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Feasting with your eyes

May 05, 2004|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Geoffrey's MALIBU is a restaurant that doesn't know how to pronounce its own name. "It's 'Joffrey,' " says one of the staffers at the bar. "He was a friend of the original owner." There's no checking with the original owner. "He died."

To its credit, Geoffrey's has been getting its name wrong consistently since it opened in 1984. At 20, chances are decent that the dining room is older than the date who followed TV cop David Caruso to his dinner table Sunday before last.

Enter the place, and the reason for its longevity stretches as far as the eye can see. This cliff-side restaurant is basically one long patio carved out of a Malibu hillside. There isn't a table in the house that doesn't have a drop-dead gorgeous view of the Pacific.

So the previous owner not only had a friend with a funny name, but good taste in oceans.

The opening hours tell the story of how at least some of the locals use it: Geoffrey's opens for lunch at 11:30 a.m., earlier on weekends; in midafternoon, it never quite closes. Instead, it fades into early dinner service, which starts in earnest at 4 p.m. The languorous approach lends Geoffrey's an agreeable sand-in-its-hair quality. Local friends describe it as a place for pre-dinner, between beach and home. "We come at 5, have a drink and a salad at the bar, then go home and cook," they say.

This Malibu answer to tapas takes place in the bar. Here we learn something else about the previous owner. "His name was Harvey, Harvey, Harvey something," says one of the staffers. If the name blurs, the man's generosity doesn't. A collection of drawings of hearts by movie stars decorates the walls, where head shots might serve in less whimsical establishments. They are copies, says the bartender. The previous owner convinced all the artists to donate originals for publication and sale in support of a charity for children with heart disease. There are hearts by Mary Tyler Moore, Sylvester Stallone, Anthony Quinn. (Woody Allen's broken heart and Geena Davis' terrier with a heart are the best.)

"Harvey Baskin," says another waiter, or manager or employee of some sort. The previous owner was Harvey Baskin. Several years ago, shortly after Baskin's death, Jeff Peterson, a longtime employee who worked his way up from busboy, bought the place.

Eating in the bar makes sense for another reason besides the joyous charity of the late Harvey Baskin and the respect the new owner shows in preserving it. The staff takes mixology seriously. Mojitos are good, ditto margaritas, same for Arnold Palmers and iced teas. A kid I know gives the Shirley Temples with two cherries a thumbs up.

Veering toward solids at the bar, Caesar salad is also good, in spite of the baffling substitution of a strip of filo pastry for the classic crouton component. The bartender couldn't be nicer. He's an actor, he says. Most of the beautiful young staffers look like aspiring actors, but the bartender says most are surfers.

That explains the Anglo valet parking guys, whose first language is English and whose favorite word seems to be "duh!" One really sees these car jockeys in action only at dinnertime and during weekends, when the place really fills up. It isn't pretty. Geoffrey's parking lot is nowhere near big enough to accommodate all its diners' cars, so customers by the dozen opt to park on the shoulder of Pacific Coast Highway, next to all the No Parking signs.

Arriving for my first meal at Geoffrey's, a Sunday dinner, I asked one of the valets if those cars were likely to get tickets. "Depends on what the sheriff thinks," he said. Asked if that was an elliptical way of saying it was illegal, he stared at me and said, "Duh!" It was not surprising to learn my dinner guest had been "duh-ed" too, but by a different member of the crew. Maybe their almost universal irritability results from lack of oxygen. To keep the cars mobile in the crowded lot, the valets leave entire hillsides of cars running, as if to prime the ocean air with the first tang of exhaust before it's blown inland.

When eating a meal proper, the trick is opting for a table as far as possible from the indoor mechanized waterfall, whose gush competes with the wild sound of the surf below.

There doesn't appear to be a Siberia when it comes to good and bad service. Fleets of waiters are never far offstage: This is not a dining room where anyone is left wanting for long. The wait staff could not be more attentive. It is almost pathologically honest, even when telling you there's no point in asking about choices of red wine by the glass. "There are more, but they're not any good," one aproned wag quipped after recommending an Estancia Meritage.

And so to the food. A newish chef, Bijan Shokatfard, took over at Geoffrey's last year. He has been mentioned in these pages, but not for his cooking. An item on chef's attire in this section last August remarked on his jacket with silk-knot buttons and a mandarin collar embroidered with his nickname, "Slayer."

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