Fine Dining, the Malibu Way (in Ripped Jeans)

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Jun 16, 2017

A world away from ritzy Beverly Hills, Malibu locals like to play it cool. Yes, the dining is fine but it starts early and the dress code is ripped jeans and tees. The fare? It’s local, virtuous and worthy of its star following, writes Donna Walker-Mitchell.

Ah, Malibu. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Los Angeles but its relaxed beach-chic vibe makes you feel like you’re in another world the minute you arrive. In fact, The ’Bu, as locals affectionately call it, might as well be its own island. As you drive west along California’s Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica, Malibu is marked by 43 kilometres of beautiful beaches and multimillion-dollar homes situated impossibly close to the ocean.

For all its beauty, it can be a culture shock for first-time visitors. It’s rustic and extremely casual, which surprises many. Unlike Beverly Hills, it’s not glamorous and glitzy; nor does it have the hipster vibe of LA’s Silver Lake or Los Feliz. 

While Malibu commands some of the highest house prices in the United States, locals don’t really flaunt their wealth. Once they leave the long driveways of their gated coastal retreats with unusually high walls, you can spot them in ripped jeans or tracksuit pants. Dressing down is akin to a religion here.

With a population just shy of 13,000, Malibu is like a small town with quaint, sometimes ramshackle mom-and-pop stores on one side of the highway. On the other side are sexy, world-renowned restaurants such as Nobu. 

Long-time residents have mixed feelings about commercial developments in their town. Sure, they love not having to travel to Beverly Hills or Brentwood for a special meal but they’re also desperate for Malibu not to lose its breezy, almost hippie aesthetic. But the times they are a-changin’, albeit slowly, in this place that epitomises the Southern Californian dream.

Nobu

Make no mistake, getting a table on the deck here is the hottest ticket in town. As you come up Nobu’s stone-paved driveway, you may think you’ve accidentally driven into a luxury car dealership, with Bentleys, Ferraris and Aston Martins lined up outside. Paparazzi perch along the low brick wall, eyeing the valet area like hungry seagulls, waiting to see who exits the vehicles. Expect to queue, no matter what time of day you arrive. Situated on Carbon Beach, otherwise known as Billionaire’s Beach, Nobu has views from almost every vantage and the food is well above par. Must-try dishes include the black cod with miso and the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño. Or just go omakase (let the chefs decide) while you relax with a Sunset Spritzer and take in that view – either of the glistening Pacific Ocean or the crowd, both of which are fabulous.

22706 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

CBC

With executive chef Cody Dickey at the helm and an outlook that takes in Malibu Pier, CBC (formerly Carbon Beach Club) at Malibu Beach Inn is an idyllic spot for lunch or dinner. Start with the grilled octopus served with capers, olive oil and lemon zest or the Instagram-worthy ahi tuna tartare. As you settle in for the evening and the beach below is flooded with light, enjoy the luscious striped bass with an almond and grape gremolata, black garlic and yuzu. The feel of CBC is upmarket yet very relaxed in that Malibu kind of way. Soft blankets are placed on each chair (and there are heaters above) in case the temperature dips at night. Lovely. 

22878 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

Malibu Farm Restaurant and Malibu Farm Cafe

An ideal start to the day, Malibu Farm Restaurant does one of the best breakfasts around (it’s also open for lunch and dinner). Popular items include quinoa oatmeal and scrambled eggs or there’s the breakfast burrito with eggs, sausage, black beans

and guacamole if you prefer something a little less virtuous. Juices are a specialty, including the jewel-green kale and apple blend. Fresh, delicious, healthy and made with local produce, the food here is simple and honest. For something even more casual, head to sister eatery Malibu Farm Cafe at the other end of the pier.

23000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

Paradise Cove Beach Cafe

This is the quintessential spot in Malibu to relax on an Adirondack chair and soak up the Californian sun. With your feet in the sand, order a cold beer or a retro cocktail complete with an umbrella and the notorious, white-knuckle-inducing freeway traffic will fade to a distant memory. Don’t be surprised if this beach looks familiar: Paradise Cove has been the shoot location for everything from the 1959 film Gidget to music videos by Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari album cover was also shot here. A word to the wise: everything on the menu is huge. The bestselling calamari will easily feed four hungry people, while the enormous sample platters – the Hot Combo with barbecue jumbo shrimp, pork baby back ribs and fried fish and the Iced Seafood with ahi poké, smoked salmon, crab legs and mussels – are meant for sharing. To be fair, the food can verge on average but the setting is sublime, which is what you really come here for.

28128 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

Vintage Grocers

If you’re heading to one of Malibu’s beaches for the day (say, Zuma or Surfrider), stock up on picnic items at Vintage Grocers. The produce here – much of it sourced from surrounding farms – is mostly organic and explodes with flavour. Grab gourmet sandwiches, soups and salads to go or stop at the juice and coffee bar for freshly squeezed blends, smoothies and local Groundwork coffee.

Suite 24, Trancas Country Market, 30745 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

Malibu Café Country Kitchen and Bar

From the coast, it’s a 15-minute drive through picturesque Ramirez Canyon to Malibu Café Country Kitchen and Bar at Calamigos Ranch, one of the most photogenic settings in Los Angeles County. At its country-style markets, vintage chandeliers hang over picnic tables and each stall has a chalkboard menu displaying the type of food in which it specialises. One serves gourmet burgers, while another might do smoked baby back ribs or Tennessee-style fried chicken (worth every calorie). The food here is dubbed “nouveau barbecue” and other dishes include rib eye skewers, blue crab hushpuppies (cornmeal fritters) and shrimp and grits. There’s also a spinach and beetroot salad with whipped ricotta and a delicious country salad with rocket, red onion, goat’s milk fetta and a Meyer lemon dressing. The meals come in picnic baskets complete with a red-and-white checked cloth to spread over your table. With an oversize chessboard, giant Jenga and a beanbag toss, it’s a great spot for families. While the kids play, the adults can sip a Negroni, a glass of Taittinger or a beer. This is how Malibu does country living. 

327 Latigo Canyon Road, Malibu

Moonshadows

At this perfect place for a drink, sit outside on the all-white patio – in a wooden booth or on one of the comfy cubes or day beds – while DJs set the mood and waves crash nearby. For those who like to party, Moonshadows is open until 1.30am on Fridays and Saturdays – an extremely late closing time in Malibu, where early dinners and drinks are the norm and most establishments draw their shutters at 10pm or 11pm. 

20356 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

Café Habana Malibu

Co-owned by Cindy Crawford’s husband, Rande Gerber, Café Habana Malibu serves great Mexican food with a healthy twist. It’s casual, beachy and relaxed. Treat yourself to a Prickly Pear Margarita on the shaded patio or inside the bustling bar area. Celebrity titbit: this is where Gerber’s best mate, George Clooney, celebrated his engagement to Amal Alamuddin and the pair are regulars at the low-key hangout when they’re in town. Try not to choke on a corn chip if you see them at the next table.

Malibu Lumber Yard, 3939 Cross Creek Road, Malibu

Mr Chow

Occupying Nobu’s former space at Malibu Country Mart, celebrity drawcard Mr Chow is open only for dinner. It’s a must-stop for superb, upscale Chinese food. Thanks to its open kitchen, you’re entertained by talented chefs, led by Ren Zheng Bing, as they put on a culinary show – whether they’re plating the luxurious Peking duck or turning a mound of dough into impossibly thin ribbons within two minutes. This is theatrical dining at its best as they bounce, stretch and twist the dough. Cult favourites at Mr Chow include the green prawns, chicken satay, tender filet mignon and squab lettuce cups. If you can’t decide what to order, the waitstaff will happily guide you – trust them and enjoy. You can also ask about secret, off-menu items such as the salt-and-pepper petit potato, special duck rolls, salt-and-pepper mushrooms and Beijing-style sea bass. This particular Mr Chow restaurant (there are six in the US and outposts in London and Mexico City) draws an eclectic crowd, including couples enjoying a special-occasion meal and casually dressed locals stopping by this salubrious, softly lit space for a bite before heading home. It’s a fantastic feast for the senses.  

Malibu Country Mart, 3835 Cross Creek Road, Malibu

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