It may be the question we field more than any other: Where should I eat in Santa Monica? The city famous for its beaches and shopping, its healthy residents and fantastic quality of life, is not quite so famous for its stellar restaurants. Yet there are a ton of great places to eat, if you only know where to look. We ate our way through the restaurants of Santa Monica, visited the old standbys and the shiny new hot spots, and came away with a list of 10 restaurants that won't leave you wanting.
10. Tacos Punta Cabras Duck into this tiny taco shop at lunchtime and you'll easily find just as many patrons as you will at bigger, fancier restaurants at the same hour — all crammed into a space the size of many restaurants' foyers. People probably will be watching a soccer game on the overhead TV while they wait for their excellent fish tacos and cauliflower tostadas, or spilling out to the few tables and chairs that are set up out on the Santa Monica Boulevard sidewalk. Run by two chefs with fine-dining backgrounds — Josh Gil at Joe's Restaurant and BLT; Daniel Snukal at LudoBites and Urasawa — Tacos Punta Cabras crams a lot of great food in that small space along with all those people. This being the Westside, you also can get more healthful renditions of street food: Order a tofu taco with some lemon habanero sauce and get the best of all worlds. 2311 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-917-2244.
9. Michael's Many things have changed in Santa Monica since Michael McCarty opened Michael's in 1979. For starters, there are myriad farmers markets, and not just the one McCarty championed right down the street. Michael's has changed, too, adapting to smaller plates and a bar-oriented menu, adding vegan items, pizza, even tacos. Mostly gone are the days of opulent, multicourse dinners in the beautiful patio; and, yes, Whitey Bulger's gone, too. These days chef John-Carlos Kuramoto helms the kitchen where Nancy Silverton began her culinary career, turning out finely tuned plates of mushroom risotto; salads of Little Gem lettuce, bottarga and anchovies; and duck with lentils, quince and Bloomsdale spinach. You can still dine in that gorgeous patio and, yes, study works by Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney and Dennis Hopper in the bathroom. 1147 Third St., Santa Monica; 310-451-0843.
8. Border Grill Long before the current glut in America of "upscale" taco and margarita joints (read: more expensive than real Mexican restaurants), Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were serving up honest, carefully sourced, expertly cooked gourmet Mexican at Border Grill. The restaurant — which is quickly coming up on its 30th birthday (!!) — remains a standard-bearer. The tacos, guacamole and margaritas are vastly better than the taco-and-guac places that have come along in the intervening three decades, and entrees, like Dungeness crab enchiladas or pan-seared sustainable fish, stand head and shoulders above most upscale Mexican food. Recently the restaurant has added a $29.99 per person brunch that allows unlimited small plates, to which you can add unlimited mimosas for $6. This is no boring eggs-and-tortillas brunch, either — the menu includes everything from Peruvian shrimp and grits to dulce de leche–infused "churro tots." 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica; 310-451-1655.
7. Josie The first thing that you'll probably notice when you enter chef-owner Josie Le Balch's restaurant is the row of copper pots hanging over the stoves in the open kitchen. They're gorgeous but they're also symbolic, and not just of an era of old-school French cooking that Josie both embodies and profoundly modernizes. The pots are a nod to that history and technique — Le Balch began cooking at Ma Maison — and also to her own history, as they're her father's pots. (Gregoire Le Balch, a celebrated chef from Brittany, started one of L.A.'s first cooking schools.) They're also very pretty to look at, as you're served Le Balch's farmers market prix-fixe menu, or wood-grilled quail with sweet corn chowder, or aquavit-cured salmon with house-made Danish rye, or a tagine of cod and curried cous cous. Happily, Le Balch still cooks with them, too. 2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-581-9888.
6. FIG If you're not a fan of hotel dining, you probably haven't been to FIG, Ray Garcia's casual, bistro-ish place in the Fairmont Miramar hotel, happily occupying the landscape between lobby and outdoor pool. Imagine a pool party crossed with a farmers market, with mixologists. Garcia, who grew up in Cypress Park and has cooked at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, Cyrus and some restaurant Thomas Keller runs, has a repertoire that relies heavily on produce from the nearby Santa Monica farmers market. Not only will you see all those fruits and vegetables on the menu but across the bottom of that menu runs a list of what's in season, what's coming, what's almost done, like a Wall Street market ticker as applied to kumquats. Garcia's food is very pretty, very tasty and extremely well-curated. And because it's in a hotel, you can order it pretty much all the time, which is a serious plus. If you ever get tired of living in Los Angeles, maybe just go eat Garcia's bacon-wrapped bacon by the pool. 101 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-319-3111.
5. Tar & Roses Tar & Roses chef-owner Andrew Kirschner has taken everything we love about kinda Spanish, kinda New American food and made it especially appealing. His menu stops at all the stations we've come to expect on this small plate–heavy, farm-to-table ride: meat-and-cheese plate? Check. Clever little "snacks"? Yup. Small plates, creative veggies and a small selection of large plates? Ding, ding, ding. But the journey here is more cleverly curated than at many other restaurants traversing the same path. The meats and cheeses are better sourced, the snacks more playful. If chicken oysters-on-a-stick sounds like a silly gimmick, it's a silly gimmick that works — the chicken's most tender orb of flesh highly spiced with Moroccan-type spices and served with a tamarind-heavy sauce. It would be easy to make an entire meal of the vegetable portion of the menu, and it's nice to see those vegetables prepared with as much thought as their protein counterparts and presented with as much love. The wooden tables and rustic farm accents here are lit beautifully, the warm glow shining up somehow rather than down, creating a flattering light, and the wine list is both inviting and exciting. 602 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-587-0700.
4. Milo & Olive In the two years since it opened, Milo & Olive has become many things to many people: the hub of Zoe Nathan's small but brilliant baking empire; the place to get arguably (arguably! Calm down) the best pizza on the Westside; a restaurant where you can run into friends and wandering chefs at the bar or the two communal tables that make up the entire seating; and home to chef Erin Eastland, who recently took over the kitchen after seven years at Cube. Any of these is reason enough to head over to the restaurant Nathan and husband Josh Loeb named after their kid (that would be Milo). Another reason, along with the latte with house-made almond milk, which goes pretty damn well with Nathan's chocolate chip cookies: the giant turquoise pizza oven that's the focal point of the open kitchen, the literal hearth warming the whole house. 2723 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-453-6776.
3. Father's Office The original location of Sang Yoon's gastropub (some say L.A.'s original gastropub) is still as strict in its policies as it is fun to partake in them. You must be 21 to enter, you must order at the bar and then fight for one of only about 70 seats, you may not request substitutions. The website even proclaims that "dessert items including birthday cakes are not permitted." But give in to Yoon's fussy way of doing things and you'll be rewarded with one of the best beer selections anywhere, one of the best burgers in the country, and a creative, affordable menu that is as generous as the rules of the place are stingy. 1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; 310-736-2224.
2. Mélisse Josiah Citrin's Santa Monica holdout of fine dining is now 14 years old, and benefits from being both that young and that old. It came about when respect for haute cuisine was still a guiding principle for weighty restaurants but not so long ago that its room or food seem outdated. There are a number of menus to choose from, ranging from the bargain $125-per-person, four-courser to a 15-course extravaganza for which no price or menu is listed, presumably because if you have to ask, you can't afford it. As you might imagine, everything is presented with a flourish, from the cocktails to bread service to Citrin's modern French food, which relies far more on old-fashioned technique and bold flavors than on science or whiz-bang tricks to keep your attention. For the high rollers, there's a seasonally available truffle menu and numerous supplements, from a cheese course to Russian caviar to wine in the four- to five-figure range (surprisingly, there also is plenty that's reasonable on this list — bottles start at $30 to $40). For the rest of us, Mélisse remains one of the few special-occasion restaurants that feels truly special. 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-395-0881.
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1. Rustic Canyon Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan's Rustic Canyon has always showcased exactly what's so fantastic about this part of the world: the produce, the wine, the slow, harmonious, beachy way of life. Under new chef Jeremy Fox, the restaurant continues to honor all those things. But it's also become a vehicle for Fox to flaunt his considerable talents, and it's the place in Santa Monica right now where we're most excited to eat. The menu may not look that different from other modern farm-to-table spots, but Fox's light touch and masterful use of seasonal produce puts it way out ahead of the pack. A silky cream of sunchoke soup has its sweetness amplified with touches of coffee and fennel pollen; his clam and mussel pozole verde manages to sing a clear, bright note of acid while also being comforting and hearty. This is a chef who has attracted attention over the years for all sorts of reasons — one gets the feeling that right now, in this moment, that attention is because he's finally doing exactly what he's best at, with no constraints. 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-393-7050.
See also: Rustic Canyon review