It’s a brilliant, clear Saturday in December, and we’re going, for the first time in the 18 years we’ve lived in Los Angeles, to the Malibu Pier.
Built in 1905, the Pier’s entrance is impressive though almost fortress-like compared to the other coastal piers in Southern California. Solid stone walls, studded with rustic rock inserts, flank the entry, marked by two Spanish-style towers. Massive wooden gates hinge open to a relatively short wooden pier. Within, small wood-frame buildings house a restaurant, dining room to the right and bar and deck to the left. The far end of the pier broadens into two charming pavilions, painted white with blue trim, for a café, bait shop, and sport fishing business.
On this bright and clear winter day, the sun is low in the winter sky, glancing off the turquoise water. There’s a pleasant but cool breeze blowing. Tourists snap selfies at the rail. Latino families with fishing poles cluster around coolers and boom boxes. From out on the Pier, you can see several angular and sprawling modernistic homes, architectural gems hidden high on the bluff above the road.
In 1976 Joan Didion called Malibu “the most idiosyncratic of beach communities,” pointing out that its twenty-seven miles of coastline had “no hotel, no passable restaurant, nothing to attract the traveler’s dollar.”
It’s not quite that way today, but almost. There are some small inns, and restaurants of varying qualities, but even 40 years later, Malibu is still, as she says, “not a resort.” Malibu does not welcome visitors.
In fact, Malibu’s history is one of exclusivity, beginning in 1891 when Frederick H. Rindge bought 13,000 acres of the former Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit and fenced it off against trespassers that included the Southern Pacific Railroad and the State of California. This continued until the Depression, when his widow was forced to sell off land. Malibu’s beauty attracted movie stars and wealthy moguls, whose need for privacy mirrored that of the Rindges. In 1929 construction began on the road that would become Pacific Coast Highway, allowing public access to Malibu for the first time.
As in Didion’s day, expensive homes line the beachward side of Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu’s central district, turning their backs to the road. Across the six lanes of traffic, though apartment houses rise up the steep hillsides, their residents are as barred from the beach as they’d be if they lived in Encino.
Under state law, the beach is public land up until the high tide line, but it’s almost impossible to get there from the road. Though the state of California has established beach easement pathways, there is no available parking, however, and privacy-loving property owners often obscure the access points, disguising them with gates, plantings or intimidating signs.
While the western reaches of Malibu are abundant with public beaches, stunning for their wild beauty, those beaches present visitors a different kind of challenge, accessed by steep trails and rickety staircases down the bluffs. If you want an accessible public beach close to restaurants and public conveniences in the heart of Malibu, Surfrider State Beach by the Malibu Pier is your only option.
The Malibu Pier has never been the kind of attraction presented by its sister to the south, the Santa Monica Pier. There is a bait and tackle shop and a sport fishing business, with small boats.
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the pier was home to Alice’s Restaurant, a legendary gathering place for actors, musicians and surfers. The pier closed in the mid ‘90s after storm damage. Subsequent legal wrangles over its renovation, an unsuccessful concessionaire, and more storm damage kept it off-limits for visitors, until just this spring, when the simply named Malibu Pier Restaurant opened to good reviews.
We were seated on the bar deck, beneath a canvas canopy, overlooking the water. For a weekend afternoon, the Pier wasn't crowded, and there were lots of open tables. Below us, by the railing, a young couple snuggled against the breeze in ivory woolen blankets supplied by the management. Another couple, he pony-tailed and grizzled, she all in black with sunglasses, could have been screenwriters or agents, cutting deals over their tuna tartare. A lone woman with a well behaved German Shepherd dog ordered clam chowder.
In keeping with the holiday, we had two of the bar's craft cocktails, mine with blood orange and mint and tequila, his an "Unfashionable" - a version of the old-fashioned. The menu runs to seafood, with small plates. There are oysters on the half shell. Uni deviled eggs. Prawn corn dogs with violet mustard sounded a little precious, but we ordered it anyway and it was good, with fat, skewered shrimp fried in a sweet cornmeal batter. Perfect shrimp cocktail were served with a tangy sauce and a blob of horseradish foam.
A group of four or so people wandered into the seating area and took an empty table by the rail. The host rushed them away, scolding, and put their names on a waiting list. I wondered about this, because at this very moment, at least six tables in the place were empty. Some ten minutes later, with no other guest arrivals in the interim, he officiously seated them at a table just adjacent to their original, empty, choice. “Thank you for waiting,” he said.
It's Malibu. True to character.