Reminiscing about The Ritz
The wooden bar beneath my elbows has been laminated many times into a rich oaken sheen. New paneling has given the bar a fresher look, yet the floor reveals the wear of the decades, the planks faded into a dark brown, grooved down by thousands of patrons who have drifted in over the decades.
It's 10 pm on a Saturday night in late March and the reign of the old Ritz is drawing to an end. The place is nearly empty, save for a few stragglers at the bar and a pair of young women playing pool. One woman, in the final weeks of pregnancy, makes her way awkwardly around the pool table. The jukebox plays Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and The Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn."
My wife and I sit at the bar, studying the small details of the place, trying to commit them to memory. A plaque on the wall shows two patrons at a bar with a horse's rear end between them and the words, "There's one in every bar." Another sign says, "Free beer tomorrow," an alcoholic koan. There are numerous Budweiser insignias, a Bud Light lamp above the pool table, and a defunct and battered cigarette machine.
At the end of the month, new owners will take over the classic Island bar. The Ritz will go on in a new incarnation under the new ownership and management, but it's likely much of the old gritty look and feel will be replaced.
Years ago the building was a fish market. Buddy Pease bought it and turned it into a bar before selling it to Burt Combra. Mr. Combra owned it for six years before selling it to Arthur Pachico and his wife Shirley in 1967. Arthur's stepdaughters Janet King and Christine Arenburg have run the bar for the past several decades. On April 1, Ms. King and Ms. Arenburg will pass the keys to the new owners.
"It's been a rocky road getting here," Ms. King says, citing several paperwork and legal snafus during the transition. Still, the transfer is on schedule. On March 30, the cafe will host a potluck dinner to celebrate the end of their era.
As for me, The Ritz was my favorite Island bar. I was struck by its comfortable casualness. The beer was always a little cheaper, the music a little louder, and the offbeat crowd densely packed. I remember taking some visiting Italian-Brazilian friends to The Ritz several years ago on a busy summer night. They were taken aback by the loud, raucous, freewheeling sprit of the place.
"Is this typical of America?" my friend Giovanna asked.
I shrugged and in Portuguese, replied, "It's typical for The Ritz".
According to Ms. King, the mix of people coming through the doors is what made the place unique. "I guess what made it special is all the people, the different types that came in there. It wasn't just one group of young people, it was all ages, local and foreign, tourists."
The wall opposite the bar has a large photo collage of patrons over the years, many in Halloween costumes and festive gear. A wall plaque attests that The Ritz won the 1996 Best of the Vineyard award for Best Bar. Another shows Cape Cod Life naming it "Best Nightlife and Music" in 2005. A poster shows the musical talent that's played the bar over the years, including Mike Benjamin, 2nd Power, Maynard Silva, Johnny Hoy and The Mercy Beat.
When a Last Call party was held earlier this month, people traveled from as far away as Connecticut and Maine to celebrate.
"I couldn't believe the people that just love The Ritz," Ms. King says.
Part of the Ritz's history is its kitchen, which was a popular draw in the 1980s. When the cafe was remodeled in 1987, it added a pub menu. Chefs Christine Napolitano and Robin Forte worked in the kitchen. "We were so busy, and the food was excellent," Ms. King recalls.
When smoking laws outlawed smoking in establishments that served food, The Ritz, believing smoking was an inseparable part of the bar business, reluctantly closed the kitchen. A year later, the laws changed again, this time banning smoking in bars as well. But by then it was difficult to recapture the magic of the first go-around.
Behind the bar the stern DUI poster remains, outlining the consequences of drinking and driving. When drinking and driving laws were tightened in the late 1990s, bars began feeling the effects of stricter police enforcement. The free-wheeling culture of all Island bars changed in response.
"I was forced to keep order when the drinking laws started getting more strict and I was more responsible," Ms. King recalls. "I started getting hard on people who drank too much and acted up."
Ms. King says that working the bar requires a blend of hospitality and firmness, especially when the alcohol is flowing. "It's a lot of fun but you have to have a lot of patience and like a lot of people," she says. "You have to open up to everybody."
After being at The Ritz almost daily for decades, Ms. King is ready to move to the next chapter of her life. "I'm looking forward to it," she says. "When you're in this business, to really make it work you have to be there every day and just about every night."
She sounds at peace. "It was a great experience," she says. "It was the best time of my life and it was the hardest. Twenty-five years, almost 30 years of my life was spent in there."
I pay for the drinks, my wife and I put on our jackets, and take a final look around at the scene so infused with Island history, before heading out into the cold night.
Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times.