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Old Malibu eateries provide look into the past
The golden era of roadside attractions is long gone, but there was a time when Cape Cod cottages and Tiki kitsch were a key part of Malibu’s mojo.
The restaurants and hotels are all gone, or remodeled past recognizing, but ephemera like postcards, matchboxes and menus preserve a record of Malibu’s gloriously goofy past, and in many cases, TV and films shot on location offer a glimpse of vanished local landmarks.
The Malibu Sea Lion, now Duke’s Malibu Restaurant, was one of the first novelty establishments in Malibu. The original Las Flores Inn, built in 1915 at the bottom of Las Flores Canyon, was the final stop for early motorists in the era when the Rindge family owned the Malibu Rancho and restricted access, and an essential rest stop for travelers waiting for the tide to turn so they could traverse the 23-miles of beach to Oxnard or to the homestead communities in the mountains above the Rindge property.
Roosevelt Highway — Pacific Coast Highway — opened in 1929, bringing the first generation of Malibu beachgoers to the community. Chris Polos bought the old inn property in 1944, and replaced the original saltbox-style building with a 300-foot-long, plate-glass-window-lined, mid-century modern dining room. He also installed a tank of sea lions to attract tourists.
The restaurant was destroyed by a fire in 1964. It reopened without the tank of pinnipeds, but the establishment retained the name.
“[The sea lions] were a damned nuisance,” Polos recalled in a 1984 Los Angeles Times article.
Polos, a greek immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1900 at the age of 13, raised his family in Malibu and lived in an apartment over the restaurant until two years before his death at 99 in 1986.
The family sold the Sea Lion to the Hungry Tiger chain in 1984. It was purchased by Duke’s in 1996. Although the building was remodeled and now has a Hawaiian vibe, the centerpiece is still the spectacular ocean view dining area. A plaque on the site commemorates Polos’ life.
The Malibu Sea Lion has a brief cameo in the 1960 film “Strangers When We Meet,” directed by Robert Quine, and starring Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak.
The film also features the Malibu Albatross, a motel once located next to the Sea Lion. The palm trees are all that remains of the Albatross, but the motel featured a tiki-themed bar and bold 1950s architecture.
However, Malibu’s legendary tiki site was the Tonga Lei, which epitomized the tiki craze of the 1950s. This Polynesian-themed restaurant had tiki torches blazing at the door, and a perpetual thunderstorm of lightning and falling rain playing in the background. Guests dined on pu-pu platers in bamboo booths with grass roofs. At the tiki bar, exotic drinks were served in volcano bowls, coconut shells and plastic skulls.
At the nine-room motel, guests slept in mock-teak beds, watched over by an assortment of carved tiki heads.
Dan Vaughn, who also owned Ted’s Rancho, located across from what is now the Getty Villa, opened Tonga Lei in August 1961. This tiki show place replaced the Drift Inn, a seafood restaurant and jazz club. A 1968 ad for Tonga-Lei describes the restaurant as “a daring departure in fine dining — the Tonga Lei features the finest in Polynesian foods and strangely haunting beverages in the relaxed atmosphere of the South Seas…”
The restaurant and hotel was purchased by the Don the Beachcomber chain in the 1970s. It retained its tiki theme for a few more years. Today it’s the site of the Malibu Beach Inn.
Inn owner Vickie Cooper is quoted in a November 12, 1987, Los Angeles Times article defending the demolition of the Tonga Lei.
“We wanted to build a motel that the community could be proud of,” said Cooper. “The building is nearly 30 years old, it’s run-down and there’s really no way to remodel it because of the way it was built. The place is tired.”
The parking lot of the Tonga Lei provided the original location of Jim Rockford house trailer on the TV series The Rockford Files and the sign, with its quasi-Asian lettering, lives on in the old episodes.
When production wrapped at the end of the first season in 1974, the trailer was moved to Paradise Cove, where it stood next to another popular theme restaurant, the Cape Code-style Malibu Sandcastle, now the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe.
Malibu restaurants come and go. Many, like the Drift Inn, are largely forgotten. Others, like the Tonga Lei, remain larger than life in local memory.