By Gretchen Williams, Cuisine and Travel Writer
On a foggy morning in late summer of 1965, Ralph Woods stopped by the side of the road near the edge of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and looked out to sea. The west end of Catalina was just peeking through the mist. Across the road, an earthmover was sculpting the site of a new center to be called Golden Cove. “This is it” thought Ralph, seeing the potential and beauty of the unique location. He likely said the same thing when the restaurant closed for good last month.
Half a century ago, the intersection of Hawthorne Boulevard. and Palos Verdes Drive South was out in the country. Japanese farmers raised vegetables and strawberries in the fields along the cliffs. Locals rode horseback over the hillsides. Oceanside canyons held secrets of long ago pirates. Wild foxes ran shyly through the underbrush, gray doves cooed in the eucalyptus groves, pelicans cruised the uprising air currents at cliffs’ edge and dolphins gamboled offshore.
Ralph J.Woods was a veteran of World War II, where he’d served under Gen. George S. Patton’s command in Germany. Now he was a restaurateur. He’d gotten started with a chain of restaurants called Woody’s Smorgasburgers, a novel and fun concept far ahead of its time. The lofty restaurants were decorated in a manner best described as “Tyrollean” — Alpine flourishes, faux snow and skiing themes, centered around a smorgasbord approach that started with a plain but excellent hamburger and allowed customers to add toppings from an amazing array of condiments. Lettuce, tomato and onion slices, of course, but also more exotic options like chopped peanuts or slices of pineapple that lent wonder to the making of the burger. Woody’s was a big hit, especially with children, and the chain was popular for many years. The Redondo Beach location is now home to Rock N Brew.
Woods and his wife, Barbara Ristrom Woods, had been looking for a great location for a more upscale restaurant, and Golden Cove proved to be the gold at the end of the rainbow. The Admiral Risty opened in 1966 and quickly became a Peninsula favorite. Named for “Risty” Woods, the restaurant reflected her love of the sea. The spectacular ocean view was the focal point, with Japanese glass fish floats and shells and coral providing color and interest around the dining room. The inviting bar was the gathering place for the Peninsula, and launched the careers of many local entertainers. San Pedro’s own Diane Michelle sang and played at the Admiral Risty in the ‘70s.
At the beginning, the waiters at the Risty were local surfers picking up a few bucks between sets. Waiters were always hired because they were handsome, or maybe it just seemed that way. Professionals took over the jobs but kept the uniform — early Reyn Spooner Aloha shirts, chinos and Topsiders were the original look, preserved to this day.
Waitstaff at the Risty is well known for longevity. Many of the servers and staff have been at the Risty for decades, and looked at the closing of the restaurant like a death in the family.
Dan Heller has worked as a bartender and host for 42 years. Kathy Berg has done marketing and advertising for the Risty for over 30 years. Wayne Judah is the present owner, taking over after Ralph Wood died in 2015 at age 90. Judah was tending bar at the Risty in 1969, moonlighting while serving as an Army sergeant stationed at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, when the regular manager suffered a heart attack. Judah stepped up and has had his finger on the pulse of the Risty ever since. The Risty even provided Cupid service for Judah; he met his wife, Jan Jay, at the restaurant. Her two sons worked at the restaurant as students.
For Peninsula residents, the closing of the Admiral Risty will leave an emotional void. For more than 50 years, families have come there to celebrate birthdays, graduations and other special occasions. Just as the décor has not changed, the menu and service has remained solid California —great steaks charred over an open grill, fresh fish and seafood, specialties like the marinated flank steak, massive artichokes steamed and served with melted butter and lemon, fat asparagus spears, mushrooms sautéed with wine, huge green salads with chunks of bleu cheese on chilled salad plates. Saving room for dessert has always been a challenge but the “chocolate burrito” (a crêpe filled with chocolate mousse) could be ordered with two or more forks.
The Admiral Risty closed its doors in August but everyone will remember the gray whale they spotted from the bar, or their first Risty martini, or their graduation celebration, or their anniversary or their birthday, any year. Smooth sailing and bon voyage to Wayne Judah and the fine crew at the Admiral Risty.