The Pacific Coast Highway is rife with reasons to crane one's neck: occasional deer on the ridge line of the eastern mountains; the brown fiberglass horse at the European & Equestrian Pet Supply; the towering ­serape'd Hispanic at La Salsa, forever ­offering a platter of food; and until ­recently, the two fake sacks of money emblazoned with dollar signs and slung over telephone wires like so many Norwegian tennis shoes. But the Reel Inn, directly across from Topanga State Beach, offers a slightly wittier kind of beckoning neck breaker: a signboard with a seafood-related pun that, as reliable as the movement of the tides, changes daily. For example: “A Clockwork Orange Roughy” and “Lady ­Chatterley's Lobster.” A tradition that began more than 20 years ago, when the space was the Topanga Fish Market, the puns are written by five managers, though the public is welcome to submit ideas. Not exactly the New Yorker ­cartoon-caption contest, but still ….

The Reel Inn is the kind of seafood dive native to small California coastal towns, compounded in charm by the allure of the beach and the surfing beyond. Its food is made to be enjoyed after exertion: explicitly, after a long coastal drive that injects muscles with creakiness and slowly burns tired eyes. Implicitly, after wrestling with waves wresting boards and stamina, frosting the body with a salt veneer and the sheer joy of having battled the world and emerged alive, if not necessarily victorious. The inn's wide tin-roofed shack borders on hovel hood, shot through with surfboards and no shortage of stuffed sea creatures. The airy patio, the fish tacos, the unwittingly ironic tanks of tropical fish, the cold beers and wood floors stompable for even the most accursed bluesman — all these exist happily beneath fans spinning in varying degrees of laziness on the day I had my chowder, the sign reading “Fish You Were Here.”

—David Cotner

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