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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

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 cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.

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comments (1)

  • Perhaps those in a dispositive, decision making position in San Juan’s bureaucratic food chain should be forced to read the original Specific Plan for this old California, historic district aloud very slowly in Council Chambers?
    I have read it many times myself recently, and as a land use advisor am assisting several homeowners regarding issues with the Ramos Street Parking Lot expansion. Both the current gravel lot and what’s going to be be encroached upon, right up to these neighbor’s fences, were originally designated as PARK, i.e., passive (not vehicular active) open space on the City-provided renderings that I was provided..
    So what should have been preserved and maintained as open fields, tied in with that oak grove on Ramos, it would have provided ample elbow room for picnics and family gatherings. On friendly, soothing grass.
    Obviously unpaved or covered in gravel, which appreciably warm up—creating what’s now going to be a “heat island,” raising the temperature abnormally in the immediate vicinity not only during the day but well into the night.
    By sequentially expanding, piecemeal, the City avoided the usual environmental regulations, circumvented via what’s known as “discretionary exemptions.”
    Living in Laguna Beach, I can attest to that strategy’s insidious nature: Historic areas loose their charm and character, what keeps locals here, what drew new buyers and ubiquitous visitors to them in the first place.
    Here in my town, I call it “No Mas Aloha,,” the mellow vibe that it once had is going going gone.
    San Juan Capo may not be paving paradise, but it is burying a lot of the original Los Rios goals and objectives under compressed dirt covered with 3/4″ gravel.
    Living around here for half a century, having personally observed Los Rios as a visitor innumerable times over the years, now trying to understand my client’s distress, I get it: One has owned his place for 17+years, the other has been in the family for decades.
    There was an expectation that these parcels would be protected in perpetuity: Now, like Laguna Beach, it’s about commodification, favoring business, commerce to the diminishment of these clients and their neighbors.
    Now, to stop this rampant progression of “Business First, Local Last,” we’ve been forced to put an initiative on the Fall ballot “LAGUNA RESIDENTS FIRST” to halt our own greedy City, a type of slow growth mechanism as other community activists have done.
    Laguna is a warning sign: Intensification of use (think In & Out Burger) a few sites at a time erodes gradually, but the eventual effect is mind boggling. At some point, locals will realize that the San Juan they loved, why they live or moved here, no longer exists.
    Los Rios, like our artificial downtown “Promenade” will be a tourist gimmick and no longer carry the sense of history, of time and place it once did.
    This is what happens when pro-development councils are in power: They grant variances, modify/amend Conditional Use Permits, Specific Plans, etc., or they find clever ways to get around the cumulative impacts, the ultimate consequences and ramifications using slick marketing language.
    Once taken, don’t look for anything being given back, just be on the lookout for yet more taking.

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