The bar has a fresh coat of paint, and the wood floors have a shine to them, but they’re still good for dancing. The Ritz Soulkitchen and BBQ in Oak Bluffs recently underwent a facelift inside that included taking the opaque covers off the small basement-like windows behind the bar and adding two murals: one of Inkwell Beach and one of an old-time red pickup truck straight out of a farmer’s field. The menu had an overhaul too, and now includes barbecue ribs and chicken, the kind where the meat slides off the bone, with sides like watermelon salad and plantain jalapeño hash, and they now serve brunch on weekends.
Now partners in the Ritz, Larkin and Jackie Stallings and Red Cat Kitchen chef Ben deForest, are pleased with the changes, and are adamant that letting a little light in won’t ruin the reputation of Oak Bluffs’ beloved dive bar.
Larkin said once Ben started cooking at the Ritz in the fall of 2015, “People from all corners of the Island were coming for dinner in the dead of winter.” Ben stepped up the food choices during the off-season, and now Ritz Chef Donnie Glass, who came to the Vineyard via Public Fish & Oyster in Charlottesville, Va., brings his own flavor to the cleaned-up kitchen.
“It’s about having good ingredients,” Donnie said last week. “What we all have in common is that we prescribe slow food, exactly the opposite of fast food.”
Donnie said he looks for local ingredients in preparing what Ben calls “soul food,” or “recreating that beautiful moment when you first felt comforted by food.”
Food is what fueled the friendship between Larkin and Ben, before their business relationship. Larkin said he first realized the two could work together in 2015, when Ben offered to look at the food program at the Ritz.
“He said, ‘I know exactly what you need,’” Larkin remembered. “That first fall was so friggin’ successful, and such a pleasure. What Ben did that first winter drew people from every corner, year-rounders that first fall. We could all sit around and meet each other on a Thursday night, with Mike Benjamin or Johnny Hoy playing their music. That’s when Ben and I discovered we could work together.”
By the end of the summer of 2016, they decided Ben would be the mastermind behind the operation at the Ritz, leaving Larkin and his wife to tend to their three businesses in Houston. Larkin said it was Jackie who persuaded him to leave the recent refurbishing of the Ritz to Ben.
“I’m a wash-ashore by no uncertain terms, but Ben’s deep-rooted here, and has a love for this thing,” Larkin said. “He said, ‘Let me take it on and see what I can do.’ When he proposed this, I was absolutely in, but to be honest, I left. If I would’ve stayed I would’ve attempted to micromanage it.” When the Stallings returned not long ago, Larkin said the Ritz was the Ritz, “but with a brightness to it that I hadn’t thought of.”
The Ritz was closed for a few weeks while Ben did much of the work himself. He said he was conscious that there was probably a story behind every nail he removed.
“Each screw and tack was an idea somebody had, and they were everywhere,” Ben said. “I used to drag my father out of here in the ’70s. Some of the greatest people from the old guard, from the way Martha’s Vineyard used to be, have come through here.”
The partners say they’ll keep the music playing and still move the dining room tables out of the way to make room for the dance floor after 10 pm. The earlier bands play in the bar room, where customers still have space to let loose and the shots are still $4.
They’ve formed an alliance with five other Island restaurants: Port Hunter, the Red Cat, the Covington, 20byNine, and Down Island. “There’s no official connection,” Ben said. “We have a friendship and a kinship with each other. It can be pretty competitive and mean-spirited between restaurants — I’ve been that guy before.” Larkin said there will be cross-promotion between the six restaurants.
“There’s no official business tie, but we all believe you’ll get a great experience at all six,” Larkin said. “It’s about us being supportive of the show at Port Hunter, not worrying about how big is my slice of the pie, but how big is the whole pie.”
There is at least one change that Ritz patrons will likely welcome. “Part of the Ritz’s heart and soul is the live entertainment,” Larkin said. “The only way for us to function and run live entertainment is to charge a cover. Well, Ben threw that out the window.”
Instead, Ben said, the food and beverage program is strong enough that “there will be no cover charge to get into the Ritz.”
“We’ll have a handful of special events with tickets sold in advance,” Ben said. “Bands that have never been at the Ritz before. But 99 percent of the time, you just show up and there’s no cover.” And, he added, the Ritz still doesn’t take reservations.
“The Ritz is the Ritz is the Ritz,” Larkin said.