells of the ocean through instead of the current hermetically sealed environment. Additionally, he said they’d like to find some creative ways to offer 360-degree views on the restaurant’s second floor.
“It’s a whole concept now, and it will take months,” he said. “But we didn’t want this space to miss another season, and the Vans US Open of Surfing and everything that’s going on for 2022. At some point next year we’re going to fold that concept, go into a construction phase, and reopen with an even more ambitious design and concept.”
Rafael Mendez of Phoenix, his two sisters and a friend enjoyed burgers and fries on the steps of Bud & Gene’s on Thursday. Mendez said they expected to catch Ruby’s on vacation as usual, “it was our favor,” he said, but he also enjoyed the new digs.
“The burgers were pretty good, honestly,” Mendez said. “The sauce that goes with the fries is different, but it’s good… We like the environment here. I’m not that picky about my food, as long as it’s edible.”
Of course, Witzl aspires to much more than “edible.” He said he gets a lot of foot traffic from Huntington Beach and Seal Beach to his Long Beach restaurants, and he expects the opposite to be true as well.
“It’s pretty cool to have each end of the spectrum in one location,” he said. “It’s whatever compromise you want it to be. You can sit down and have some chili shrimp or a whole Baja-style fish, or you can have a burger and a soft serve to go. It’s really up to you.”
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