Malibu Hotel Blends Country and Coastal for Lazy, Relaxing Summer Days
The Surfrider Hotel offers a laid-back feast for the senses with the best of the land and the sea.
The last time Emma Goodwin was at the apiary, a swarm of bees flew up the sleeves of her shirt and stung her up and down the arms. “The pain was unbearable,” the co-owner of Malibu’s Surfrider Hotel remembers. She kept two bowls of ice water at the front desk to dunk her arms in between checking in guests.
“I’d look up with my arms soaking in these big bowls and say with a smile, ‘Welcome to the Surfrider!’” Such is the glamorous life of the hotelier behind the hotel that in the past few years has established itself as one of the most quintessential Southern California coastal retreats.
Today Emma is keeping her distance from those hives as she crouches in the brush with a pocketknife, trimming bunches of mustard flowers to put in vases back at the Surfrider. Just 10 minutes up from the beaches of Malibu, there’s farmland, and oaks, and apiaries, and ranches tucked into the canyons and up the hills and down the valleys—and for most folks who didn’t grow up around here, it’s a fact lost to the glamour and the draw of the beaches and the bling.
From the apiary, we go to Thorne Family Farm, where the hotel gets much of its produce: baby carrots, chard, artichokes, strawberries. It’s a bucolic property, one of the few working farms still in the neighborhood, with goats and chickens in the back and on weekends a farm stand. Here chef Jacob Wetherington picks tangerines from the tree, dodging, yes, more bees.
“When I was a kid we’d ride our bikes up in the middle the of the PCH because there were hardly any cars,” says farmer Larry Thorne. “Back then people looked at Malibu residents like we were bumpkins.” Not so today. Larry’s been known to say he’s the only guy farming $50 million worth of land to make $50,000.
Then it’s back to the Surfrider for one of those languorous lunches that lazy sunny days in Malibu are made for. Emma, who’s from Australia, frames it this way: “It’s how we do it at home. A three-hour lunch. In bed by eight. Up by six to surf.”
The Surfrider sits snugly in the crease of the earth where the steep hills of Malibu lean toward the ocean, the tectonic hinge of the California dream. From the roof deck you get unparalleled intimate views of that intersection where, in just a few hundred meters, so much is compressed: Look up and there’s the steep cliff—dry grass covers it today, but in spring after rain it becomes a sea of yellow mustard blossoms. Look down and there’s the PCH, that artery of iconic road trips, with super-exotic sports cars and dilapidated surf vans parked along the highway. And just beyond, the postcard-perfect 100-year-old pier jutting out, the Channel Islands in the distance, and the world-famous surf break with longboarders still hot-dogging like they did back when the Gidget movies were filmed there.
If this arc of coast is an amphitheater, the Surfrider is the stage on which the California dream coalesces. Those bees and those mustard blossoms express themselves in the honey drizzled on desserts and in cocktails. Guests walk barefoot up to the deck for a meal or a drink, sand on their feet and salt in their hair, and sit on comfy couches by the firepit that takes the seaside chill out of the air when the sun dips toward the horizon and the sky goes all pink.
Before Emma and Matt took over the Surfrider, it was a neglected little spot that enchanted Matt, who grew up an hour up the coast and trained as a junior lifeguard on the beach just across the way. After working in New York for a decade, Emma and Matt moved to California, bought the Surfrider along with partner Alessandro Zampedri, and hired top Malibu architect and 2021 Sunset Idea House designer Douglas Burdge to help reimagine it alongside Matt, an architect by trade: The rooms were reoriented to face the ocean, with private patios and expansive views; a comfy minimalism is further softened by natural materials that patina with age.
While it isn’t the most opulent hotel, that’s sort of the point. It has all the creature comforts you’d pack into your fantasy beach bungalow: a McIntosh amp and vintage vinyl collection in the common space, intricately woven nap-inducing hammocks, a mini fleet of Mini Coopers for guests, a vintage Land Rover they’ll load with surfboards and a picnic spread. And, perhaps most impressive, some of the best food in town, thanks to the impeccable sourcing of local farmers, fishermen, and ranchers, and the creativity of chef Wetherington, who worked at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Vegas and produce-obsessed restaurant Farmshop in Los Angeles.
The menu at Surfrider has more dishes and drinks on it than the hotel has rooms: There’s crudo bathed in coconut milk and lime and fish sauce served with chips, numerous healthy bowls studded with pickled produce and jammy eggs and grains from the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project, roasted fish caught off the nearby Channel Islands, excellent bread from Gjusta with herbed cultured butter, beef fattened on carrots at Santa Carota in Edison, California, smart cocktails, and a little reserve wine list of bottlings Emma and Matt have picked up here and there on their travels and brought back like housewarming gifts.
The bad news: You need to be a guest at the Surfrider to eat at the restaurant. The good news: We’ve brought you some of the restaurant’s best recipes so you can cook up a little of the California Coastal dream at a long and languorous lunch in your own backyard. There’s roasted whole fish, a citrusy summery salad, and grilled corn. And a cocktail made with none other than the honey from the bees Emma tussled with back at the apiary. Cheers to country life in Malibu.