“When we first opened Lure here,” said David Cortina, who owns the small but fiendishly popular chain of seafood restaurants that just arrived in La Cumbre Plaza, “I felt like a kid out surfing and here comes a tidal wave. Ahhh!”
The opening, a few days after Christmas, came none too soon for folks used to driving down to Camarillo or Ventura for their fresh-fish fix. The debut was widely rumored and then delayed, Cortina admits, not by zoning and code problems, but because he and his spouse, Patricia Cortina, kept reworking the design. He knew the wait wasn’t sitting well here and feared repercussions, which came in a funny way. “I was working just before we opened,” said David, “and this guy comes up to me and says, ‘You the boss here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sort of.’ Then the guy says, ‘Can I tell you something? My wife and I planned to have our rehearsal dinner here last year. And now we’re divorced.’” Cortina felt bad, but the guy was laughing.
You may wonder why Lure Fish House inspires such ardor, why its guests seem more like fans than customers. The original Camarillo place was eureka-like, perfect for a refuel on a midday drive to Los Angeles or to crown a return trip, right off the freeway and near the Camarillo IMAX movie theater and outlet stores. But it was more than convenient. Lure serves great fish — fresh and cooked to sweet perfection — with absurdly good sides included for about the same price you would pay for just the halibut (or sea bass, or sand dabs, my favorite) at any other nice fish joint. All the Lures are bright and bustling, the staff efficient and the kitchen fast. And now it’s here.
“I have this great financial officer named Micah Thomas,” said Cortina as we slurped raw and grilled oysters. “He likes to stir up the staff. And the other day, he said to them, ‘Do you know why we sell so much fish?’ They said no. ‘Because we sell so much fish.’ You know what I mean?” It’s fresh, in other words, because it doesn’t stay long in our refrigerators.
Cortina believes that cooking fish on a plancha (a thick metal plate) rather than on a grill leaves it more succulent. Even more unorthodox? He believes in tartar sauce, which he knows is considered déclassé. “We call it lemon dill aioli,” he laughed. Speaking of heresy, the grilled oysters give the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans a run for the money. “It’s just the liquor from the oyster with parmesan butter and garlic. And what doesn’t that improve? That even makes snails taste good,” said Cortina, who is immensely proud of his oyster chef, Mikey Robb.
Patricia accepts the blame for the delayed opening. “It was the bathroom,” said David. “Did you ever go into Ruth’s Chris?” he asks, referring to the prior steak house tenant. “It had the most beautiful bathrooms.” They tried to design the new place around the bathrooms but darkened the feel of the place. “And one day, my wife came in and said the bathrooms have to go.”
“I did,” Patricia said. It cost them but ended up looking how she wanted it: bright and accommodating.
Patricia and David met in college. David was learning to be a pilot until he realized how small airline paychecks are. A surfer who grew up in Malibu, he got his first job shucking oysters at the Nantucket Light, where Nobu is today. They pursued various restaurant partnerships between Carlsbad and Los Angeles, but eventually wound up opening in Camarillo, where Patricia’s parents live. They hired a lot of people they met in earlier restaurants, and a lot of those people are still with them. Then came Ventura, Westlake, and Santa Barbara. “Five restaurants is the most I will do,” said David. “I swear.”
Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara tidal wave still churns, though less threateningly. Cortina has time to experiment now, with culinary discoveries like mixing the two chowders, a kind of fishy Arnold Palmer that works. The place is simultaneously chain and mom ’n’ pop somehow, and Cortina feels that people get the Lure idea. “There are places like Ruth’s Chris that you only go once in a while — for your birthday. Or Kentucky Fried Chicken. I hardly ever eat there, but sometimes it’s exactly what you want,” he explained. “I wanted Lure to be a place where you can always go. When we first opened here, some customer walked up and said, ‘This place is great. I’ve already eaten here three times.’ But I said, ‘We’ve only been open two days.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
Lure Fish House is located in La Cumbre Plaza, 3815 State Street. Call (805) 618-1816 or see lurefishhouse.com.