The Reel Inn is funky, offhanded, easy on the pocketbook and devoted entirely to seafood--the perfect beach restaurant, in other words.
In this case, though, the beach happens to be Malibu, where restaurants are more likely to look collegiate, act up-tight, cost more than they should and offer mostly salad bars, teriyaki chicken and cocktails with cute names.
So much the better for the Reel Inn--which, incidentally, isn't really on the beach, but rather across the street from it, in that funky, off-handed little stretch of businesses just north of Topanga Canyon Road on Pacific Coast Highway.
The Reel Inn is distinguished from the outside by its blackboard signpost, on which different messages are whitewashed each day--sometimes straightforward announcements of daily specials ("Lobster Tonite," "Cajun Snapper"), but more often fish-oriented puns, many of them based on movie titles and many of them ones that almost got away--"Fish-ky Bizzness," "The Color of Mahi-Mahi," "Eat Fish or Die," "Salmonize Yourself," the inevitable "Eat Here for the Halibut" and so on.
Inside--the front door is marked "Reel Inn Trance"--the place is dark and nautical (in a distinctly non-yacht-club way), with wooden floors, wood-slat booths, tables covered in red and illuminated by small hurricane candles and old surfboards stowed in the rafters.
You'll always know your server's name at the Reel Inn, because you serve yourself: You order at a burger-stand-sort-of window and then loiter until your name is called.
The plates are paper; the glasses and flatware are plastic. The menu is written daily on an interior blackboard and offers nothing but fish and shellfish--from Pacific snapper at $6.95, say, to Pacific lobster at $12.95. Other choices frequently include shark, swordfish, salmon, halibut, mahi-mahi, tuna and/or shrimp--this last item sometimes in fajita form. (There is also a retail fish counter here, and the quality of the merchandise seems pretty good.)
Most kinds of fish are simply grilled, over that trendy new cooking fuel called gas; a few offerings, including the shrimp, are sauteed on a griddle.
Everything comes with decent cole slaw and a choice of home-fried potatoes (not bad but vaguely mushy sometimes) or "Cajun-style" rice, which has bits of onion, turkey and spicy sausage mixed in and is quite delicious. There are also usually soft tacos filled with miscellaneous white fish (and with shredded cheese and lettuce), which tend to get all mixed up with themselves and their accompanying slaw and rice/potatoes but which taste good anyway, and fish-and-cheese-filled quesadillas that, frankly, aren't a great idea.
Yet another blackboard lists a small selection of beers (among them Corona for $1.75 and Michelob or Bud on tap for $1 a throw) and low-key wines. The most expensive of the latter, recently, has been Franciscan Chardonnay at $10 a bottle or $2.50 a glass. Order it by the glass: The very full pour adds up to between 7 and 7 1/2 ounces of liquid, which means that four glasses equal between 28 and 30 ounces. A bottle of wine, which would cost the same as four glasses, holds only about 25 ounces.
With this one exception, there are no surprises at the Reel Inn. The cooking is simple. The choice is limited. There is no posturing or posing at all. This is a restaurant that is what it is--and I wish it great success this fishcal year and for many moor to come.
The Reel Inn, 18661 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, (213) 456-8221. No reservations accepted. Open for dinner daily. Beer and wine. Parking in lot. No credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$30.