Visitors have been dining in droves since Duke's Malibu opened July 28, joining the popular Duke's Canoe Clubs in Waikiki and on Kauai. Duke's Malibu has served 600 dinners a night in busy periods.
Business at Duke's -- named after Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, Hawaii's most beloved son -- has been so brisk that parent company TS Restaurants is planning another slice of paradise on the Huntington Beach Pier, one of California's most powerful surfing icons.
"When you speak of Duke, you speak of that old romantic period when Duke was in his prime, and that is what we created," said David Allaire, vice president of TS in Hawaii.
TS Restaurants owners Rob Thibaut and Sandy Saxten spent more than $3 million to create the illusion that when guests enter Duke's Malibu they have stepped through the door straight into Hawaii.
The impact is immediate and relentless. Beside the greeter's palm frond-thatched hut is a display case filled with Hawaiiana: Outrigger Canoe Club plates and memorabilia, a photo of the late water sportsman Tommy Holmes, sea shells, ceramic hula dancers and busts of beautiful wahine, ukuleles, a wooden model of an outrigger canoe with plaited lauhala sails, and more. It's like visiting a Kuhio District antique store.
The menu features the same tropical fare served at Duke's Waikiki and Kauai.
And then there is that most dangerous foe to homesick islanders: Hawaiian music. Traditional and contemporary, the sweet sounds permeate Duke's, a treat for most workers and a torment for others. "A little of that goes a long way," said one busboy with a grimace.
Duke's is perched on the edge of the ocean with magnificent views of fabled Malibu, the fertile sandy crescent of California's early surf scene. It seems as though sea birds are bobbing right in your lap, and that surfers riding the waves could snatch pupus right off your plate.
Although it's not tropical blue, it's still the same Pacific Ocean that touches Hawaii, with kayakers and breaching whales and dolphins parading past diners.
But the restaurant's greatest asset is Duke Kahanamoku's legacy of aloha.
"We've always admired Duke for what he stood for and his ambassadorship of aloha," said Allaire. "Duke was someone we wanted to honor, and no one had honored Duke with any kind of museum in Hawaii. That's why we asked Nadine Kahanamoku (Duke's widow) if we could use his name and artifacts and pictures, to create a living museum to Duke Kahanamoku."
A miniature statue of Duke, wearing ti-leaf and tiny shell leis, spreads his arms to welcome guests to Duke's Malibu. It's a duplicate by artist Jan Fisher of his larger-than-life statue of Duke that greets visitors to Kuhio Beach in Waikiki.
Fisher created six miniatures for TS Restaurants, for their Duke restaurants and their corporate headquarters in Lahaina and Solana Beach, Calif.
Duke's entire life and many careers are displayed in portraits throughout the restaurant. His image presides regally over photos and posters of famous surfers, royalty, actors and millionaires.
Prescott Krysler, banquets manager, was brought to Malibu from Duke's Canoe Club on Kauai to help instill aloha as the guiding force of the restaurant. "The whole building block we start with is aloha. Then we have classes on aloha," Krysler said. "It's a whole philosophy that really works."
Bartender Christine Bongiese saw no hint of aloha at other restaurants where she worked.
"Aloha is everything here," she said, adding that it's a benefit to work with people from Hawaii. "You get so caught up in the work, and the local kids help us remember what aloha is. I've been to Hawaii, and this place makes me feel like I'm there."
Thibaut and Saxten opened their first restaurant in San Francisco right out of college in 1971.
By 1975 they sold their 16-restaurant chain to Nestles Corp. That year Thibaut visited college chum Allaire on Maui and fell under the same spell that had enthralled Allaire in 1970.
Thibaut and Saxten formed TS Restaurants in 1977, opened Kimo's in Lahaina, and now preside over 12 restaurants on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Lake Tahoe and Southern California. Thibaut is owner-president of Hawaii restaurants, and Saxten is owner-chairman of mainland operations.
TS Restaurants did more than $50 million in sales last year, Allaire said, and the family of restaurants continues to grow.
The company tries to blend in and become part of the community wherever it opens a restaurant, Allaire said, "because we're residents as well as business people."
The community at Malibu has responded well, Krysler said. "Our clientele is different from Kauai and Waikiki. Here they aren't necessarily tourists, they are just trying to get away from L.A. and enjoy a little aloha."
Two surf clubs, the Malibu Surf Association and Malibu Boardriders, have adopted Duke's as their formal and informal meeting house. The banquet hall bookings reflect the benchmarks of community life: bar mitzvahs, "sweet 16" parties, wedding receptions and anniversaries, wakes and business meetings.
The restaurant was designed with the community in mind, said Allaire. "We didn't want to just bring Waikiki to Malibu. There is so much beach history that belongs to Malibu, and Duke is intertwined in the movie colony, too."
Photos on the wall emphasize Duke's acting days when he and Johnny Weissmuller cut a flamboyant swath through Hollywood. Paintings and photos that capture the golden days of California surfing are juxtaposed with other art to reflect the Hawaii/California connection.
Malibu legend Mickey Dora hangs five on a perfect, peeling Malibu wave next to George Downing and his old Waikiki redwood board next to Fred Hemmings emerging from the surf in a pair of Windansea shorts next to a photo of the entire Windansea Surf Club in full regalia.
The ultimate cross-cultural contact is contained in an beautiful recreation of Duke's favorite surfboard, which hangs in a place of honor above the restaurant's most dynamic ocean view.
The board was built by California surfing legend Greg Noll, using exotic cross-grained redwood cut from the width of a huge tree. On the deck is a hand-colored logo of Duke standing beside the same board at Waikiki with the same logo on the deck of the board, an intriguing image within an image.
Amid the cheerful confusion of photos, prints, posters, paintings, memorabilia and modern, ancient and recreated surfboards is a special poster. It's a green, white and blue flier of Duke Kahanamoku that promotes the song "Kahanamoku" by Sol Bright and his Holly-waiians.
It captures the essence of Duke's Malibu, a Hawaii-Hollywood mix that creates a place for Holly-waiians to hang out: Holly-waii.