LOOKING seaward from Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, there's almost no sign of the Beachcomber Cafe, but if you're astraddle a surfboard in the ocean off Surfrider Beach, you probably have a pelican's-eye view of what's so special about the place -- its million-dollar location.
The Malibu Pier, part of a state beach and well on its way along a revitalization path, has a deceptive kind of curb appeal. The '30s-era tile-topped entrance tower always catches motorists' attention, but unless you park and walk past the midcentury Sport Fishing Pier sign, you won't know that it's now an appealing spot for strolling, fishing, cocktailing, sunset-watching -- and dining.
But locals, including weeknight-appearing actor-celebs, have discovered the Beachcomber, a casual but pricey eatery that opened in July in the space once occupied by Alice's Restaurant. It's that rarest of waterfront restaurants, one that's as cozy (indoors) when the fog rolls in as it is breezy and bright (indoors and out) on sunny afternoons. It's small, full of booths and windows, and boasts remarkable views of waves, surfers and sky.
It's a neighborhood spot, but it's convenient to some pretty affluent neighborhoods, so it's not, for all its cannily nostalgic ambience (vintage photos, green vinyl booths, copper-faced kitchen wall), a snack shack. That's still to come, from the same restaurateurs, Doug Cavanaugh and Ralph Kosmides, to a space at the ocean end of the pier.
It's where you want to take your dad-in-law for his birthday after a drive up the coast or through the canyon pass. He'll get good service, a fine meal and a terrific martini, and he won't have to mess with a cadre of dark-suited managers or the din of a crowd stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder into banquettes.
Instead, he'll be warmly greeted by hosts who'll explain the setup. Lunch and dinner menus are served inside and out; for breakfast and bar menu items, seating is outside under umbrellas on a wind-sheltered, glass-walled terrace (dad-in-law can, of course, show up in his Tommy Bahamas). There are vegetarian options as well as a menu statement that ingredients are local and organic whenever possible.
The restaurant's bar, called the Malibu Pier Club, has outdoor seating as well as a small indoor bar with a wonderful tiki-infested party alcove (the Tonga Lei Room -- actually a single booth; reserve for parties of up to 10 to 12).
Breakfast or lunch here is a sensational beginning to a show-'em-the-town itinerary. Whether you're planning a day at the Getty Villa or a hike up Solstice Canyon, stop here first for photo ops and good modern-cafe selections -- portabello scramble, Greek omelet, brioche French toast -- and up-to-the-mark coffee. There are some signature eye-openers on the drinks menu too.
Lunch is a good choice for the cost-conscious. Starters such as the appetizer of tiny ahi tacos, delicious with seasoned diced tuna in wonton chips, or the very respectable fried calamari with green goddess dip can be shared before lunch entrees that include standards such as Cobb or Chinese chicken salads or a soup 'n' salad combo with luxe touches (the soup's a tomato-Gorgonzola bisque, the Cobb is made with filet mignon, the cole slaw is spicy and crisp).
From the dinner menu, there's an over-the-top rich wild mushroom and truffle mac, a crisp-crusted concoction of mixed fresh mushrooms, Parmesan cream and pasta.
At dinner, the bread basket boasts terrific small pretzel rolls that will probably disappear before your Longboard cocktail (Chambord, vodka, orange and cranberry juices). Entrees are upscale comfort food -- maybe a bit too upscale for some. The steaks (rib-eye or filet mignon) are expensive ($45 and $37 respectively).
Better bets are the clay pot chicken -- a savory and tender coq with a satisfyingly rich jus -- or the mild but flavorful seafood pot pie -- lobster, scallops and shrimp with chunky potatoes, carrots and peas. Just like your mama would have made, if she had been private chef to a movie star.
In fact, the little touches, courtesies and amenities that make diners happy here -- respectful visits from the manager and chef, a pretty confetti of diced tropical fruit on the coconut cake, superior brewed coffee, tables with marvelous views -- are what we're always hoping for (and paying for) when we eat out. The Beachcomber isn't inexpensive, but it's too much fun to think of it just for special occasions. Luckily, the management (which also has the Beachcomber at Crystal Cove State Park) seems to be on the customers' side about that.
The refreshing attitude (as opposed to the corporate cynicism you encounter at so many ocean-view, harbor-view or pier-adjacent places) plays out at every level. Blankets are available for folks who want to gamble on fresh-air seating, curious passersby are welcome to stop by for a cup of coffee (not a meal) -- and all are invited to join the light-hearted appreciation of a landmark.
The Beachcomber Location: 23000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, (310) 456-9800; www.thebeachcombercafe.com. Price: Bar menu: cocktails, $9 to $12; appetizers, sandwiches and salads, $10 to $16; hot coffee/liqueur drinks, $8; desserts, $9. Lunch sandwiches and salads, $13 to $17; pizza, $14; dinner soups, salads and appetizers, $6 to $16; entrees, $19 to $45; desserts, $9. Corkage fee, $15, four-bottle maximum. Best dishes: Blueberry multigrain pancakes, tiny ahi tacos, clay pot chicken, seafood pot pie, coco-mango yum-yum (coconut cake with sorbet and fruit). Details: Open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Thanksgiving day, Christmas Day and at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Validated lot parking (valet) in pier lot, entrance just south of the pier.