Owned by former Mayor Richard Riordan, Gladstone's is the highest grossing restaurant in Los Angeles. Revenues were down 8 percent last year, but it still pulled in an estimated $14.1 million while other restaurants were battered by a slumping economy.
To understand why Gladstone's does so well, despite lackluster reviews from the Los Angeles Times and user-generated site Citysearch.com, you only have to stop by, sniff the briny air and inhale all that California has always been.
Just south of the Malibu city line, Gladstone's isn't just near the beach, or even on the beach, it's of the beach. A jagged rock jetty juts out underneath it into the soothingly rhythmic waves. To the north, the shoreline curves listlessly past Paradise Cove and toward Point Dume. To the south, on a clear day, you can see down past Santa Monica to Palos Verdes and out across to Catalina. A wide, nautical-themed deck offers guests a postcard view of the sunset over the ocean. Here, in one small spot of the PCH is the epicenter of the mythical Endless Summer.
On a recent Thursday at sunset, a middle-aged man, wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his face, walked into the Gladstone's bar. He had a Styrofoam package of shrimp from Ralph's grocery store down the street. He took the salt shaker and heavily doused his food, then reached for the Tabasco. A bartender approached, and the man procured a whole lime from a pocket and in heavily accented English asked the bartender to cut it up for him. After squeezing lime juice on the shrimp (and being told what he already knew, that he couldn't eat it inside), the man took his cane and shambled back out the door.
He went outside, sat on the beach, opened the beer he'd brought with him and watched the sky grow dark out over the Pacific. He had taken more than an hour-long bus ride from central Los Angeles just to "eat some seafood and drink a beer on the beach."
To encounter this man sitting on the sand in the shadow of the one of the country's most profitable restaurants is to understand how universal yet uneven the California dream has become.
Last summer, Riordan brought management team SBE in to revamp Gladstone's menu and the decor. There's a battery of new flat screen TVs in the bar, and last week a new bar menu was launched ($5 appetizers and "happy hour" prices all day long, although you'll still pay $8 for a pint of Stella). The changes are all part of a push to get people off the road and into the door.
"The challenge," said Bruce Adrhoch of Adrhoch Creative, a marketing team working with SBE, "is that when the economy goes down, disposable income goes down, people eat out less, and there are fewer tourists."
But Adrhoch stresses that Gladstone's has a huge advantage: "It's the best beachfront venue on the West Coast." And Riordan calls it, "A great example of the great beach we have here in Los Angeles."
In fact, with only a few changes, including opening for brunch and on Christmas, Gladstone's is already performing better than at this time last year, and it's likely the growth will continue as management retools the menu in time for the spring and summer tourists.
Gladstone's might be a mere point on a map or just one more destination on a busy tourist itinerary. But in the collective Southern California psyche it's a frame of mind. To arrive at Gladstone's is to wade once again waist-deep into the comforting currents of the California Dream. The city behind it might still be struggling for air but here all still seems possible -- even if it's just for an hour or two and at a price of $25 per plate. It's a chance for locals and tourists alike to soak in the perpetual sand and sun that has for so long tinted their California reveries.