When Bob Morris opened Gladstones 4 Fish in 1972 in the old Ted's Grill space in the canyon, Santa Monica was still a sleepy little beach town dotted with retirement homes and surfing spots favored by Dogtowners like Tony Alva and Jay Adams.
As the sawdust-and–peanut shells–on-the-floor beach-shack trend exploded in the early '80s with restaurants like the Pelican's Catch in Venice, Morris in 1981 moved Gladstones up the road to PCH in Pacific Palisades, to its now-iconic location where Sunset Boulevard ends or begins, depending on what part of town you're from.
The beachfront restaurant underwent several changes after Morris sold it in 1984 and bought it back in 1990. Sawdust just wasn't cool (or legal) anymore, and the food started slipping. The chips got greasy and the fish was fishy.
Gladstones has seen better days, but on Saturday, March 31, under the guidance of executive chef David Cabrales and chef Eric Velasquez, the restaurant will celebrate a rebirth of sorts by relaunching an updated version of the original menu. "The food is back now and good as it ever was during the heyday," says former L.A. mayor Richard Riordan, who bought Gladstones in the mid-1990s.
Everything was big in the '80s — hair, wallets and the plates at Gladstones. Monster-sized portions included a slice of chocolate cake that could feed six people. And if that weren't enough, the beast would be slathered in fresh whipped cream and served with a butcher's knife to help wrangle it into an edible state.
The lobsters were enormous, the clam chowder was thick, and it was one of the few places in town where you could get a proper bucket of steamed clams with their own house-fried thick potato chips or — even more rare at the time — oysters on the half shell. The coleslaw was legendary. Free loaves of fresh-baked sourdough bread and dishes of crunchy celery and fresh vegetables were slung left and right with reckless abandon.
The place boomed — even with reservations, the wait could be up to 45 minutes, which was easily spent at the bar nursing an oversized and over-decorated signature bloody mary. The huge fish tank at the crowded entrance was home to famed Larry the Lobster for a time. At one point Gladstones sold 35 tons of crab and 65,000 lobsters each year.
Morris opened a similar outpost in Beverly Hills for carnivores, R.J.'s for Ribs, which was one of the first restaurants besides the Charthouse to introduce the all-you-can-eat salad bar concept at $5 a plate.
Gladstones was where you went for birthdays, anniversaries, prom night, breakfast or after work. It was filled with local surfers reflecting on the day's conditions. A lot of time was spent there watching the sunset and munching on one of the biggest crab Louies this side of the Mississippi and sipping a glass of Chablis.
The shack grew and expanded into a worldwide destination popular with tourists for its clambakes and stereotypical California vibe, an iconic clip in any visual depicting what was typical L.A. After all, it was just a few hundred yards from where you could get a glimpse of Pamela Anderson jogging down the beach on the Baywatch location.
When Riordan, who also owns the Original Pantry Cafe and Riordan's Tavern downtown, bought the beachside eatery, some probably wondered why he would want the fading rose at the end of Sunset Boulevard. "That's just what my psychiatrist asked me," Riordan tells L.A. Weekly. "I wanted to cure it, I think. The food was suffering and things were going downhill."
The private company SBE took over day-to-day operations during that time and tried to turn Gladstones into a nightclub, but that ended up losing even more customers looking for a barefoot walk on the beach before dinner.
"I loved it when it had peanut shells all over the floor, but the health department came in and said they'd sue us if we didn't clean it up," Riordan recalls.
He still remembers the popular shellfish towers — his favorite. They are starting to come back again around L.A., he said. "You see them everywhere now."
Cabrales and Velasquez are bringing back the golden era of favorites, like a lighter version of Gladstones' famous lobster thermidor and an updated oysters Rockefeller. Many of the servers and support staff have been at Gladstones since the '80s and are looking forward to going backward. And yes, 30 years later Miguel, Pedro and Herman are still on deck to transform your leftovers into mesmerizing art.
The warm sourdough loaf is on the menu for $2; the seafood towers of snow crab, mussels, ceviche, bay scallops, shucked oysters and tuna tartare ($50 for two, $125 for four or more) are there too. The clambake is also back and includes a 1-pound Maine lobster, a pound of snow crab legs, clams, mussels, shrimp, linguiça sausage, corn, potatoes and seasonal vegetables ($150 and feeds four to six).
The classic Gladstones fried fisherman's platter of fish, clams, shrimp, calamari and onion rings is on the menu ($30) as is the shrimp and crab Louie ($25). The big Kahuna chocolate cake has returned to the dessert menu. Brunch is available on weekends and the signature brioche French toast is back, too ($15).
There also will be an "Eggstones" breakfast-to-go service, where you can call in your order and pick it up from the parking lot without leaving your car.
According to Riordan, the lease has been extended a minimum of two years and a maximum of five years, which in coastal planning terms can mean anything. Although the kitchen has been newly redone, the existing building is pretty deteriorated and outdated.
"What the county wants is somebody to come in and say they'll put $10 million on the line to knock our restaurant down and put a better one up on that patch of land, which belongs to the county," Riordan says. "My bet is it will take five years."
This five-year lease addendum will stretch the timespan of Gladstones to 50 years.
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So for at least another few years, customers can relive the old surfer days with updated favorites and that famous indoor/outdoor 180-degree ocean view from Point Dume to Catalina. Dolphins still pass by every day. The wooden walls have been whitewashed, but the historic photos still hang and Morris' old office has been turned into dining space.
A couple of doors down from trendy Tallula's on Entrada Drive in the Santa Monica Canyon, the overgrown and crumbling original Gladstones still stands. Would Riordan consider moving it again? "I haven't thought about that. I'm 80 years old and don't know what lies ahead. A jealous husband could kill me any minute — you just never know."
Gladstones, 17300 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades; (310) 454-3474, gladstones.com.