It's a question for the ages: Why isn't there any good food in Malibu? The query is based on a generalization — certainly, there are some good things to eat in Malibu — but the pickings are notoriously slim. (VICE recently dubbed the place "a culinary wasteland.") For such a wealthy community, with unparalleled ocean views, the dearth of quality restaurants is a bit of a mystery.
I have a theory: Malibu doesn't want good food. How else to explain the almost empty dining room at Malibu Pier Restaurant and Bar on a glorious, summery Thursday evening? It could be that, apart from a flier that reads "Lunch, Dinner, Cocktails," no signage tells people there's a restaurant here. Or that, two months in, the place still has no working website, just a holding page that says "coming soon." But these things shouldn't be enough to keep people away.
Consider the facts. The restaurant is new (which ought to be exciting in a city with little worth eating). The chef has a pedigree. And the room is stunningly gorgeous — you dine perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, at a historic pier that may well be cuter and quainter than any other seaside location in the known universe.
The Malibu Pier is owned by California State Parks, which handed over operation of the pier's buildings to Malibu Pier Partners LLC. That group has installed two restaurants — one on the far end of the pier and one at its entrance just off Pacific Coast Highway. Last year, Malibu Farm opened at the end of the pier, a cafe and restaurant with a focus on local and organic ingredients. Whimsical and designed with a beachy, bohemian vibe, Malibu Farm is not what you expect to find in a boardwalk restaurant, though it is what you wish you'd find.
Now the company has followed suit with Malibu Pier Restaurant and Bar, in the two buildings at the pier's entrance that used to be Beachcomber Cafe and Ruby's Diner. Those buildings, which have been overhauled completely, reflect both the pier's 109-year-old history and the cultural import of Malibu itself.
On one side, a bar and deck overlook the ocean and pier. On the other side, a huge dining room shares space with the kitchen. The whole thing is nautical-chic, a gorgeous, whitewashed vintage vibe punctuated by modern elements that you often have to look at twice to notice. The light fixtures are made of rope and filament bulbs, with shades that look enamel but are made of pottery, each slightly wonky. Over here there's a black-and-white print of a Dennis Hopper photograph of Jane Fonda in Malibu in the '60s; behind the bar, a sunset-colored, Richard Phillips surfboard adorned with a sultry California girl.
The chef is Jason Fullilove, who worked at Campanile and more recently for the Patina Group as chef at LACMA, where he oversaw everything from the offerings at the museum's summer kiosks to Stanley Kubrick–themed, multicourse dinners. At Malibu Pier, he's focused on seafood: The restaurant aims to be an upscale, modern American fish house.
At the bar, you can get pretty great versions of throwback drinks — a Singapore sling, a rum swizzle — that are exactly what you'd want in this setting. The food menu also has cute nods to boardwalk eats, such as Santa Barbara spot prawn corn dogs. They sound as ill-advised as their cousin, the lobster corn dog, but somehow work much better. Perhaps it's just the chef's touch: The outside of the sweet batter is perfectly crispy, even while maintaining the integrity of the delicate prawns inside.
There's a depth of flavor and nuance to the Malibu seafood stew, which highlights mussels, octopus, striped bass and clams in a saffron-laced broth studded with pearl pasta. And while there are lovely lamb chops and a crispy jidori chicken with rapini and kumquat jus, the real reason to eat here is the seafood.
Perhaps thanks to his time at LACMA, or maybe just because he's that kind of cook, Fullilove is offering many gorgeous dishes. On a salmon entree, the scarlet turnips, cauliflower and romesco were as pretty as a painting, dotting the plate like flowers in a Monet. It's a pity the fish was cooked too hard, by a long shot, especially when I ordered it rare.
You can see the temptations of tourist trappery rearing up here and there, most noticeably in the pricing, which is ludicrous in some instances. Twenty dollars for four deviled eggs? There's uni atop each halved creamy ovoid, and they're patently delicious and surprisingly spicy, sprinkled with the prickly, chili-laden Japanese condiment yuzu kosho. But they ain't worth $20.
The lobster roll, however, may be the most egregious example of tourist gouging. In this setting, with the waves crashing and surfers bobbing in the Pacific, you almost have to order a lobster roll. What a disappointment, then, to find your $23 sandwich comprised as much of shredded lettuce as lobster meat, the greens taking up most of the room inside the brioche bun, while the actual lobster meat (buoyant and fresh, what there is of it) acts almost as a garnish. Perhaps that's an overstatement, but the lettuce feels like a miserly kitchen trick, and one that robs the sandwich of the luscious smoosh exhibited by the best lobster rolls.
Alas, tourists' tastes (or budgets) may not differ much from certain locals. I wish I was lying when I tell you that one evening, the only other table in the large, whitewashed room was taken up by two women who looked as if they'd just stepped off a Real Housewives set. As they picked at their crabcakes, the snippets of Chardonnay-fueled conversation were about a messy divorce from a brain surgeon: "I'll take him for all he's worth." Direct quote.
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Why? Why are these women the only people in the dining room? Even as the valet line to get into Duke's and Moonshadows up the street holds up traffic on PCH, even as Nobu (a better but vastly more expensive restaurant) is packed with customers? There's something wrong with this picture.
Listen, Malibu: You should go to this restaurant. It's better than most of your other restaurants. It's beautiful — not in a flashy way but in a way that's both elegant and exciting. It's not perfect, and it's a little overpriced at times, but that comes with the territory.
Besides, something tells me you can afford it.
MALIBU PIER RESTAURANT AND BAR | Two stars | 23000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu | (310) 456-8820 | malibupierrestaurant.com | Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. | Dinner entrees, $20-$39 | $10 parking in the Malibu pier lot, limited street parking available