DINE | Café Zoolu

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Old Magic still cooking at the zoo Café Zoolu continues to serve up some of the best seafood anywhere.- By Jason Sanford

Michael Leech is hardly a novice when it comes to the art of making a delicious meal—the man’s been at it for well over 40 years. To say that he’s got some skills in the kitchen is like saying that Mark Zuckerberg is pretty good with a computer. Michael has mastered the wonderful world of seafood and built a reputation that carries itself not just around Laguna, but the globe. It was his “baseball” cut of swordfish, after all, that Zagat famously called “the greatest on the planet.”

Not an accident, is it Mike?

“Quality has always been the best—I don’t shop for price, I shop for quality, and I cut and cook all the fish myself,” Michael says. “There’s a strong pride of ownership in the product that we put out.”

Café Zoolu has gone against the common practice of so many restaurants in today’s fickle, ever-shifting food industry by steadfastly staying exactly the same. Of course, consistently receiving waves of such amazing feedback over the years—praise good enough to even kick Barbra Streisand out to wait for a table—will ensure that the recipe stays the same every meal.

“Nothing’s changed here; we’re very consistent,” Michael explains. “Same food, same crew, same ambiance, price hasn’t changed much. We haven’t changed, but the landscape of the Laguna Beach restaurant scene has changed.”

There aren’t many restaurants that can do what Zoolu does anymore: create one dish that gains an absurd amount of popularity, from ebullient recommendations around the water cooler to online praises from the heavens on Yelp, and then build a strong supporting menu that ensures that even if you did somehow grow tired of the world’s best swordfish you’d still enjoy every bite of Plan B. Also worth mentioning, Café Zoolu’s portions are positively gargantuan compared to the contemporary style and size of serving that comprises today’s local food scene. Dessert be damned, more world-beating swordfish please.

Café Zoolu has been at its current location on Glenneyre for 20 years, and will continue to hold its ground as a major SoCal seafood destination for years to come by not changing a thing. Who knew that in 2012 a restaurant that does one thing exceptionally well could not just survive, but rise to rock star prominence and thrive in a small town with just nine leopard-spotted bar seats, a few cozy tables and no happy hour?

Sure you could come and try the limited seasonal treats, like the Maryland soft shell blue crab, which the chef/owner himself raves on and on about—but seriously, how well are you going to sleep after you turn down the best swordfish on the planet? LBM

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