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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Wilma’s Patio Restaurant: 40 Years on Balboa Island

Balboa Island has a storied history dating back 100 years when lots could be bought for less than $100. Now they’re worth millions—almost as valuable as a parking spot on the island in December.

Marine Avenue is the street leading onto Balboa Island, along which are dozens of shops and restaurants that help the island retain its old-fashioned charm.

Many restaurants have come and gone on Balboa Island, but only one has endured for four decades: Wilma’s Patio, opened by Wilma and Maurice Staudinger on Sept. 7, 1982.

The 40-year anniversary is an impressive milestone. According to Sheri Drewry, the daughter of Wilma and Maurice who now runs the day-to-day restaurant operation with her husband, Dave, the grand opening excitement of Wilma’s Patio was short-lived.

“They opened on Sept. 7, and closed five days later,” Drewry recalled.

“They had hired the chef from the Jolly Roger restaurant to put together a menu for them, but they came from the fast-food arena and did not have the experience of a sit-down restaurant. The chef created an elaborate menu with oysters and crab and lobster and steaks. The place was tiny, and the menu was too big. My parents did not know how to manage it.”

So, they reversed course and scaled back the menu to one page with breakfast and a few lunch items, making the endeavor more manageable.

Local Expansion

Locals came to love dining at Wilma’s Patio, so eventually the menu expanded to include dinner.

In the fall of 1997, Wilma’s Patio had the opportunity to take over the space where the Jolly Roger restaurant once stood, although Maurice did not live to see the new restaurant—he died prior to the move.

The new space was much larger than the old restaurant, and Drewry said that led to new challenges.

“We did not do well right off the bat,” Drewry admitted. “We made a lot of mistakes. We did not know how to manage something this big. It was a learning curve, and it took a couple of years to get it dialed in.”

Wilma retired from daily involvement in the restaurant in 2007 and stayed active in the community until she died in 2014.

Menu Growth

After Wilma’s Patio opened in the new spot on Marine Avenue, the menu slowly grew into a multi-page opus. Drewry kiddingly blames the lengthy menu on her customers.

“People would say ‘can you make me something not on the menu,’ and if we had the ingredients, we’d make it and add it to the menu,” Drewry explained. “So, if you look at our menu it is big, but the way we did it was through pilfering items we had in-house so there was not as much waste or storage. We’d do thick slices of ham for breakfast and thin slices for sandwiches. We had fried chicken on the menu, so we added a fried chicken sandwich. We had burgers and then we added a patty melt because we had bread. And a sourdough burger—that’s probably our No. 1 seller.”

Drewry said at one point she tried to eliminate some of the comfort food for healthier options such as seafood, but “people want pot roast, people want grilled cheese, people want fish and chips. It’s comfort food. That’s why they come here.”

History, Pumpkin Pancakes

They also come for the history. One dining room is constructed from wood that was salvaged from the original bridge onto Balboa Island. The beams in the restaurant are from the railroad that once carried passengers down the peninsula.

History took a back seat when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and restaurants had to close its doors.

Drewry created an ad hoc market in front of the restaurant and sold everything from eggs to orange juice and milk. They made dinners to go and delivered free on the island.

Now, Wilma’s Patio is once again packed with hungry diners who relish their favorite dishes, which includes pumpkin pancakes.

“People start calling in September asking if we have our pumpkin pancakes. They have a fan following all their own,” Drewry said. “We’ve been selling them for 35 years, way before the pumpkin craze started.”

Another popular breakfast dish, said Drewry, is the Belly Bomb: a sourdough loaf cut in half and stuffed with an omelet. Also the egg enchilada, another item that’s been on the menu for several decades.

Longtime Staff

Drewry has witnessed countless changes on Balboa Island over the years, but fewer changes to her staff—some longtime employees have been working at Wilma’s Patio for more than 20 years.

“It’s a family-run business, so it has a different feel to it,” said Drewry, who is planning her strategy for the week-long Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, which brings thousands of people to Newport Beach and Balboa Island.

“The Sunday of the boat parade is the busiest day of the year for us,” Drewry said. “All the families are here, people come out during the day to meet friends, there are big parties.”

The Boat Parade does bring an avalanche of customers, but Wilma’s Patio has been blessed with many longtime diners who frequent the restaurant multiple times a week. It’s easy to see the allure: fine food, friendly staff, and a welcoming ambiance.

The OCBJ Review

Having dined at Wilma’s Patio several times, I can vouch for the cuisine.

The Belly Bomb is a massive handful of morning goodness, while the sourdough burger is comfort food 101.

I’m slowly working my way through the massive menu, which could take months if not years. I’m looking forward to the gastronomic challenge.

Wilma’s Patio: 203 Marine Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 675-5542, wilmaspatio.com

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