Border Grill. The Santa Monica flagship restaurant of Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger has become a prime tourist destination, but the regional Mexican cuisine still comes out vivid and strong — fat juicy tacos, refreshing ceviches, spot-on chile verde. The wall graphics are loud, the prime-time dinner din deafening, the bar often impenetrably crowded. 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica, (310) 451-1655. Lunch and dinner seven days. Sun.–Thurs. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.– Sat. 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Entrées $13–$25. Mexican. MH ¨
Chez Mimi. Chez Mimi’s is surely the loveliest patio dining spot around, where the vine-entwined gateway alone makes it hard to remember you’re in California and not some gentrified country stable yard in southern France. Inside, in charming low-ceilinged rooms, fires snap on cold nights and Mimi herself checks in on her customers. Try the excellent bouillabaisse and the rich, soothing cassoulet. 246 26th St., Santa Monica, (310) 393-0558. Lunch Tues.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Dinner Tues.-Sat. 5:30–10 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. $9–$29. French. MH $$ ¤ Ü
iCinch. Like so many of the restaurants designed by Dodd Mitchell, Cinch looks like the archvillain’s lair from a Sean Connery–era James Bond movie, sleek luxury fitted into a nuclear-hardened concrete bunker: dark woods, flickering candlelight, booming music and burnished chinoiserie seemingly concealing a darker, edgier function. The proto-Japanese cooking may be a perfect fit for the vaguely sinister architecture: things like fried oysters wrapped in shiso leaves; raw salmon subsumed into spring rolls; raw Kobe beef flavored with rosemary, shiso and olives — everything fashionable enough to function as a lifestyle signifier as well as an appetizer or entrée. Cinch operates, more or less, as a swank lounge that just happens to serve bang bang chicken alongside its mojitos, and chef Chris Behre may occasionally be a little loose with the details of his cooking. As with a lot of cross-cultural chefs, the fireworks come in his small courses; big slabs of animal find him at a loss. 1519 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-4139. Dinner Sun.–Thurs. 6–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6–11 p.m. (bar food available one hour before and one hour after dinner). Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards. Entrées $12.50–$28.50. French-Japanese. JG $$ ¤ ¨ H
The Counter. The “Build Your Own Burger” idea behind the Counter, a fashionable new dive in Ocean Park, makes it a universe of possibilities centering around the hamburger and its matrix of 40-odd fixings. Ranch dressing on the side? Done! There is a wine-bar aspect to the place (very decent, if obscure, vintages from California), a selection of microbrews, and waitresses who do not, to put it mildly, look as if they are part of the regular hamburger-eating demographic. 2901 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 399-8383. Open Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun. noon–9 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Food for two: $13–$22. American. JG $ *
The Hump. This crow’s-nest sushi bar, named for a difficult Himalayan airway, sits atop Typhoon at the Santa Monica airport. Eat kampachi sashimi off Mineo Mizuno’s ceramics and watch the planes pop on and off the runway. Much of the fish comes directly from the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, and the chefs can go as simple or sophisticated as you like. 3221 Donald Douglas Loop South, Third Floor, Santa Monica, (310) 313-0977. Lunch Mon.–Fri. noon–2 p.m., dinner seven nights 6–10:30 p.m. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, DC, MC, V. Entrées $35–$150. Japanese. MH $$$
Juliano’s Raw. At Raw there is no cooking — at least no cooking with heat. There is slicing, chopping, grinding, mashing, juicing, soaking, dehydrating, rehydrating, sprouting, wrapping and saucing aplenty. I have sampled raw-food preparations and was anticipating a different realm of textures and food combinations. What I did not expect, and was thrilled by, was Juliano’s level of flavor. By the end of each meal, however, I found myself wearied by the remaking of everything. A few islands of simplicity might have gone a long way to relieve the fussiness of the non-cooking. 609 Broadway, Santa Monica; (310) 587-1552. Lunch and dinner daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Entrées $9.95–$12.95. No alcohol served. Street parking. AE, D, MC, V. MH $ ¦ *
Le Petit Café. It’s a modest neighborhood café nestled among several industrial buildings in east Santa Monica, and it happens to be one of the most authentically French restaurants you’ll find in Southern California. Where else can you get sand dabs, pâté with cornichons, and cold poached salmon, all for a relative song? 2842 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 829-6792. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner Mon.–Thurs. 5:30–9 p.m. and Fri.–Sat. 5:30–9:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking next to restaurant. MC, V. Entrées $10–$22. French. MH $
iLincoln Steakhouse Americana. I would have bet there was nothing new under the sun when it came to steak houses, that every possible permutation of the Rat Pack lifestyle, every $120 Kobe-beef fillet, every conceivable tomato salad, cigar station and vodka martini had been explored. This steak-house thing has been going on a long time, after all, and even the most Atkins-crazed Robb Report subscriber could hardly want for variety. But it’s not the braised turnip greens that make the difference at Lincoln Steakhouse, owned by the people who run Paladar. The profoundly charred Angus-beef porterhouses are fine, but no better than you’ll find at a dozen other places in town. What Lincoln has that other steak houses do not is young women, in packs and in pairs, on dates, on business dinners and dining alone. And these aren’t young women nibbling salads or sipping white wine, or hanging around the bar waiting for you, but women ordering big steaks and eating them. I would credit the well-known charm of the antler chandeliers for this phenomenon, but I would probably be wrong. 2460 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 828-3304. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–2 p.m. plus bar menu until 5:30 p.m. Dinner Mon.–Sat. 5–11 p.m., Sun. 5–10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. $20–$30. New-fashioned steak house. JG $$$ * ¨ H Ü
Mélisse. It’s so French, this fancy, formal restaurant owned and cheffed by Josiah Citrin in Santa Monica. The room is sedate and a tad fussy — très authentique, from the massive chandelier down to the little footstools designed to keep your Gucci bag off the ground. Citrin gives his classical French training, high-end purveyors and farmers-market produce a real workout. 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-0881. Dinner Tues.–Fri. 6–10 p.m., Sat. 5:45–10 p.m. Closed Sun.–Mon. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Entrées $27–$38. French. MH $$$ ¤
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Michael’s. California nouvelle cuisine may have been born in this art-infested restaurant where media barons sup on pretty little salads of quail with pansy blossoms and sherry vinegar. Beyond the piles of arugula that reach halfway to the moon, the steak is the real thing, a prime New York strip dry-aged halfway to infinity. But make sure somebody else is paying. 1147 Third St., Santa Monica, (310) 451-0843. Lunch Mon.–Fri. noon–2:30 p.m. Dinner Mon.–Sat. 6–10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Entrées $28–$36. California. JG $$$ ¤
Reddi-Chick. In the exalted reaches north of Montana Avenue, the Brentwood Country Mart is synonymous with Reddi-Chick, whose roaring fire and golden-skinned roasting fowl exude an aroma almost powerful enough to smell at the beach. It is probably not the best chicken you’ve ever had, but it’s real good, like the best conceivable version of the chickens that spin in supermarkets. 225 26th St., Santa Monica, (310) 393-5238. Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–7:30 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. Sandwiches and dinners $4.10–$15.75. American. JG *
Restaurant Josie. This dining room manages to be sedate yet hip, and quite cozy in a WASP-y, old-money kind of way. Chef-owner Josie LeBalch, formerly of the Saddle Peak Lodge, Remi and the Beach House, cooks her own mix of Cal-Med dishes with an emphasis on game. 2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 581-9888. Dinner seven nights. Mon.–Sat. 6–10 p.m., Sun. 5:30–9 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Entrées $18–$32. California. MH $$$ Ü
Rocca. Don Dickman, formerly of Trumps and Daily Grill, finally opened his dream restaurant in Santa Monica, a rustic Italian bistro with the look of a neighborhood New York eatery. I’d go back for the flattened half-chicken “al mattone,” an excellent-quality, juicy bird with beautifully seasoned skin. For dessert, try the bittersweet-chocolate polenta pudding cake. 1432-A Fourth St., Santa Monica, (310) 395-6765. Dinner Sun.–Thurs. 5:30–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30–11 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking across the street at Border Grill. Entrées $11–$17. AE, DC, MC, V. Italian. MH $ ¤