It’s the 75th anniversary of The Ritz Cafe in Oak Bluffs. I wrote a piece for this month’s Boston Magazine to mark this remarkable moment.
Here is a link to the story: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/2019/06/25/ritz-cafe/
Incurable hostility to change has been Martha’s Vineyard’s go-to stance for decades. The intensity has varied occasionally, but not the outcomes. Change has won. Today, the Gay Head Cliffs, the great ponds, and the beaches would be familiar to a mid-20th Century Vineyarder exhumed in 2019. Almost everything else is different – enlarged, renamed, upgraded, gone upscale, pricier.
To the delight of the bar’s faithful congregation, among the holdouts there is the enduring Ritz Cafe. Along with the cliffs, the beaches, and the ponds, the blessed Ritz has held the line. It’s the same modest, local, beloved meeting, drinking, and music place that everyday islanders have depended on, after the day’s work is done and after the summer crowds have gone.
In 2019, Wednesday night at The Ritz, with John Hoy on vocals and the blues harp and dancers young and old madly sliding and wriggling among the musicians, recalls the impromptu, unsanctioned revels put on by clannish islanders of the 1970s and ‘80s – the horse races at Kappy Hall’s farm; the demolition derby at Hughie Taylor’s Gay Head (now Aquinnah) field; iceboating on a Sunday morning at Squibnocket Pond; the kids’ bicycle races around Ocean Park; 21st birthday parties arranged for young men and women by their happy families and friends. All welcome.
Often described as located at the bottom of Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, the main business drag in that spiciest of the six Vineyard towns, The Ritz is actually at the heart of Circuit Avenue and the town, a few steps from the harbor, the ferry terminal, the movie theaters, Trinity Episcopal Church, the Methodist Camp Ground, the lovely, spacious Ocean Park with its bandstand and wading pond, and for years the police and fire stations, The Ritz remains a durable anchor to windward.
In 1970, fewer than 7,000 lived on Martha’s Vineyard year-round. There was no zoning or subdivision control. Government had a bit part in the production. Only a handful of ferries carried people and freight to and from the mainland at Woods Hole. Then, only two towns allowed the sale of alcohol – exalted Edgartown, the county seat, and Oak Bluffs, OB, or Sin City, as it has been variously known. For decades, on a bitter, wind harried winter evening the lights at The Ritz extended the only welcome to be found, from one end of cheerless Circuit Avenue to the other. Edgartown was a drive too far.
A narrow, ground floor walk-in space built in 1930, the bar, featuring jars of 50-cent pickled eggs, extended front to back at the right. A few square tables, four chairs each, were at the left. The decor, bar and walls, sported a utilitarian fishboat green motif, and at the back two or three steps led up to the toilet and storage. In an adjoining space up three steps, called Topside, there were pool tables. The design approach emphasized the predictable need for periodic rapid rehab after a especially boisterous evening. Legacy customers like to tell a story, certainly generously embellished for effect, about the time one spirited customer, moved perhaps by a distaste for boiled eggs or rather because each egg was obviously a god made missile, and handy, began pitching the contents of a full bottle one at a time over the bar. Finding all the egg bits proved so difficult that the bar had to be dismantled and rebuilt to cure the smell. It was a place you made up stories to celebrate your being a part of it.
Knowing its customers as well as it did, The Ritz was there on Tuesday mornings for the folks awaiting the weekly unemployment check distribution. It was common in the early days, well into the 1980s, that island tradesmen, shopkeepers, sales people, really workers of all sorts, expected to be laid off in the fall and rehired in the spring. In between, they got by on state unemployment benefits. The Ritz was there to comfort them, early before the checks were ready and later when the waiting had inspired a thirst.
Following the familiar Vineyard shape-changing retail tradition, The Ritz building had over the years done time as a fish market, a candy store, an ice cream emporium and a drug store, eventually approaching its true calling in Vineyard life, a liquor store. It debuted as The Ritz Cafe in 1944, Richard L Pease proprietor.
A lot of the old-timers have died, drifted away, sobered up, moved to Colorado, or decided to summer anywhere but Martha’s Vineyard. But all the people I talked with remembered the fun it was to be at The Ritz and enjoyed telling their stories. And I enjoyed hearing them. Plus, I discovered the secret to the place’s longevity. Good live music and an utter lack of artifice or pretension made The Ritz’s long success possible.