By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux
The San Juan Capistrano City Council reached a compromise of sorts when it came to approving extended hours for The Tea House and Ramos House Café, two restaurants on Los Rios Street.
The council will allow the restaurants to operate until 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The extended hours were unanimously approved by the council. Mayor Derek Reeve, Mayor Pro Tem Howard Hart, and Councilmembers Troy Bourne and Sergio Farias voted yes during a meeting on Tuesday, March 15. Councilmember John Taylor, who lives in the Los Rios Historic District, did not vote on the matter since he recused himself due to living near the restaurants.
The council will revisit the decision to extend service hours in two years, and the restaurants will have to proactively reapply in order to keep the later operating times. The Tea House has generally been open until 5 p.m., while Ramos House Café has generally stayed open until 3 or 3:30 p.m.
The council’s decision on the business hours differed from requests from the restaurants and city staff recommendations for the two restaurants to be open until 10 p.m. daily. Whether to extend service hours for The Tea House and Ramos House Café has been discussed for the past two years, and the restaurants and council had to work through establishing a framework for the restaurants to merely request a service extension.
As part of the decision, the council also approved requests for The Tea House to additionally serve distilled spirits and for extended alcohol service hours at Ramos House Café. The Tea House is already able to serve beer and wine, and it asked to be able to serve distilled spirits as well.
“I don’t think anybody sitting out there—from what I hear—has a desire to see either of those businesses fail,” Hart said. “I don’t think it would benefit—obviously—the people sitting here, and I don’t think it would benefit the neighborhood.”
Bourne said making the right decision was difficult since the restaurants are generally liked by people in town, and pointed out decisions were being made for just two restaurants and not other businesses. Bourne said there should be a “more comprehensive” process for what should happen long-term on Los Rios Street, which the city may look at in the future. The vision for what people originally thought Los Rios Street would be was primarily a residential area with some accessory businesses uses, Bourne said.
“If that’s what the vision still is, then this doesn’t seem consistent with that. I’m open to changing the vision, and that’s going to make me unpopular with some of you out there,” Bourne said. “I’m just not convinced that the way to change the vision is property by property and owner by owner as we go, because that’s the opposite of strategy. It’s kind of reactionary, and we might not like what we end up with if we make the decision house by house, business by business, hour by hour.”
Local residents and community members spoke at the meeting about the matter, both for and against extending service hours. John Humphreys, a former owner of Ramos House Café who is still involved with the restaurant, said Ramos House Café may have to shutter its doors for good if it has to continue closing before sunset.
“I’m not asking for anything close to what (other restaurants) have been granted—just a fighting chance for survival,” Humphreys said. “The ability to do an early dinner service with last call at 9 p.m. Everyone done by 10. Glasses down, restaurant closed. No weddings, no dancing, no nonsense.”
Damian Orozco, the third-generation owner and operator of The Tea House, said the family-owned restaurant has been in the area for more than 24 years and employs 32 people—19 of them San Juan residents.
“(The Tea House is) a business that is my passion, serving both locals and out-of-town guests who are enchanted by Los Rios and its charming character and giving them an unparalleled dining experience,” Orozco said. “The amendment to the Los Rios Specific Plan (that is) before you will allow two long-standing small restaurants the opportunity to be open for dinner and offer an extended alcohol menu.”
Los Rios Street resident Stephen Rios asked the council to not approve the request, saying the city is losing control over the area.
“The proposed extended hours for the Ramos House will increase their operating hours by 100% and The Tea House by about 55% to 60%. As has been said many times, these owners knew the rules and regulations that applied to them when they began the operation,” Rios said. “Now, we virtually see no code enforcement on Los Rios Street. We see delivery trucks, limos, tour buses, party buses that are blocking the street. … We have lost the daytime use and enjoyment of Los Rios Street.”
Planning Commission Chairman and Los Rios Historic District resident Harrison Taylor—who is the son of John Taylor—also spoke against the extended service-hour request.
“I have a lot of respect for the businesses on Los Rios, and they’re really good people. That’s not what this is about. They’re very successful individuals, and they took risks, like all the people down there that bought real estate in the early days,” Taylor said. “What I’m concerned about is the neighborhood supported the River Street (Marketplace) project—not as a whole, but I would say the majority did. We don’t even know, really, what the effects of River Street are going to be on the neighborhood, and now this is another extension of more commercialization of this residential neighborhood—and my hope is the council does not approve seven nights a week until 10 p.m.”
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.