Most people hear the name “Malibu” and flash to images of a star-studded beach town, the place that’s packed with celebrities like Pamela Anderson being trailed by the paparazzi in her Ugg boots. If you’re a local, you know how it really is around here: This town is a strange mixture of laid-back and luxury. We’re a hodepodge of college kids, aging surfers/waiters, and celebrities and little more than a beautiful stop along a permanently congested highway full of empty beachfront second homes, drive-thrus, rehab centers, and a sprinkling of high-end stores and restaurants looking to tack Malibu to their list of locations. It’s a quiet town unless it’s the weekend, a holiday, or bikini season. I couldn’t live anywhere else.
But among the idiosyncrasies that make up what Malibu is, there is one thing that marks the city apart from other beach towns, the same anecdote that every local is painfully aware of: Malibu is a culinary wasteland. It’s the Bermuda-triangle for up-and-coming restaurants. May God have mercy on their culinary souls.
Of course, we’ve got a few redeeming places: Malibu Farm Pier Cafe, a straightforward organic restaurant; Plate and Tra di Noi, where there’s attentive and warm service; and Taverna Tony’s. Nobu, of course, won’t disappoint, but as a whole Malibu is severely lacking when it comes to food that you want to pay to eat.
Anytime a new place opens here, locals act like it’s the second coming of Christ and this is the restaurant that will save us all.
Trip Advisor lists 78 restaurants in Malibu, but considers deli’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Subway in the list of establishments. It’s a sad day when The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf are the 14th and 15th highest rated restaurants in your town. Once you remove those from the equation, you’re left with less than 30 options. If you look at the list carefully, the only ones that you’d actually want to patron—all of which are scattered along the 27 mile coastline from Topanga State Beach to County Line—are less than half the options given. According to my own experience, they include Carbon Beach Club, Moonshadows, and Malibu Seafood, whereas Duke’s, La Costa Mission, and Coral Beach Cantina are deep in the thick of the “hell no, you can’t make me go there” territory.
Thankfully, it’s hard to mess up a restaurant experience when you have a killer ocean view, like the software company Oracle’s CEO Larry Ellison’s giant, beachside Nobu and Nikita establishments. Even if the food is not always consistent, I don’t give a shit because the landscape is forgiving. Unless you are a been-around-since-forever local spot regularly frequented by weekending celebrities like Taverna Tony’s, you’re just a small blip, soon to be covered by a “for lease” sign.
The unparalleled view and celebrity sightings have a tendency to distract oneself from any issues they might have at Nobu or Mr. Chow. Yet once you get past the big guys, most of the restaurants in Malibu are either not very good, have a problem with service, apparently work under the belief that their views automatically make their offerings taste better than they do, or are unnecessarily expensive. These are the restaurants that get big buzz during their opening weeks, because anytime a new place opens here, locals act like it’s the second coming of Christ and this is the restaurant that will save us all. Usually, that hope is left unfulfilled.
Then, in the unforgiving Malibu way, it goes back to a solid rotation of the five or six decent restaurants in town—when I’m always asking myself, How many times a month you can eat Greek food?—while the latest attempt at rectifying the Malibu food scene quietly crawls under the patio to die alone. I don’t think people actually cook more at home in Malibu, or actively make the trek into LA to get a better culinary experience, but are simply stubborn fucks—myself included—who would rather suffer consuming mediocre cuisine at the usual haunts rather than give in to accepting that we need a more diverse array of establishments out here. I wonder if this town has some sort of food hex on it.
Sadly, I’ve seen quite a bit of turnover in Malibu restaurants over the past five years, with each vacancy spurring an opening of another restaurant in its place, only for the newcomer to then close and die a silent death like the one that came before it. All the while, Nobu continues to expand so that there can be more room for the same sushi. It’s at times like this when I’m reflecting on the state of the Malibu food scene that I consider giving my firstborn child to the first person who can pull this shit off.
Maybe Pamela Anderson has the answer to where I should be eating around here.