It’s Sunday morning in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Along a winding stretch of Mulholland Drive between Malibu and Kardashian Country, packs of cyclists, Harley crews, and a Mustang car club rolling a dozen deep are all vying for space on this two-lane ribbon of blacktop. They are here to improve their times, to practice their S curves, and to perhaps be documented doing so against a classic canyon backdrop by Victory Jon, a photographer who has set up shop on the shoulder and who sells his pictures on the Internet. (HIGHWAYPHOTOS.NET, a banner screams.) But later, when they are finished, many will end up where I am going: a tiny roadside restaurant called the Old Place.
You might think it was an Old West movie set, built in the Disney spirit to look the right amount of ramshackle. Large antlers hang above the front door. Inside, ponytailed Malibu tweens in soccer uniforms mix with eccentric locals and canyon hipsters, ombré dye jobs peeking out from under felt hats. Customers crowd a 30-foot antique saloon bar or, if they’ve secured a reservation months before, into one of five wooden booths separated by doors salvaged from the Santa Barbara Mission. Moody paintings of Native American figures hang on the walls. As if on cue, overhead speakers begin to play the Oklahoma country-blues singer J. J. Cale’s rambling road song “Call Me the Breeze.”
But while its owner, Morgan Runyon, used to be an art director—he is renowned in the surfing world for helping make the Runman films, a cult series of 1980s surf movies shot with a Super 8 camera—nothing about the Old Place’s atmosphere is staged. Morgan’s father, Tom Runyon—a fiction writer and bon vivant whose uncle, the coal baron Carmen Runyon, gave Runyon Canyon in Hollywood its name—opened the restaurant in 1970 in a building dating back to the early 1900s that had been a general store and post office. For decades he served only two entrées—grilled steaks and steamed clams—to a cast of regulars that included Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, and sometimes Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Though Tom was not himself an actor, another regular, Sam Peckinpah, cast him as a bad guy in The Getaway. The portraits were painted by Morgan’s mom, Barbara, for years the restaurant’s only waitress. When Dolly Parton sang here one night, the story goes, she was accompanied on the upright piano by Bob Dylan.
In other words, the Old Place is the kind of establishment that it is a cliché to say doesn’t exist in L.A., one with original character and “real history,” as the website advertises. And for a long time, not many people knew that it did. Then, a few years ago, something changed. Malibu locals began to encounter a wait list. The crowds were attributed in part to a new menu, updated by Morgan after Tom passed away, and in part to a new wave of reviews. “The Internet has been very good to us,” Morgan told me one Friday night at the start of the dinner rush. Because the surf was good that afternoon, he had arrived a few minutes late, eyes bloodshot from the salt water. “What I’ve realized is that our restaurant is a very visceral experience,” he said. “You can’t order a steak online. People want to smell the smoke, to hear the wood creak.”
There is another key reason more travelers are visiting the Old Place and other far-flung spots in Los Angeles: thanks to navigation and car-hailing apps like Waze and Uber, we can find them. With no knowledge of the terrain and only Waze to guide me, I drove here from Venice, up the Pacific Coast Highway, through the sandstone outcrops of Malibu Canyon, past the old M.A.S.H. set and Paramount Ranch. Other routes were taken just as blindly by a group of German bikers on Ducatis and Triumphs and a young Japanese couple, conspicuous in deconstructed denim and what looked to be vintage Comme des Garçons, iPhones in hand.