Al Lenz of Marina del Rey claims he's a regular at 26 Beach Cafe on Washington Boulevard, half a block from the ocean, for one reason only: He loves their 6-inch-thick Italian cheeseburgers.
This juicy concoction drips with melted mozzarella cheese, fresh mushrooms and Italian sauce, an eye-bugging burger that could deserve a prominent place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Lenz, a consultant in the hotel and restaurant industry and former owner of Alfie's Pub in Honolulu, ought to know good food when he sees and tastes it. Still, after you've joined him and his friend Michael Vyhovsky for a glass of wine and leisurely lunch, his claim seems a tad thin.
Sights and Sounds
C'mon Al, quit funnin'. Nobody goes to a sidewalk cafe down by the beach just to eat. What about warm sun, the sound of murmuring voices, stimulating conversation? The sense of well-being conferred on you when you lounge in the sun with a cold drink and watch the world pass by?
26 Beach Cafe is a beach party without sand, a to-do without teeny-boppers, a picnic without hot dogs. Definitely not Annette Funicello's scene, though on weekends it's crowded with folks who flock to the sand and the strand to beat the heat.
Instead, there's a sort of funky, unstudied ambiance here, enough to please all the yuppies and dinks in Los Angeles and even some all-grown-up Mouseketeers. White, wrought-iron furniture, pink tablecloths and pink-and-green umbrellas squeeze into a cozy red-tiled courtyard on a narrow plot of ground.
Tinkling music plays unobtrusively and red flowers and palms in pots are in the corners. In a center garden, a rusted well-water pump and a sun-bleached sea gull lean against each other. Along the sidewalk, a small wall and a see-through gate separate the in-crowd from the out-crowd.
But Lenz still insists it's the food he likes. "Next time we'll order the large size," he kids. Vyhovsky plays the straight man by trying to eat his cheeseburger while keeping the bun together. Then he gives up and tries a knife and fork.
At noon, 26 Beach Cafe fills with people working in the marina. Suits, ties and dresses predominate, but despite presumably limited lunch hours, nobody seems in a hurry to leave.
Then the cafe closes from 4 to 6 p.m., and when it opens the locals rush in. Bob Andersen, who used to run the local Scandinavian Gymnastic Club for children, was there with his own, Beau, 7, and Bjorn, 8. They were undaunted by the size of their cheeseburgers.
At the next table, Marge McMullin, a resident of Venice since trolley cars ran on Pacific Avenue, struck up a conversation. Yes, she eats here regularly with a friend: They always ride their bikes and often stop after their usual Saturday jaunt to Redondo Beach and back.
Though burgers are the most obvious food item, they're just the tip of the Cafe's nice-burger menu. The restaurant is owned by the Mori family, for whom food is a 100-year tradition.
Son Francis, 28, the chef attired in a John Marshall High School T-shirt, creates California dishes with a touch of France: They are light and subtle, but come in big helpings.
"We get lots of French people in here," he says, "and we couldn't figure out why. Finally we asked someone, and they said we're mentioned in a French guide book."
Sushi on Weekends
Father Katsuichi admires his son's modern culinary skills but preserves ancient Japanese traditions by continuing to offer sushi on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Long before sushi was fashionable or even acceptable to American palates, Katsuichi's father was creating the finest dishes for the cultivated tastes of the Japanese. When Katsuichi was 8, his father taught him the trade.
Yoko, Francis' mother, is on hand too, to handle the bookkeeping and catch the details that her son and husband miss. Now she gets up to answer questions posed by some tourists passing by.
The 26 Beach Cafe is at 26 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey; (213) 821-8129. Hours are 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., 6-9:30 p.m.; closed Mondays.