Is the identity crisis over for Santa Monica’s Main Street? With even more turnover than usual on the street, including the departure of beloved fixtures like The Omelette Parlor and Wildflour Pizza, the possibility for a new direction has arisen. Could Main Street ever be hip? New blood like, Komodo Cafe, The Anchor Venice and Fork in the Road point to a tempered yes.
In fact, the street, which runs from Santa Monica through Venice, was trendy in the 1980s when two restaurants opened, Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in 1983 with its now-ubiquitous Cal-Asian fusion, and The Wave Restaurant and Bar in 1986. Like Chinois, The Wave served up food that felt new and cool. Both restaurants filled with artists and gawkers from the local gallery scene and had an up-to-the-moment freshness reflected in the nouveau cuisine.
At that time, Abbot Kinney Boulevard (then known as West Washington) in Venice felt like a relative backwater. Before Hal’s Bar & Grill hit the scene in 1987 there wasn’t much of anything to eat, buy or gaze upon. But in the last couple of decades the two thoroughfares gradually switched places. Main Street has become the ugly stepsister, with Abbot Kinney angling directly off it and luring people away from the lackluster main drag.
The bulk of the shopping along Main runs for just over a mile, from Pico Boulevard to Rose Avenue. Overstuffed with beauty treatment options (25 and counting, especially cheap mani-pedis), juice shops (five), and places to buy coffee (a whopping 15), Main Street could use an injection of 21st century ideas.
Luckily, it seems a few are coming in the form of new shops and restaurants. The food scene is experiencing a major overhaul with at least a dozen new places opening this year and in early 2015. The changes extend to the newly trendy Rose Avenue, with venerable The Rose Café (at Main and Rose) being taken over by restaurateur Bill Chait, of Bestia and Rivera, and Chef Jason Neroni, recently of Superba Snack Bar. The Rose Café opened in 1978, and while the space remained bright and warm, the food got a little dated, relying too heavily on '80s hits like pesto, balsamic vinaigrette and brie.
Two other exciting ventures are New York-based Bareburger, which is taking over The Omelette Parlor space, and restaurant Ashland/Hill, replacing Wildflour Pizza. According to Gary Gordon, executive director of the Business Association on Main Street, “Ashland/Hill is supposed to be a small bites place.” While many protested the end of an era as the two local institutions shut their doors, both seemed a bit stuck in the past, like the Rose Café, with their tired menus frozen in amber.
As Siamak Shafa, co-owner of the newly opened Three Twins Ice Cream says, “Santa Monica is going through a big transition, especially Main Street. Overflow from Abbot Kinney is creating a revival.”
It may be true that, with Abbot Kinney’s restaurant scene bursting at the seams, Rose Avenue popping, and even Lincoln Boulevard weighing in, it's only natural Main Street would reap some benefits. Two new shops, Lost & Found, from Hollywood, and Mujii, from Japan, have added some browse-worthy fashion and home goods.
A welcome international flair comes from Jinya Ramen Bar, Aussie Pie Kitchen and Komodo Cafe. Komodo's heady mix of Indonesian, Mexican and American flavors — to name a few — brings a welcome 21st century infusion to Main Street. Komodo began as a food truck and the spicy, out of the box nature of the menu is perfect for lunch or late night eats. One of the owners, Eric Tjahyadi believes Komodo marks "the beginning of a new era."
An especially bright spot that may help give a direction to the wayward strip is The Anchor. Just opened in August by Kristin Ciccolella, a newcomer to the restaurant scene, the small marine-themed bar gets all the details right. From delicious, East Coast-leaning food from Chef Dustin Taylor, like the buttery, truffle lobster roll to the luscious desserts courtesy of Sarah's Daily Sweets — the s'mores panna cotta may very well redefine the genre. This is Americana without a hint of mustiness.
What The Anchor gets right is a modern take on comfortable that differentiates Main from Abbot Kinney. As New Yorker Ciccolella puts it, "Everyone knows Everyone. Abbot Kinney is more stuffy and we have more of a neighborhood vibe. It feels like the East Village."
The sidewalk tables in front of The Anchor help make the small plates beer and wine joint welcoming. Dogs are allowed, even encouraged, and customers quickly morph into regulars. The Anchor is right on the border of Venice and Santa Monica and happily blends the Silicon Beach crowd with locals. Komodo Cafe, on the same block, also benefits from the nearby Google infusion. The Venice Google offices are on Main Street too, walking distance to many of the restaurants and cafes.
“Some of the people coming in are younger and have a lot of energy for their business and the street,” Gordon said. Besides the restaurants listed, rumor has it that Joe’s Diner and Panini Garden will soon be reborn as well. So will Main Street ever catch up to Abbot Kinney?
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Maybe that should not even be the goal. As Jeffrey Weisberg, a waiter for nearly 20 years at Main Street's popular Chaya Venice says, "I don't think Main Street is gonna be as snooty as Abbot Kinney. That's not our demographic. It's not as high income — more the beach and home folks. We're more of a hidden gem."
Shafa disagrees. “I think Main Street is gonna be even more than Abbot Kinney.” Gordon concurs, “Obviously we’re better. It’s self-evident, as they say in the Declaration of Independence.”