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Developer's Last Order Is Coffee Shop to Go

June 26, 1988|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

For the past 31 years, diners at the Malibu Colony Coffee Shop could count on a decent portion of pancakes, eggs, sausages and star sightings.

It was the local hangout where major movie deals were made over doughnuts and, at lunch, mechanics shared the same Formica counter with the mega-rich.

But this week, the cafe will close to make room for a new mall in a move that many residents bitterly complain is part of a new Malibu--more upscale and less down-to-earth.

And in Malibu, where change comes slowly, if at all, the move has been greeted with about as much glee as an announcement that Magic Johnson had been traded--to the Boston Celtics.

Yet the owners and the regulars maintain that even after the coffee shop fades to black on Friday, it will not fade from memory.

"I guess this is progress," lamented owner Natalie Brown, who has run the coffee shop with her husband, Herb, for the past decade. "But a lot of people consider it a huge loss. This place is a Malibu landmark. This place is Malibu."

In typical fashion, residents responded to the closing by taking out a full-page ad in the weekly Malibu Surfside News, pleading with the developer of the new shopping center to relocate the cafe in the Colony Plaza retail center. "The atmosphere, spirit and history of the Colony Coffee Shop cannot be duplicated," the ad reads. "It is pure hometown Americana. . . . it has been more than a concrete and glass building. It has held a special place in our hearts."

The ad, which was drafted in a notebook passed around the coffee shop in the past few weeks, was signed by more than 2,000 residents, including Joni Mitchell, Robert Altman, Rod Steiger, Burgess Meredith, Pia Zadora, Rob Lowe, Neil Diamond and Ali MacGraw.

Roy Crummer, the developer of the new shopping center, responded with an ad of his own last week, in which he agrees with the sentiments of the cafe regulars, but said he is standing by his decision to tear down the classic '50s structure.

"People say I'm being cold-hearted about the building, but I've got more memories than most about it, " Crummer said. "Hell, my father built it."

Outlived Its Usefulness

Crummer believes that the small, oval cafe, designed by architect Paul Williams, has outlived its usefulness. He said the Browns have done a "great job" of running the restaurant, but that they would be hard-pressed to handle an expanded cafe and longer hours than the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. workday they put in now.

"Unlike the coffee shop's many patrons, who I feel are thinking with their hearts and stomachs," he wrote in the ad, "I am going to make this decision like a doctor, with compassion, but with objectivity. I definitely want to retain the unique character of Malibu. . . ., but I want the town to have a world class restaurant, a first class coffee shop, and a local health and juice bar."

The Browns and Crummer met a year ago, and then again two weeks ago, but were unable to reach an agreement on relocating to another coffee shop. Crummer offered the couple the possibility of taking over the coffee shop at Trancas Restaurant, which he owns, but they rejected the idea. Natalie Brown said it was too far from the town's center and not to their taste because the cafe is connected to a "wild and rowdy," nightclub.

'Funky Little Place'

"We want to conduct a family business," Brown said. "The problem is that we disagree over whether there's a place for a business like this. No matter how affluent the people of Malibu are, they still want a funky little place to go to where they can just wear their shorts and tennis shoes and be themselves."

The cafe, which is connected to a tiny pharmacy, has been filled with the familiar faces of Michael Landon and Mel Brooks, and the not-so-familiar faces of Tara Reeves and Patrick Callanan. They all hear the same wisecracks of Herb Brown, and the same orders called out by Fran Provance, a waitress at the shop for the past 20 years.

"Get rid of her, somebody get rid of her," Brown amusingly pleaded to a friend of a regular customer the other day. "Do you know somebody in the Mafia?"

When a woman left her purse at the counter, Brown picked it up and offered it to a man sitting in a nearby booth. "Is this yours?" he asked.

At a time when most of the '50s-style diners have been built in the '80s, the cafe stands out as a weathered original. The vinyl booths are faded, the Formica tables a little unsteady, and the cash register is loud and bulky. And about the only thing digital in the place can be found on the wrist of a customer.

"But just about everything works," Natalie Brown said. "Sure, it's a little tacky. The people here like it though. It's like a social center."

Just a few dozen yards from where the cafe stands, Wolfgang Puck is building a new restaurant, and Crummer said he has reached agreement with restaurateur Al Ehringer to build a new coffee shop in the center.

'Local Institution'

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