The year-round bar that anchors the entrance to Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs experienced a bit of an identity crisis this past year. The Ritz underwent a significant renovation almost a year ago, but struggled to maintain stability in the kitchen and lost a bit of ground with its regulars, who weren’t so sure about the transformation.
This time around, before they got out their paintbrushes and ladders, staff talked to customers to get their input.
“This is such a community-based spot,” general manager Kelly Feirtag said in the midst of sawhorses and primer last week. “When I came on in July, I spent a lot of time talking to customers and asking what kind of a place they would want to come to, what they did like and didn’t like about the direction we were going in.”
The one thing that’s always been consistent, she said, was the music. This got her thinking, and after a trip to Chicken Alley, where she found stacks of old Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines, Feirtag thought she could make some sort of collage with it all.
“Then I got larger posters, and realized local musicians were missing, so then I created a bunch of posters for as many local bands as I had time to do,” she said. Now the collage covers every inch of wall space on the upstairs section, the space where the bands play later at night.
Old shots of David Bowie and Mick Jagger share the space with the Captain and Tennille and Island musicians the Brothers McMahon and a close-up of Johnny Hoy. The wainscoting that was stripped and varnished last year is now painted a deep blue. In gold lettering over the few stairs that lead down to the bar — still the heart of the place — is a quote that pays homage to “Seinfeld”: “Here’s to feeling good all the time.”
Another welcome change, Feirtag said, is the complete renovation of the restrooms. The walls are lined with clean white subway tiles, black grout outlining each rectangle. Overall, the renovations look like the same bar that’s booked Island musicians for years, but with a warmer, cleaner look upstairs, and those walls adorned with posters, album covers, and flyers lend themselves to serious browsing.
“It’s a clean, cohesive, relaxing atmosphere with entertainment. And there’s also a lesson in music history on the walls,” Feirtag said.
Originally from Baltimore, Feirtag went to art school in Savannah, worked in business management in Los Angeles and New York, and went to culinary school. “I started coming here summers 17 years ago,” she said. “I made good friends with the local kids when we were teenagers, and then when we got into our late 20s, everybody started moving back here.”
She met Ritz owner Larkin Stallings in last July. “He said he needed somebody to show the bar some love, so I moved from L.A. in July,” Feirtag said. “He’s been the most incredible mentor, so generous and patient.” She said Stallings was involved with the renovations this time around, and that the entire staff helped with the project.
“The whole staff has come together, and it’s become a community project,” Feirtag said. “Our staff is absolutely a family, and we’re all happy to be here, and I think that will translate into the vibe of the bar. We’re all excited to be here.”
A perk of the hard-working staff, she said, was that they all brought skills to the renovation.
“Every time I said out loud an idea that I thought was crazy, someone on staff said, ‘I can do that,’” Feirtag said. “A member of the staff has touched every part of the renovations and has blown me away with their skills — carpentry, painting, calligraphy, ad design.”
The kitchen has settled down after many reinventions as well. Last year the menu included watermelon salad and plantain jalapeño hash; now they’re back to what Feirtag called “trashy dive bar done with the best of ingredients.”
“We’ve got the most amazing head of the kitchen, Brian Counihan,” she said. “He and A.J. Tucker have created an amazing menu and stabilized our kitchen, and we really do have the best wings, the burger is awesome, our brisket is awesome, and we have Frito pie.”
“We wanted to bring in a sort of piece of Larkin and Jackie [Stallings, Larkin’s wife] and their roots,” Counihan explained. “They spend a lot of time in Texas, and we’ve got the smoker out back; it’s fun, simple food.”
One of Counihan’s favorite new menu items is the pimento cheese spread with smoked Gouda, shredded Cheddar, pimentos, cream cheese, mayo, and hot sauce — something he said is straight out of the South. “And we serve it on Ritz crackers,” Counihan added. The housemade smoked brisket Reuben and the jalapeño cornbread signal a menu filled with comfort food. The cocktails available at the bar have a fresh look as well. You’ll find drinks like the 5 Corners Flood, cocktail names that bring up inside Islander jokes that the locals will no doubt enjoy.
The doors were open the entire time the Ritz was undergoing its redo, allowing the community to walk in and take a look. Feirtag said there are more community events in the making, with a fundraiser for Felix Neck coming up this spring, a St. Patrick’s Day musical event with the Edbury All-Stars, the Brothers McMahon, and more Island musicians. This past weekend they offered a menu discount to first responders and SSA workers. There are plans in the making for another Ladyfest this fall, this time an expanded version with even more performers. The proceeds will again benefit Community Service’s Connect to End Violence. There’s trivia on Tuesdays at 7 pm with Emily Hunsaker and Johnny Showtime, followed by karaoke. As always, live local music is on tap every weekend.
“We want to welcome everybody back and bring some stability to the place,” Feirtag said. “We’re getting into more community events, and I feel really lucky to give back to the Island.”
The Ritz, open at noon for lunch and dinner, with daily blue-plate specials for $10. Visit theritzmv.com to check the schedule and see the complete menu. 4 Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs. 508-689-9851.
This story by Connie Berry originally appeared on mvtimes.com.