Paradise Lost at Paradise Cove Beach Cafe in Malibu, California
Bob Morris' Paradise Cove Beach Cafe
28128 Pacific Coast Highway Malibu, CA 90265 (map); 310-457-2503; paradisecovemalibu.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: If only the burger were as delightful as this oceanfront location
Want Fries with That? I'd pass on these extra-crispy, fast food-style spuds
Prices: Beach Burger with Cheese, $14.90
Notes: There's a live jazz trio on Tuesday nights, but my tip is to head there in the mid-morning hours to avoid the crushing crowds to listen to a syncopated ocean
I just returned from a holiday weekend in Cleveland. My holiday was spent...in Cleveland.
Okay, normally this is the time when the coastal blogger either fortifies his snark credentials by eviscerating an easy target with worn clichés about a metropolis in peril or, alternatively, curries favor with an Middle American audience by communicating surprised delight at a resurgent city. It's the "mistake on the lake" in the first case; it's America's best new food scene in the second.
I'm not going to assume either posture. For me, it was a trip designed to celebrate my beautiful sister and her graduation from college. (Hooray, Isabella!) It's numinous to watch another person's body and mind mark the passage of time. It also happens to be deeply enervating when it demands a red eye flight and only 30 hours of land time at your destination.
The visit was short, but with its physical demands, somehow my longing for my home grew, well, long. Cleveland is certainly no mistake, but it and my sister's post-graduate life are things to which I am meant to be a visitor. After a Monday afternoon of sweet communion to raise our glasses to the graduate, I found myself strangely happy to be slipping into my tiny airplane seat. What waited for me was my home and the life to which I am resident: my bed, the sea, and a burger.
Tuesday would be an exercise in the familiar: a lonesome and savored lunch in my hometown. I decided I needed to seek out a spot that would properly mark my return—a spot that embodies the sense of place for which my city by the sea makes me long. I pointed the car toward Malibu and Bob Morris' Paradise Cove Beach Café in the hopes of finding my happier Eden; me and a burger becoming imparadised in one another's arms.
I can already feel a subtle rise in the salt content of the air as I wend my way down the long road that leads from the Pacific Coast Highway to the waterfront restaurant (and mobile home park—seriously). The restaurant sits directly on the beach and the outdoor seating means sand under foot. I take an electronic signal shaped like a lobster that will tell me when my outdoor table is ready. Apparently a lot of people were looking for a quiet lunch by the beach.
The menu and the overall feel of the place embraces its humble, fish shack roots. There is story after story that connects Hollywood's past to its present (from Danny Thomas to Paris Hilton!), but I'll let you decide if you are up for the lore. Personally, I'm up for a burger. I order the Beach Burger with cheddar (American isn't offered), medium rare. It comes with fries, but being that this is some of the most expensive real estate in the world (and because I lack self-control) I add on an order of fried calamari to embrace the extravagance.
The burger arrives looking rather wan in its open-faced presentation. The patty is hidden under some sweaty cheese and the top of the bun under a healthy portion of veggies and Thousand Island. I remove the tomato and onion, leaving only the lettuce before I dive into this oceanfront burger. The meat—said to be eight ounces of 100 percent Angus—is nicely grilled to medium rare. It's got a clean, beefy taste. That is to say, there is no sign of smoke (liquid or the real thing) or any other glazes. The meat steps forward nicely, but is left underdressed in this spotlight. It could use a hearty dose of seasoning to balance it out. The grind is coarse and satisfying, but the effect is also undermined by a lack of seasoning.
The bun is a surprisingly awkward potato roll that is almost cold. The lack of any heating (or, better yet, buttering) makes its commercial bakery origins obvious and in no way good. It's a shockingly poor choice redoubled in its evils by improper preparation. The overall impression is that of a family reunion cookout: It's the amateurishness of economy and speed brought to bear on a meal that is beside the point.
The calamari and french fries offer little solace. The fries have the extra-crispy exterior from the soybean oil frying that resolves to favor texture over flavor. The calamari—a heaping mound off squid served in an oversized, plastic martini glass—is bland, although properly cooked. The breading is hefty, but underseasoned, and in an outdoor setting like this, quickly loses a key element to its success: heat. I can barely convince myself to eat enough to satisfy my panging stomach with two portions that could feed four people.
I finish up my meal, such as it was, and determine to salvage the afternoon with a stroll along the beach. The ocean stretches out in front of me and I get lost, for a moment, in thoughts of my young sister. She stands before me and molds herself to every age she has ever been. Time passing in the shape of a girl.
While food might have failed me, bare feet in a springtime ocean is pleasure that defies criticism. This is, in the end, what Paradise Cove seems to be selling. It's as if they've turned a real estate truism into a restaurant aesthetic: Location, location, location. Perhaps this is an understandable oversight. Most visitors would ask, "Who expects anyone to notice the food when the views are this beautiful?" I imagine I'd ask, "Who wouldn't?"