Paradise Cove Beach Cafe's Fun Take on Food
By Jen Jones Donatelli
In a town where the foodie is king, Malibu's Paradise Cove Beach Cafe provides a jesterlike dose of levity just off Pacific Coast Highway. Call to make a reservation, and you'll hear a playful hold message from Tom Hanks; order dessert and you just might get a five-pound Mile High Chocolate Cake. "People are far too serious about food," says owner Bob Morris. "When you get too serious about food and wine, it becomes work. It's supposed to be fun."
And therein lies the secret to Morris's success. In the 15 years since he purchased the restaurant, his focus has been on creating a fun, family-friendly beachside environment that welcomes everyone, whether they're in "high chairs, wheelchairs, bikinis, or something in between." Case in point: Rumor has it celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez have been spotted at the sun-soaked eatery. While enjoying heaping helpings of seafood, burgers, and tropical cocktails, diners can dip their toes in the sand and take in views of the glittering Pacific. "I wanted to create the quintessential California beach restaurant," says Morris. "We're not Denny's, and we're not Wolfgang Puck—we're right down the middle."
Morris's approach clearly resonates with the public, as wait times can be up to two hours on weekends. Not that there is a dearth of things to do in the meantime—most people take the lobster-shaped pager and go frolic on the private beach, walk the fishing pier, or take a stroll through the neighboring upscale trailer park that serves as home to such stars as Minnie Driver and Pamela Anderson. "We're selling an ambience—the total experience: Come to the beach and enjoy the ocean," says Morris.
For Morris, the "experience" is one he's known intimately all of his life. His father, Joe Morris, first purchased 30 acres of the Paradise Cove land from Fred Roberts in the mid-1950s, paying anywhere from $3,500 to $25,000 per acre, then bought the adjoining 40 acres from Bill Swanson. At the time, the cove was a lively hub of fishing activity and also hosted the filming of California classics including Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo. "I was in heaven living on the beach," recalls Morris, who then ran the snack bar.
His reverie was cut short, however, when the Kissel family acquired the property approximately a decade later. While the Kissels focused on turning Paradise Cove into a fine-dining restaurant called The Sandcastle, Morris turned his attention to opening other local restaurants, including The Jetty (where he met his wife, Kerry—then a hostess, now his right-hand marketing guru), the World Famous Malibu Sea Lion U.S.A. Restaurant, and Gladstone's. The opportunity to reclaim his childhood utopia came in 1997, and Morris quickly seized it. "My now-15-year-old son, Timmy, had just been born, and I knew the restaurant lease was up," says Morris. "I wanted him to grow up on the beach the way I had."
The move has proved to be more than lucrative for Morris, whose sole focus is now the restaurant, while Steven Dahlberg operates the mobile-home and beach-related businesses. "Bob and I joke about it because it seems like a mom-and-pop place but [it] does the numbers a corporate restaurant would do," says co-general manager Chris Sessa, who has worked alongside Morris on and off for 29 years. Approximately 70 percent of the restaurant's business happens between March and October, with another relatively busy period around the holidays.
Though Morris's hiatus from Paradise Cove spanned more than 40 years, the essence of the place remains the same. Los Angeles journalist Jeff Miller fondly remembers going to the beach every Tuesday during his childhood summers and eating frozen bananas at the snack stand. "It had such a special flavor—there was definitely a roadhouse spirit," says Miller. When he returned in recent years to find himself dining next to Tommy Lee, Pamela Anderson, and their kids, not much had changed: "The place feels stuck in time." (All of the rich history is preserved on the walls of the restaurant, which are dotted with memorabilia and black and white pictures of the Malibu coastline and its characters.)
It's this timeless appeal that keeps people coming back for more and differentiates Paradise Cove from many other places in Malibu. Says Morris, "Malibu may be the playground of millionaires and billionaires, but Paradise Cove is for the people." 28128 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu, 310-457-2503.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ULRICA WIHLBORG
LAC celebrates the women of its May/June 2013 issue at Palihouse in West Hollywood.