The Best Restaurants In Santa Monica Right Now
With its historic pier, broad beaches, and top-shelf shopping, Santa Monica delivers on the ideal Southern California beach life. But led by neighboring Venice Beach to the south and Los Angeles to the east, Santa Monica restaurants have taken a real step (fashion-)forward. Which means that in addition to old-school favorites (like one of the best Italian sandwich joints in L.A. County), the city offers up an ever-deepening roster of terrific restaurants. Where to go first? Save your mental energy for that late-day run on the beach: Here are the best restaurants in Santa Monica right now.
Josh Loeb’s 2006 freshman effort (and anchor restaurant of the Rustic Canyon restaurant group) has kept pace for more than two decades, most notably by putting Michelin-star-earner Jeremy Fox in charge of the menu since 2013. Taking full advantage of the hometown farmers market, Fox’s shareable plates are super vegetable-forward as well as season-sensitive (check out his On Vegetables cookbook while waiting on your table). The signature cocktails lean creatively on gin and rye; and the strong wine and beer lists showcase California stars.
Tar & Roses
While wood-burning ovens may have occupied American strip malls at this point, they’re still hot in the hands of the right chef. And it’s easy to see why Santa Monica native Andrew Kirschner built a menu around his wood burning oven at this rustic little restaurant right on Santa Monica Boulevard (and just blocks from the beach). Ever since Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold shouted out Kirschner’s popcorn tossed with brown sugar, lardons and chile, this starter has led the charge on the menu, but there’s so much more to love among the small plates (like wood-roasted clams or charred gem lettuce) and the large (it’s worth finding a date just to order the whole fried snapper for two). Gather a posse of four to take advantage of The T&R Suppers featuring delights like wood-fired goat with Morrocan accompaniments—just know you need to order seven days in advance.
Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery
Who would have thought that beachy Santa Monica would be home to an Italian deli with a cult-like following, but there you have it. Around since 1925, Bay Cities is still going strong with its long counters filled with domestic and imported Italian meats and cheeses, but you’ve come for the sandwich, so go straight for the classic. It’s called the Godmother, and features salami, prosciutto, mortadella, capicola, ham, and provolone. And it’s going to be packed into a just-cut length of super-fresh Italian bread (loaves come out of the oven every 20 minutes). Smart people buy another loaf to go because it’s just that good.
Belcampo Restaurant and Butcher Shop
Belcampo is all about meat—in ways that have essentially revolutionized the relationship between livestock and chef. To begin with, the company runs a 12,000-acre Northern California farm of the same name where they raise and slaughter grass-fed beef with organic and humane practices (you can even go to “meat camp” at the farm and learn how to cook these leaner cuts with chefly acumen). Back at the beach in the flagship butcher shop/dining room, this means plates that celebrate beef dishes from burgers and steak frites to shareable bone-in NY strip and Cowboy steaks. Don’t miss Josh Goldman’s always-relevant cocktail list, currently rocking sherry, aquavit, and coconut rye with aplomb.
One of the glowing offspring of Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan’s Rustic Canyon group (and one of Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants in 2016), Cassia puts chef/co-owner Bryant Ng’s Southeast Asian culinary vocabulary at the center of its seafood-forward menu. Occupying the entire first floor of a classic Art Deco building in Downtown (a much bigger footprint than Ng’s small and beloved Spice Table, where he was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs), there’s a French brasserie vibe that makes dishes like Ng’s pairing of snails and chickpea curry with clay-oven flatbreads, right at home. The service is family-style and the wine list is deep. What more could one want?
Narrow as a shoe box, paneled like a bus station waiting room, and mere steps away from an old-school barber shop, this sweet little dive is tailor-made for when you want a great burger, a craft beer, and a taste of local passion for these paired pleasures of life. Chef Sang Yoon is credited with creating upscale burgers here since B.B. (before Boulud), and whether that’s true or not, here’s what is: the Office Burger, piled with carmelized onion, applewood bacon, gruyere, maytag blue cheese, and arugula, is a sloppy stack of goodness, and the rotating 36 craft beers on tap offer a lifetime of pairings. (A second, roomier Father’s Office lies in Culver City, but why stray from the OG?)
Ingo’s Tasty Diner
With its ebullient, 1940s-esque interiors, this nouveau-retro diner on Wilshire Boulevard pays homage to the building’s history as the home of Callahan’s, a landmark Streamline Moderne spot that lured Hollywood’s earliest stars to its countertop (still there, with a fresh layer of wood) and booths. The menu, like the décor, plucks nostalgic heartstrings with plates like a Dungeness Crab Salad on iceberg, English Cut Prime Rib (but with the clearly post-millennium arugula on the side), and Steak Au Poivre. But there’s newer stuff for nostalgia-phobes, smart cocktails, and bottles of wine at wholesale prices on Sundays and Mondays.
Milo & Olive
Forget that you broke up with gluten, and reconnect in the yeasty embrace of this popular (and all-organic) neighborhood bakery and pizzeria. In the morning, executive chef/partner Erin Eastland keeps the focus on fresh pastries and winners like a breakfast sandwich on house-baked brioche bread and breakfast pizza featuring house sausage, potatoes, pickled chili, rosemary cream, and farm egg. For lunch and dinner, fresh pastas share the spotlight with pizzas from the wood-burning oven. And after a serving of Eastland’s heralded garlic knots, you might feel like changing your last name… to Gluten.
If an order of monks were devoted to the cheeseburger, this would be their monastery. Miminalist in both interior design and menu variety, HiHo Cheeseburger (relocated from its origins in Ojai to this 2nd Street location just a few blocks from Santa Monica State Beach) focuses its zeal on one thing: the purest cheeseburger possible, with accompaniments to match. The result is a burger that features only one kind of beef—100% grass-fed and grass-finished Wagyu—hand-cut fries from non-GMO potatoes, ketchup without high-fructose corn syrup, organic milkshakes from a small creamery in Petaluma, house-made pies… you get the idea. And the house-made vegan patty opens the monastery doors a bit wider.
Making a night at a restaurant like Mélisse is like reading a novel by Proust or Tolstoy. While the grandeur may feel a smidge out of time, there is nonetheless a timeless beauty in that lofty approach. So consider a rich, well-paced night with Michelin two-star chef/owner Josiah Citrin in the company of his 10-course tasting menu, settled in the dining room’s creamy, deep-backed chairs, poised at tables draped in white (literally), and amid classic, European service.
Huckleberry Café & Bakery
Zoe Nathan, half of the power-couple that owns a half-dozen popular Santa Monica restaurants, earned her baking chops at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, so it was only natural that she and husband Josh Loeb would expand their empire across the street from their original Rustic Canyon restaurant, and build a bakery-driven restaurant. The result—Huckleberry Bakery & Café—is now helmed by Erin Eastland (along with her oversight of Milo & Otis), and is a mothership for daily fresh pastries and all-day staples from fried egg sandwiches and huevos rancheros to pancakes with pure maple syrup and organic blueberries and organic fried chicken sandwiches.
Cha Cha Chicken
Just a few blocks from the tony (but divine) Shutters on the Beach, this little family-run counter-serve joint with its blazing yellow exteriors and Jamaican-inspired menu puts a bit of rowdy sass into Santa Monica’s cultivated beach vibe. The oven-roasted chicken covered in Jamaican jerk sauce is what commands the attention, but there are other Caribbean bites worth considering, including black bean soup, fried plantains, and ropa vieja. And don’t miss the imported Jamaican sodas.
Forma Restaurant & Cheese Bar
It may feel like a stunt to toss hot, freshly-cooked pasta in a massive, slightly hollowed wheel of cheese before plating, but the team behind this cheerful pasta and cheese bar on busy Montana Avenue know that this is a real thing in parts of Italy (being Italian themselves), and have placed this preparation at the center of things. So look for the dalla forma section of the menu for what’s being tossed currently (and cheesily). But know that even in the non-dalla forma zones, cheese rules the roost, from thin slivers atop proteins to a cheese bar menu featuring more than 50 domestic and imported varieties.
With a pedigree that runs all the way back to 1925, The Lobster has long lured Santa Monica locals and arrivistes with that siren crustacean call (and big-window views of the Santa Monica pier in all its opulent glory). Pay homage to the tradition with a spiny California lobster, grilled up just right, and the bar’s signature mojito.
After building a following for its nouveau-deli menu of smoked fish and pastrami sandwiches (and its white subway tile and black chalkboard aesthetic) at Downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market, Wexler’s Deli expanded to its own space on Santa Monica’s West Side. Two years on, a happy community of beachgoers (and locals) who demand a solid lox fix on a regular basis has made the spot a local sensation.