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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

When people stop by at The Tea House or The Ramos House Café, they generally do so for brunch or breakfast—not dinner.

Operators and owners with the two Los Rios Street restaurants want to expand their services for dinner options. To do so, though, they have to go through city government just to initially establish a framework for potentially doing so.

During a June meeting, the San Juan Capistrano City Council decided to form a subcommittee to review the matter, following a wide-ranging discussion about Los Rios businesses and the community—prompted by a request from the restaurants. The two food establishments were granted accessory use permits (AUPs) in the 1990s, and the AUP process was removed from the district’s residential plan in 1999. A requested code amendment to reinstate the process was tabled in favor of the subcommittee review.

Business owners on Los Rios Street, including for The Ramos House Café, are looking to expand service hours to allow dinner—a process that requires city government overview. Photo: Collin Breaux

“When it was just Ramos and us and a couple of other places on the street, they’ve put a stop on the hours at 5 o’clock,” said Damian Orozco, operator of The Tea House. “That’s what we’re currently trying to expand right now. We want to expand into dinner service and expand into distilled spirits, in order to make this a viable business and not just a hobby that we’re open five hours a day, six days a week.”

The Tea House and the building property itself have been local and family-owned for generations. Orozco’s grandparents opened the business in 1998, live behind the restaurant, and also bought a house next door. Orozco grew up working at The Tea House.

“Whether or not we get approved or denied, there needs to be a process for it,” Orozco said of the AUP request. “We’ll look into how we can even create that process to go through to get that approved or denied. Even with that approval, we still have to go back to Cultural Heritage Commission, we still have to go through city council, we still have to do all of that.”

All property owners on Los Rios Street should have a right to know the application process so they know what the rules are, Orozco said.

Concern has been raised by some community members that the quiet residential feel of Los Rios Street could be changed if dining options are allowed to expand. Emails to the City of San Juan Capistrano from some residents, including from Cindy Westbrook, expressed opposition to the requested alcohol service expansion.

“My husband and I are residents in the Los Rios Historic District,” Westbrook said. “We are completely opposed to the liquor license requests from Ramos House, Tea House, Hidden House, & Hummingbird Cafe. There are plenty of these on the other side of the tracks. Let’s leave our residential area and historic district the way it is.”

Peg Hyland said she opposed the proposal to alter the regulations for the Los Rios Historic District and that the area should be kept as is.

In response, Orozco said his family lives on Los Rios Street, and they’re also not looking to change the character of the area.

“That’s actually the furthest from what we want to do, because that’s what makes The Tea House so unique is its serenity, its location, everything that we’ve created here—along with everything that our neighbors on the street have created here,” Orozco said.

Regarding concerns about noise and traffic, Orozco said they’re looking at mitigating those issues as well. Orozco would like to have his last seating for The Tea House at 8 p.m. and everyone out by 9:30 p.m. There are no plans for live music at The Tea House.

The Ramos House Café is requesting the ability to serve dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with a closing time of 9 p.m., said co-owner Michelle Winrich. That expansion is a “mere four hours more of what we’re already approved for,” Winrich said.

“We are asking the city to grant us this option so that we may extend our hours slightly into the evening and provide a quaint dinner experience for our guests,” Winrich said. “Dinners would be by reservation only and strictly adhered to the hours proposed. If granted, the extended hours could provide new jobs for our employees, a chance to recover from the pandemic year, and allow us to make a steady income that could help the bottom line.”

Winrich said everyone can generally agree the Los Rios area should stay a quiet residential neighborhood. Michelle and her husband, Kris Winrich, took over The Ramos House Café last year from previous owner John Q. Humphreys. Michelle Winrich previously worked at the restaurant as a server, while Kris Winrich has played music with Humphreys.

“I’ll be interested to see how the subcommittee goes,” Orozco said.

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 (6)

  • The Los Rios Specific Plan took a lot of effort to create a framework for protecting the oldest neighborhood in California, and once again it is being threatened in the name of making a buck. The arguments by the businesses are that Covid was tough and we need to make up for lost time and money, so we have to stay open later and serve liquor to be profitable. The Tea House states that without the changes it can’t be a viable business, and it will a remain a “hobby.” Mind you this hobby has supported them for generations.
    I’m sure that the last year has been hard on everyone, my family included, but i’m not asking for the rules to be changed so I can increase the size and height of our house to make it more valuable. A nice little rental on our property would make the bottom line better, but I’m not asking for the neighborhood to suffer for our advantage.
    Another assault on the charm of the neighborhood is the plan to double the height limit from 15′ to 30′ for a barn at Zoomars. Why do they need a 5,000 sqft barn which would be totally out of scale for the neighborhood ?
    The Council has already turned designated parkland into a giant gravel parking lot to serve the businesses on the other side of the tracks, with new plans for increasing it’s size..
    The nursery is going to turned into a big mall/commercial center (whatever you want to call it) again increasing the number of cars being shoved into our charming neighborhood.
    So, has the long term plan for protecting this area been completely abandoned ? What is the vision for our future ?

  • Clint Worthington Reply

    This is a Historic Residential District. It is for businesses and residents who live there. If this was a restaurant and alcohol district, it would be called a restaurant and alcohol district. We are happy you chose to either start or purchase your business there. However, you knew what the rules were going in. Don’t change what works. Don’t be restaurant and alcohol row. Respect your neighbors as they respect and support your business.

  • Jerome S. “Jerry” Nieblas Reply

    I was honored and privileged to live among and know most of the original Los Rios historic families that once called Los Rios their HOME.. Some of them are and were my family. My own generations old family members built homes there, lived there and raised their own families on that street. Those homes still exist today on this street. The Los Rios of my youth was very special, unique, peaceful, and carefree. There are/were so many good memories of good days, deeply caring and loving people. It was a place where “Mi Casa es Su Casa” was the normal way of life — it was lived and truly existed. We took it for granted and thought it could not/would NEVER change — how wrong we were. Now we have these “new” individuals/business individuals who appear to want to completely change the very unique character and meaning of this oldest California S.J.C. neighborhood and all the history of the old San Juan Capistrano families it represents. Where did you come from and what gives you the right to come into our historic town and oldest neighborhood and try to “reinvent” and change us??? Many of us say “enough is enough”! Leave our town alone and let us just enjoy the historic character, memories and charm of this old S.J.C. very early Mission and Early California NEIGHBORHOOD! Let our historic families be able to enjoy our long and rich history and hold onto our many good memories. Let us continue to celebrate who we are! We shouldn’t have to live with this so-called business style progress that you want to introduce and inflict into the life of this neighborhood. OUR historic VOICES and CONCERNS do matter — We MATTER! We should be listened to as we’ve seen, lived and experienced so much so called “progress” being crammed down our throats — made to feel like we’re the “bad” people for not wanting to accept your progressive ways. Leave Historic Rios alone and stop trying to reinvent our historically rich San Juan Capistrano to suit your ways only! Some of us have lived a life of having to watch and experience as so much was taken away from our own S.J.C. ancestors — all in the name of almighty so called progress. Well, I write this for my Ancestors and the many happy memories and rich history they left me! Leave Historic Los Rios Alone!

    Jerry Nieblas, *Direct descendant of the ancient Juaneno/Acjachemen villages of Sagavit and Putuidem/6x great grandparents, Zodut and Zoget/5x great grandmother, Chigilia Maria Bernards/Early Californio Rancho Yorba and Rios Familias

  • Are you able to show proof of your Indian linkage, or is it all talk, like most of those Fake san juan Juaneno,s.This was called Little Hollywood,back in the day.

    • Jerome S. “Jerry” Nieblas Reply

      Dusty, Thanks for reminding us about that historic area famous “Little Hollywood” nickname! We almost never hear any reference to that “nickname” anymore and many don’t even know about it, it’s origin or how it even achieved that famous “nickname”. Again, thanks for bringing the “Little Hollywood” name/title to our attention. Just another important part of the past history connected with our historic Los Rios area. Jerry Nieblas

    • Dusty (Ronnie) – I’ve seen Jerry’s documents from OFA – you need to shut it.

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