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UP All Night

SOCIAL CLIMES : A Fantasy of California

October 29, 1995|HILLARY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mobay, short for Montego Bay, takes what is best about L.A.'s climate and cuisine (a warm breeze, a light hand) and leaves out what is crass, quick and material (no cell phones, no shoulder pads, no power lunches, thank you). This is a fantasy of California, spicier and sweeter than the real one. Here it's all twinkle lights, torches and palm fronds, pepper, coconut and rum.

In a town where people are often healthy, happy and laid-back, it comes as something of a surprise to find that we have a lot to learn about relaxing and having fun. It is, apparently, as simple as eat, drink and be merry, and it's something the people at Mobay do very well.

Chef Derek Harrison and co-owner Erroll Lawrence opened the original Mobay in Malibu in 1992, but closed that one shortly after opening the Venice version the next year, after suffering through one fire or flood too many on Pacific Coast Highway.

Mobay belongs in Venice, a town that has never before mustered a night spot that lives up to its laissez-faire surfer-poet friendliness. Mobay does this, but with a peculiar island dignity that Venice usually lacks in spades, largely thanks to a staff that is handsome and warmhearted and apparently as happy to be there as you are. Mobay has long been popular among locals and foodies, but word is beginning to creep out that the place is quite the festive scene as a night spot.

Every Thursday evening, a live steel-drum band turns a garden restaurant into a full-fledged night spot. Some supper clubs around town haven't figured out that entertainment, at least until everyone's food has been ordered and eaten, should be gentle and ambient. The music should be loud enough to dance to, but low enough that you can tell a joke without cupping your hands. A noisy political debate among friends should be possible--business negotiations, not.

Mobay gets this. The steel drum sounds of Steel Fusion Muzik permeate the experience, but never overwhelm it. The effect is as salutary as a cold quaff of Jamaican Red Stripe beer, or of the Jamaican drink called Sorrell, a kind of hibiscus flower iced tea that is said to be an aphrodisiac. (The Jamaican black cake definitely is an aphrodisiac, unless you eat too much of it to make it home.)

The roofed garden provides shelter from the elements, and heaters drop down from the ceiling in winter to make the outdoors amenable year-round. "It's beautiful in the rain," Lawrence says.

"About eight out of 10 people leave here saying they should have their party here, because it's so festive," says Lawrence. And they do. The restaurant has even started a database to keep track of its party clientele's birthdays and anniversaries.

Thanks to the jungly topography of the garden, the presence of large groups of revelers doesn't seem to impinge on the tables of two and four nestled among the greenery, and if anything, the wafts of laughter mingling with the seductive drum music make the atmosphere all the more romantic.

Just about any night of the week, several tables will be pushed together to accommodate groups of 10 or more. There is wrapping paper everywhere.

Constance Lawford brought her friend Mladen Vucicevic here for his birthday. "I've been here lots of times, and it's great. I live in the neighborhood. He lives Downtown," Lawford says with a note of pity. At the word downtown , Vucicevic makes a horrified face straight out of Conrad's heart of darkness. The Thursday night vacation is almost over.

"Every Thursday has been more and more of a surprise," Harrison says. Thursdays have been such a success that Mobay has applied for a liquor license, and starting in November it will offer live music on weekends. "But starting late, like 10," says Lawrence, adding with a twinkle, "There will be dancing."

*

Where: Mobay, 1030 Abbott Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 452-7472.

When: Dinner served 5:30-11 nightly (11:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays). Live steel-drum music every Thursday night, and during Saturday and Sunday brunches.

Cost: Cocktails, $5. Dinner entrees (traditional Caribbean with a "California touch"), $12 to $19. Desserts, $5.50.

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