An iconic location is back with some of the best ocean views in Southern California.
In the early 80s, as a photographer living in Italy and coming to Los Angeles often for assignments, one of my frequent destinations was to head up the coast to the Malibu Pier and hang out, watching surfers and sundown, at the famed Alice’s Restaurant, which I was under the impression was the one immortalized in the song by Arlo Guthrie and movie by Arthur Penn.
Although the original Alice’s Restaurant was in Massachusetts, many people believed the Malibu location, because of the whole California hippy movement, was the locale mentioned in the song. However, it was a fun, happening place anyway — populated by a mix of surfer dudes, musicians, tourists and locals — loud, high-energy and colorful.
When the Malibu pier succumbed to the giant waves of a big storm in 1990, Alice’s was swept away and was never rebuilt. But that surf and the setting was too magical, romantic and iconic to ever really fade away. Two years ago the Beachcomber Cafe finally claimed the spot and opened an expanded and more thoughtful layout in the same location, on a sturdier pier, and with timeless appeal.
I arrived at the Beachcomber Cafe on a spring evening to meet my friend, just in time to bask in the dramatic glory of a Pacific sundown with nothing to obstruct the view. The surfers had already called it a day and the tide was rolling in, right under the sturdy moorings of the restaurant.
The Beachcomber Cafe has a magnificent patio, sheltered when we were there, with a white canvas cover and curtains opening to the main attraction, the magnificent Pacific ocean view in front. Heaters keep visitors toasty, even on chilly nights, and the patio has an attached bar, which makes it a perfect place for a happy hour or weekend lunch rendezvous. Patio and bar are across the walk from the restaurant. You can also dine on the patio, but we opted for ocean view seats inside the restaurant.
Small, intimate and cozy, the place radiates warmth and casual comfort with floor to ceiling burnished redwood and plentiful booths where conversation is easy. The light pop music in the air was accented by the rhythmic and soothing crashes of the waves, and seagulls pierced the “white noise” with their raucous cries. No need to scream above the din, as it used to be at Alice’s. The atmosphere is beach-friendly, casual, and the staff is enthusiastic and helpful.
We started our meal with a glass of Casa Torelli Pinot Grigio, to open our appetites to an anticipated dinner of sea creatures and fish. For starters, we ordered Surfrider Crab Cakes. My friend said, “The test of a restaurant’s seafood is their crab cakes.” These were less than average, not crusty on the outside and served with an uninspired mayonnaise mixture.
We also ordered the grilled calamari and octopus “Santa Lucia” appetizer, which arrived as a chopped salad. I couldn’t detect any grill marks on the tiny bits of seafood and the taste and texture was disappointing. It could have used a bolder, brighter hand with the dressing (we ordered extra lemons to do our own doctoring) and if they had topped the arugula with actual chunks of super-fresh grilled calamari and octopus, this salad would have been in another category.
Our shrimp cocktail featured succulent and perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp. The “traditional” cocktail sauce, however, tasted like it came right out of a bottle. With more “doctoring” with lemon slices, the shrimp were quite delicious.
In the spirit of celebration and because I adore them, we ordered oysters. These were the tiny Kunomoto from the state of Washington. This kind of oyster, which our friendly server called “her favorites,” were not very flavorful. They were served with the same tomato sauce as the shrimp, plus a tiny vessel of citrusy sauce, like a ponzu.
My friend and I both opted for the daily special, a grilled sea bass with roasted asparagus and wild rice. We ended up having a lively discussion as to whether the fish was frozen or fresh – and how a restaurant, by virtue of being located on the ocean, should only serve fresh rather than frozen fish. To resolve the question, we asked our server, who enthusiastically told us that they only use fresh, never frozen fish or seafood.
Could have fooled us. The sea bass did not flake with our forks, it was rather mushy and certainly lacked any inspiration or flare from the kitchen. The sauce was a mayonnaise-based cream sauce. The asparagus, perfectly grilled, was the highlight of the dish. The wild rice was overcooked, bland and neither of us ate more than a mouthful.
We accompanied our dinner entrée with a salad of apple, pecan and gorgonzola, but the candied pecans seemed to be absent and the gorgonzola cheese lacked the interesting pungency of that fromage.
We split a very decent and over-the-top huge slice of carrot cake from a small-chain bakery provider. We also tried their warm apple pie (another huge portion) with ice cream.
Although the meal wasn’t inspiring, I still would recommend the Beachcomber Cafe for its friendly atmosphere and staff, and for the patio overlooking the ocean. I think a lunch date or happy hour to watch the sundown with a special friend could be a very pleasant occasion. The romantic, dramatic setting of the Beachcomber Cafe truly deserves a counterpoint of a chef who can offer simple, pristine food, but with some imagination, technique and passion. If the Beachcomber could provide this, it would be an outstanding destination for any occasion.