An Independent Stronghold in a World of Chains
by philip scott wikel (originally published in the VC Reporter)
You’ve left LA, crowded beaches and all the pretensions of city life. You come up over the rise and away from Leo Carillo State Beach passing a surf spot called Heaven’s Reef on your left. Just another mile up the road is another slice of heaven known as Neptune’s Net, set at the base of a golden Southern California hillside.
Surfers, bikers, day-trippers and movie stars converge here in a low-key amalgam of good food, surf, sand and sun. Inside you’ll find a rush of earnest employees eager to serve the weary or otherwise smiling traveler. In the midst of this stands Arlene, a 16-year veteran of Neptune’s who, if she has the time, will fill you in on the colorful history of one of California’s last true independent beach eateries; a place not unlike the “Star Burger Cafe” in the 1978 surfing film, “Big Wednesday.”
Arlene is the current manager of Neptune’s and is its resident historian. She says the restaurant first opened as Jake’s Diner in the mid 1950’s. At that time it was half of its current size and was one of dozens of roadside diners of the time which have, for the most part, gone the way of the redwood surfboard. It was then mainly a hangout for characters with surf knots and drivers of woodies, specializing in burgers and fries and was in fierce competition with the “Line Shack” across the street, which subsequently burned down in 1969.
It became Neptune’s Net in 1967 and was expanded to twice its size. The architecture is now a very eclectic mix of 50s utilitarianism, 70s garden-trellis-patio-grooviness and has a generally ambiguous, retro-ness that defies description. The menu expanded with the building to include live seafood from Maine, Boston, Alaska and Seattle and, during lobster season (October through March), one can enjoy these hard-shelled critters straight from the local reefs. Since then Arlene says, “we’ve been offering the same basic fare throughout the past three decades with a good selection of beer and wine.” On a personal note: the distance from Ventura seems a non-issue when the thought of their clam chowder hits me.
Alice and Bob Johnson, a couple of day-trippers from Chatsworth, say they come here to get away from the heat. They’ve driven by many times but finally wanted to stop in. “It’s nice to just sit and watch the fellas out there in the ocean,” says Alice, her mouth full of shrimp. Melody and Jason Knott have come via Decker Canyon Road from Thousand Oaks. “We’ve come here at least once a month for the past 16 years,” says Melody, “You can’t get live dungeness crabs just anywhere.”
Cory Costa, age 20 of Agoura Hills says she tried to get a job here for four years. She’s an anthropology student at Moorpark College and loves the Neptune’s scene but warns potential customers to come in with a good attitude and “don’t expect it to be as fast as Burger King. Just relax and enjoy the ocean and the old-style California vibe.You know, it’s got that old shanty-shack charm but it seems to be known around the world. I love the fact that I get to meet cool people here.” On your approach to the cash register you’ll, many times, find Cory with her ocean-blue eyes, lost in a sort of endless summer reverie. She goes on to say her favorite aspect of Neptune’s is “that you can look at the ocean and daydream.”
A sign behind Cory reads: “If you are grouchy, irritable, or just plain mean, there will be a $10.00 charge for putting up with you.” Cory and Arlene agree that the best day to come down is Sunday when the parking lot is full of bikers. “If you’re a people watcher, this is the place to be.The bikers are the nicest customers we have.”
Sit out on the deck or the newly added hillside seating and take in the show. Drew Barrymore, Adam Sandler, Charlie Sheen, and Emilio Estevez are said to be regulars here. And if they’re not in attendance there’s invariably something interesting to see, if only to look to the sea where kite-boarders glide, children build sand castles and kelp beds pulsate in rhythm with the swells.
Neptune’s received the honor of “Best Seafood Dive” in 1999 by Coastal Living magazine and is listed as a top LA restaurant by by the Zagat Survey this year. Of particular note is the fact that ashtrays are mounted along the patio wall. A detail which speaks volumes to the idea that Neptune’s and it’s customers are not willing to succumb to the politically correct institutionalization of the larger restaurant industry. It’s a sort of rebel stronghold and there you can just hang out, away from the glaring, gentrified and sometimes hypocritical eyes of society.