You Must Remember This: Hans Prager

By NANCY GARDNER

We have had in the past and have today a number of successful restaurateurs in our city, and they have come from all sorts of backgrounds – former Marines, surfers and skiers – but it’s doubtful if any had a harsher early history than Hans Prager. For newer residents, Prager was the owner of the Ritz Restaurant and Garden, a fixture in this city for many years.

Born in 1929, Hans lived in Germany with his family, a situation that became increasingly problematic, as they were Jews. In 1939, when he was 10, disaster struck when his father was sent to a concentration camp. Unlike so many of his compatriots, Prager managed to escape. The family fled to Trieste where they thought they would be safe, but Italy soon proved no haven for Jews. Where to go? Not an easy question when the rest of the world wasn’t exactly welcoming Jews, especially stateless ones which they had become on leaving Germany. Desperation sent them to one of the few places that would accept stateless people – Shanghai.

However, acceptance isn’t the same as welcoming. Once they arrived, the family found Shanghai far from a utopia. Europeans with papers still lived in relative comfort in enclaves along the Bund. The stateless lived on the other side of the river, competing unsuccessfully with Chinese coolies for work, barely kept alive by scanty provisions from the International Red Cross. It was during this period that Prager’s father died, but the rest of the family managed to survive until the war was over which would seem like the end of their troubles, but like hundreds of thousands of others, they were displaced persons.  Returning to Germany was unthinkable, but they were citizens of no other country. Were they doomed to stay in Shanghai? Fortunately, Prager’s wife remembered a very remote relative who lived in California who, upon learning of their situation, volunteered to sponsor them. A sympathetic American consul general helped them through the necessary paperwork, and after many worries and travails they arrived in the Golden State.

Different people react differently to the kinds of experiences Prager endured. Some withdraw from life. Some are bitter and resentful. Not Hans. Having survived those grim years, he embraced this new life with joy and a smile. My father characterized him as one of those people, no matter how morose you might be feeling, a few minutes with Prager and the world was brighter.

I don’t know that you have to have a doctorate in psychology to think that those years of hunger and privation had something to do with him making food a career. Soon after arriving in California, he began working in restaurants in Los Angeles, working his way up to places like Scandia, and then in 1977 he opened the Ritz in Newport Center. For decades, it was one of the dining highlights in the city. The five dining rooms each had a unique décor; the garden area was voted the best outdoor dining in Orange County any number of times…and the food? The menu read like dishes that were the dreams of a boy often near starvation. The starters alone – the Ritz egg with caviar and a shot of Stoli, the Carousel with gravlax, smoked trout, shrimp, crab legs, lobster claws, duck liver pate, prosciutto and steak tartare – were like food porn. There was also an active bar which was like a club. Any time you went, you were sure to see someone you knew. All these things made the restaurant a huge success, but the real distinction of the Ritz, the thing that kept it at the top for so many years was the presence of Prager, beaming a welcome to the oasis he had created.

Prager died in 2004 and the Ritz closed. There was an attempt to revive it on the waterfront, but while you can duplicate a menu, you can’t duplicate an infectious personality like Hans Prager – a personality so buoyant no one meeting him would ever suspect the childhood ordeals he endured.

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.


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