I've been hearing about The Old Place ever since I was a little kid. Located on Mulholland Highway in a part of the mountains known as Cornell, it's as much myth as destination. My dad used to tell stories about going diving off the Malibu coast, then selling the lobsters he caught to customers there. Maybe true, maybe not, but that's the kind of place The Old Place is, a roadhouse so authentic, you want weave yourself right into its history.
On the outside, only the neon signs let you know it's not abandoned. Inside, it's dark enough that your eyes take a minute to adjust. Wood floors, timbered walls, a long wooden bar, booths that look a lot like horse stalls. On the walls hang framed newspaper stories written about the place over the years. Behind the bar, a businesslike woman named Barbara feeds friends and strangers alike.
Last night, in an arctic twilight that had the sparse crowd comparing burst water pipes disasters, we ate dinner at The Old Place. Beef stew. The only thing on the menu on Sundays. Two bowls of it, thick and ropy, accompanied by a pile of sliced bread. Country singer Billy Gale, not a bad guitarist with a pleasant enough voice, stood way, way too close as he sang a sad love song.
Further down the bar, regulars talked over the latest transformation of Malibu.
"Whole lotta change going on down there," a man said, making it sound like The Old Place was a hundred miles from anywhere. In the half-light of the creaking building, where a stiff wind moaned at the windows and a pot-bellied stove gave off good heat, where ghosts plucked at the shadows, it felt even farther.