Health & Family

Chris Erskine: Have a California moment at Neptune’s Net, a landmark seafood shack in Malibu

MALIBU, Calif. – Never sneer at Malibu. Without it, can you imagine the number of pale celebrities we'd have to endure? Cher would look like Andy Warhol.

We're headed up there today in a convertible, naturally, for how else are you going to properly parse Malibu? Bring your sunscreen, a favorite faded cap. Clear your calendar, for you know how Pacific Coast Highway can get. It is our Northwest Passage, and not for wimps.

But good gawd, August on PCH is sublime.

From our drop-top Jeep, the ocean looks like a disco ball, with glints of sunlight and the toothy snarls of demigod surfers and their girls (or demigoddess surfers and their dudes).

I could drive this stretch of highway – one of the noblest in the nation – just to study the old VW buses, the little deuce coupes and all the sketchy beach buggies the watermen use.

At stoplights, as you come into town, I marvel over the Polo Lounge pink in the bluffs.

I could also drive this stretch of PCH just for the wind-machine fresh air and to watch the weather, which can change so fast. Clouds roll in, clouds tumble out. Fog too.

Indeed, there is a touch of wild New England to northern L.A. County, a little slap to the cheek that reminds you: Don't get too comfortable or we'll sweep you out to sea.

Speaking of wild, I bumped into Cindy Crawford once in Malibu, at a pet store, and she didn't even recognize me, a significant disappointment. I would've gladly posed for photos, asked how her trademark mole was doing, whether she ever got back to northern Illinois, where we both grew up.

And I think another celeb, Ryan Gosling, once cut me off in traffic near the pier, but I can't be sure. Up here, half the dudes resemble Gosling. Throw a stone in Malibu, you'll hit a Gosling.

This day, there are no celebrities in sight. We make do with the young woman in the gleaming new Porsche who blows kisses to the driver for letting her in, then cuts sharply into the McDonald's lot for lunch.

The lesson? Malibu is much like anywhere else. Once in a while, you duck into Mickey D's just because.

There are all sorts of better places to eat up here: Nobu if you want to be seen, and Geoffrey's if you want to propose. I'll place Malibu Farm, the organic cafe on the pier, as one of my favorite lunch spots.

Yet the most-beloved hangout – to my mind the reason Malibu exists at all – is a landmark roadhouse on the outskirts that is equal parts good grub and equal parts great floor show.

On a sunny summer weekend, Neptune's Net is my favorite place on the planet. It tastes like the wave that just broke your board.

We roll in looking like a Nick Nolte booking photo, all windblown and reddened from our ride in the Jeep. But so does everyone. To be honest, it looks like a hillbilly wedding – all ages, all types, swirly hair, the whiff of good ganja.

Front and center are the motorcyclists and their heaving machines, crackling hot and panting at the curb like horses.

The crowd is jovial, chatty, turned on by the spectacle of all this. A CNN crew is here taping a travel piece. Every 20 minutes, some idiot rider with a death wish pops a long wheelie as he exits the premises.

"That's insane," says Angelika Oatway, stating the obvious. But you just really need to say it aloud: That is insane.

Oatway and her boyfriend, Tom Skene, soaked up some morning waves at nearby Zuma and are now self-soothing in this seafood emporium, opened in 1956 by Eastman Jacobs.

"I really like how nothing changes here," Oatway says.

Nyree Crystal feels the same way. Taking note of the daredevils performing along the highway, she shrugs and decides: "This is cool. This is the perfect environment."

Her boyfriend, Steve Michaels, is a little more fretful about the stunt cyclists, a reminder that he isn't as young or stupid as he once was.

"I think my brain has grown," he says.

If the fast-and-furious vibe doesn't click your clock, the food will – perfectly fried calamari and shrimp, in a suit coat of batter, served hot as a Harley and lickety-split.

There are two areas to Neptune's: the main restaurant that serves fried food and burgers and the often-overlooked seafood counter to the right, serving ceviche, steamed lobster and peel-and-eat shrimp.

Think of it as the secret speakeasy in the back.

Most times, I prefer the restaurant side, where the counter service takes longer and the tables are in short supply. Don't sweat it. Have one person wait to grab a table, while another takes a place in line. You'll have your meal in 15 minutes.

There's always room, and one fine option is to take your crab cake basket across the road to that bench on the beach. Or to settle in at the curb where the motorcycles roll in, as if crossing Neptune's red carpet.

Here's the thing about long lines, though: If you're going to live in L.A., you'd best learn the art of chatting up strangers.

Nice boots? Where you from? Ever tried the chowder?

"Get the chowder in a regular bowl, not the bread bowl," advises Lisa Amar from Oxnard, a Neptune's regular with her husband, Franco. "It's just better that way."

Kim Thompson is here for the first time from South Dakota, where the famed Sturgis motorcycle rally is under way. But she notes that this feels like Sturgis too, except that you have that magnificent ocean as your backdrop, as well as the rejuvenating breezes, no sloppy summer air, as in most places in August.

"This is fabulous, very fun," she says as the late afternoon winds begin to spin.

Yeah, Neptune's is a scene. And like L.A., it's always "on." It closes only on Thanksgiving, and a first-timer might do well to test the waters (so to speak) on a weekday before venturing in during the crush of a weekend.

But the weekend is where it's at: the bikes, the chatty lines, the showoffs, the quintessential California moments.

Each hour, the ocean gets bluer, the sun softer, the blonds bleachier.

I'm kind of crushing on August right now.

Can you tell?

(Email Chris Erskine at chris.erskine@latimes.com, or follow him on Twitter at @erskinetimes.)

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