Gladstone's Malibu, the iconic 33-year-old seafood restaurant that lays claim to 700 feet of prime beachfront real estate where the river of traffic on Sunset Boulevard flows into the estuary of the Pacific Coast Highway, had been having a bad decade, or two.
If it was going to weather the twin storms of recession and the wrath of Yelp, it was going to need an extreme restaurant makeover. But the fact that it would be saved by Sam Nazarian — one of Hollywood's most glittering night-life players — made for a particularly interesting rebirth.
FOR THE RECORD: A headline in an earlier version of this story said Gladstone's Malibu is in Malibu. The restaurant is in Los Angeles.
Despite being one of the busiest restaurants in Southern California (it serves about 6,500 to 7,000 meals per week during the summer), Gladstone's had gained a reputation for crummy food and spotty service (the L.A. Times gave it zero stars in a 2008 review). Wads of tourist money supported it, but the community — well-to-do elites living in Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica — treated the place like kryptonite.
"It's kind of like a really good villain. You enjoyed disliking it," says 27-year-old Kent Hutchison, who remembers going to Gladstone's to fool around with his friends and drink beer but never to eat the food.
The owner, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, wasn't keen on that reputation, so he says he sold 34-year-old Nazarian and his luxury hospitality group SBE a 20% stake in the business, with the goal of sexing up the restaurant and once again making it a destination for locals.
The pairing of hyper-trendy, night-life-centric SBE with a kitschy, aging property full of bros in board shorts and star-map-toting tourists in fanny packs is one of L.A.'s most improbable unions. But not only does it mean a considerable change for Gladstone's, it also signals that Nazarian and SBE are looking to broaden their reach to include more than just youthful Hollywood party people.
"This is very big for the SBE umbrella of properties," says Nazarian, who had been looking for a beachfront property to turn into a drinking and dining destination for nearly 10 years when a chance meeting with Riordan at Katsuya (one of SBE's prime holdings, along with the Bazaar by José Andrés, Hyde and the Abbey) led to his involvement in the project. "Because it gives visibility to what we can do to a property that needs help through our [business] systems more than our sexiness."
The result of SBE's effort — a million-dollar renovation of the restaurant's design and menu that was accomplished over the last year without shutting the restaurant down (Nazarian calls it "open- heart surgery") — was unveiled two weeks ago at a coming-out party that catered to community types rather than celebrities.
"Mayor Riordan and Sam Nazarian welcome you to Gladstone's," read a sign at the entrance, where guests were treated to their first view of a drastically different restaurant than many of them remembered from decades past. Gone were the concrete benches on the weathered deck; the peanuts all over the floor of the bar; the plywood blocking the sea-facing windows; the '70s-style brass railings; cumbersome, elevated dark-wood booth seating; and the scads of yellowing pictures of civic-minded beachside times of yore.
Replacing these relics was a chic, modernized design scheme with a bright, airy feel; white walls sans antique pictures; an open layout; huge ocean-view windows; and a deck covered with tables and chairs shaded by giant umbrellas (called Jumbrellas) equipped with built-in heat, sound, light and flat-screen TV compatibility.
"I trusted Sam to say, 'This is what the modern eater-outer wants and likes,'" says Riordan, who believed that the future of the restaurant looked grim before he brought Nazarian in.
Just traces of the old Gladstone's remain, but they are enough to impart a slightly bizarre sheen to the whole operation. On a recent tour, manager Tony Sher, tanned and dressed in breezy beach whites, pointed out that an original, crudely painted mural of Riordan sitting on a park bench with his grandchildren remains in one of the dining areas that leads to a temporarily installed high-end women's pop-up boutique from New York called 25 Park. In that rarified setting, the once-homey mural stuck out like a clown nose on a Prada model.
Also during the transition, SBE managed to hold on to about half of the original staff, including Miguel Carrillo, who has worked at Gladstone's since 1981 and invented the restaurant's patented method of wrapping leftovers in elaborate sea creature shapes fashioned tableside from gold and silver foil.
"I like the new restaurant, but it is very different," said Carrillo on a recent Wednesday night as he deftly molded a foil mermaid to put on top of a foil whale with fast-working fingers while strains of "Like the Deserts Miss the Rain" by Everything but the Girl thumped out of the speakers in comic dissonance with his activity. "There is more space for work. Before it was too close. We can breathe now."
That's certainly true of the kitchen, where chef Ben Sitton, in conjunction with SBE executive chef Danny Elmaleh, reworked the menu from top to bottom — doing away with much of the heavy fried fare and replacing it with fresh seafood options, such as spice-crusted tuna on creamy polenta and wild striped bass with andouille sausage and clams — and reduced the time it takes to complete an order from 41 minutes to six.
New back-of-the-house equipment includes a paperless ticket expeditor called KDS — the same system is used at the Bazaar — that sends text messages to front-of-the-house staff when a ticket is running late. The result, Nazarian says, is that, although menu prices have not been raised, the average check total has gone up. Higher-quality food is coming faster, customers are happier and people are ordering more, he says.
How good is the new menu? Only time and the measure of repeat business from the restaurant's neighbors will tell, but it is distinctly better than it once was. Still, based on the sheer size of the restaurant (it has close to 700 seats) and the huge volume of food it has to crank out (almost $24,000 in food costs alone on a busy day, resulting in sales in excess of $70,000), it will be difficult to make Gladstone's a gourmet destination.
"It's been a few months since we've taken over the kitchen, and we've achieved a lot," Elmaleh says. "But we're not there yet, and I don't know if we ever will be."
But gourmet food isn't what Riordan was gunning for anyway, just a modern upgrade that has local cachet and brings in repeat customers. "My favorite restaurant in the world is the Original Pantry. That's the level of my interest in cuisine," says Riordan, who also owns the Original Pantry. He adds that he doesn't eat seafood. "It just totally scares me and turns me off."
Nazarian, on the other hand, sees a larger opportunity. "We don't want people to sacrifice food quality just to have a good view. We want to transition Gladstone's into a new icon for the next 10 to 15 years. It's not about trendy; it's about timeless."