Newport Beach restaurateur Ron Salisbury celebrated his birthday earlier this year by blowing out all 90 candles on his large cake.
Salisbury is not done celebrating milestones: his El Cholo restaurants—currently six in total, including spots in Corona del Mar, La Habra and Anaheim Hills—turn 100 this year, while his latest restaurant project, Louie’s by the Bay in Newport Beach, turns 5.
His other waterfront Newport Beach restaurant, The Cannery Seafood of the Pacific, reached the 20-year mark last year.
Another milestone: he’s set to open a restaurant this year in Utah, his first location out of the state.
“It is exciting to be 90 years old and doing something like this,” Salisbury said. “That’s what keeps you going at 90.”
Salisbury isn’t too old for new accolades. He’s the Business Journal’s 2023 Restaurateur of the Year.
In the Family
Salisbury was destined to be in the restaurant business. His maternal grandparents, Alejandro and Rosa Borquez, opened the first El Cholo in 1923 in downtown Los Angeles; it was originally named Sonora Café in honor of their hometown of Sonora, Mexico.
In 1926, Aurelia Borquez, the daughter of Alejandro and Rosa, met her future husband, George Salisbury, at El Cholo. They began to court, and a year later decided to open their own El Cholo on Western Avenue.
George Salisbury’s mother, Lydia, a widow, mortgaged her home for $600 so George could open his new Mexican restaurant, which had three booths and eight stools.
In 1929, George and Aurelia married. That same year they hired Joe Reina as a dishwasher. He later became head chef of El Cholo, a position he held for 54 years.
In 1933, George and Aurelia have a son: Ron Salisbury.
“My first memories at age 3 or 4 were of being in a restaurant,” Ron Salisbury recalled.
“I always knew the El Cholo restaurant was huge in our family’s life. Coming through the Depression, I know how hard they worked and how proud they were of the restaurant. Dad called it a gold mine. It was a big part of my life. I started working in the kitchen after school when I was 13 or 14.”
El Cholo drew fans from miles around, including Hollywood.
Among the celebrities who flocked to El Cholo to enjoy the authentic Mexican dishes were Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Harold Lloyd, Loretta Young, Irving Berlin, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and many others.
Jack Nicholson was a regular diner at El Cholo when he was a struggling actor in 1963. His favorite meal there was two tacos, a side of beans and hot coffee. That combo set him back 85 cents. Nicholson continued to frequent the restaurant long after he successfully broke into the film business.
In 1962, Ron Salisbury opened a new El Cholo location in La Habra, and took over the family business in 1967, making him a third-generation owner. That same year, Ron launched The Restaurant Business Inc. to manage his restaurants, current and future.
Over the years, Ron opened more El Cholo locations, not because he was looking to expand but because the timing was right.
One El Cholo location is near the Crypto.com arena because another restaurant that was at that location did not pan out. Salisbury was encouraged to see the spot but at that time said, “I don’t need it, my life was fine,” but after he reluctantly looked at the space, he realized an El Cholo would be perfect there.
He now has six El Cholo restaurants, three in Orange County, plus three in Los Angeles. A seventh is scheduled to open this year in Salt Lake City.
“I have a place in Sundance, and it checks all the boxes,” said Salisbury of the Utah expansion. “The city assigns someone to make sure the plans go through. The atmosphere, the community—it should be really good.”
Balanced Life, Interrupted
Speaking of a prior expansion, there’s the story of The Cannery restaurant, which Salisbury acquired in 2002.
“My life was orderly, no major issues, I could travel. I had a balanced life,” said Salisbury of his life at the time.
Then he heard that The Cannery building along Newport Harbor was going to be torn down and replaced with condos. A fellow entrepreneur bought the restaurant for more than it was worth just to save it.
“They asked me if I was interested. I said my life was orderly, I don’t need it. They said to take a look at the building. It was an unusual building. I said let’s talk. We made a handshake deal. The Cannery opened up new dimensions in my life.”
The Cannery has a collection of signed baseballs and bats on display, and now plays host to the football-themed Irrelevant Week.
Six years ago, Salisbury had lunch with the man who designed The Cannery.
“He suggested I look at the Ritz Restaurant space (on Coast Highway). I said my life is orderly, I don’t need it. He said take a look at it. I will design the best restaurant I have ever designed if you take it. So, I talked to the landlord and I couldn’t walk away.”
Louie’s by the Bay was born.
Salisbury still spends much of his time in his restaurants, though he’s not much of an office guy.
“When you get older you need more of an adrenaline rush,” he said.
“I get a rush every day. It’s a legal narcotic. The days I am not in a restaurant I am slow and bored. That’s why I spend a lot of time in the restaurants.
“I have not been in my office for months.”
As busy as Ron Salisbury is, he found time in 2020 to write a book called, “What They Don’t Teach You at the C.I.A.” (Culinary Institute of America), available on Amazon.
It’s packed with short anecdotes and lessons from a lifetime spent in the restaurant business.
“It’s more than just restaurants, it’s common sense for life,” Salisbury notes. “The book has taken off.”
A sample excerpt called Can You Juggle:
“A skill you absolutely must master is becoming a great juggler—and I don’t mean of objects. At any given time you must be aware of everything happening everywhere in the restaurant.
This means food in the kitchen, diners’ experiences, is the valet smiling and delivering cars promptly, are the restrooms immaculate, is the music level appropriate, are dishes coming out of the dishwasher clean, are the hosts quoting proper wait times, and on and on and on. … If you can’t, find other work because most likely you’ll fail.”
And this one titled Passion, Practice, Perfection, People:
“After 80 years I’ve finally figured it out (I think). It comes down to this. To be great in this business you need four basic things: Passion (actually obsession), Practice (at all times doing and learning things that continually make you better), Perfection (nothing can beat it), and People—our guests, the ones we work with, the people we associate with—are to be maximized. Those four basics will produce profit.”