Review: Taking the bait at Gladstone's Malibu
DRESSED IN shorts or pretty little sundresses, late breakfasters parade out of Gladstone's at noontime, carrying wonderful, whimsical, shiny gold packages -- a whale with an upswept tail, a bunny that could stop Jeff Koons in his tracks. Hungry diners stroll in for lunch, past the tables overlooking the beach, past the outdoor bar. In they go, and out they come, fantastical creatures held aloft -- hour after hour, as the sun sets over Point Dume in the distance, and late into the evening as the moon climbs high.

The gold foil creatures? If you've ever been to Gladstone's Malibu, you know they're filled with leftovers. Why so many doggy bags?

To understand, step inside Southern California's highest-grossing restaurant, with its nautical theme and peanut shells on the floor and tanks of live lobsters. Gladstone's isn't just an L.A. institution; it's a phenomenon.

In the name of commerce and fun, Gladstone's sells some 500 pounds of shrimp and about 50 New England lobsters per day -- that's according to Chief Executive Jean Hagan. The restaurant, which seats about 500 for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day except Christmas, serves 1,500 to 3,000 people a day, she says; revenue was about $14.5 million last year.

That's volume. And there's a lot on each table too. In fact, you might be tempted to guess that there are so many leftovers because the portions are so huge. A calamari appetizer, served in an outsized martini glass, is big enough for four. A slice of chocolate cake is as big as a bone-in ham.

Or you could posit that everyone wants to take something home because those takeout packages are so wonderful. Watching a mermaid form under the hands of 27-year veteran Miguel Carillo is quite the show.

You could suppose those things, and maybe you'd be right. But the most important reason there are so many leftovers at Gladstone's is that the food, for the most part, is abominable.

Don't believe me?

Consider our waiter's response when my husband orders blue crab cakes with remoulade sauce at lunch.

"Have you had them before?" the waiter asks.

"No," says my husband.

The waiter leans in close and says, "I don't recommend them."

"Why not?" I ask.

"They're too bready. They're unimaginative. And frankly," he continues, looking around to make sure he's not overheard, "they're the worst crab cakes I've ever had, anywhere."

When I was in high school in the late 1970s, Gladstone's was a few miles south, at Channel Road, on the other side of the coast highway, and my boyfriend and I used to drive there on Tuesday nights -- clam night. For some crazy low price, you could get clams different ways, as I remember -- on the half shell, fried, steamed -- all you could eat. We always got them steamed: Bucket after bucket, they'd bring them, plump, briny, delicious. And hot sourdough bread. We'd dunk the bread in the clam broth, then in melted butter, a squeeze of lemon, and we'd close our eyes and pretend it was lobster. What heaven.

Dissolve to 2008. The right-on-the-beach location's even better, and the staff is great about seating diners at the window seats, if possible. The deck is swell too, though the tables are all in full sun during the day.

Is it clam chowder?

ON A recent Saturday night, we're led all the way through the restaurant to a room that's still under construction. No matter, we have a great table overlooking the pretty beach. The place is filled, with lots of parties of eight or 10 -- birthday celebrations, big families, people with friends in from out-of-town. The atmosphere is boisterous yet relaxed.

We order drinks and the waiter suggests starters "to get you going." We order those crispy calamari, a cup of chowder and the iced seafood tower.