Santa Monica, the city famous for its beaches and shopping, its healthy residents and fantastic quality of life, is not quite as renowned for its restaurants. Yet there are a ton of great places to eat, if you 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 warrant the drive — or, soon, the train ride! — to the beach.
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 into that small space along with all those people. This being the Westside, you also can get healthier renditions of street food: Order a tofu taco with some lemon habanero sauce and enjoy the best of all worlds. -Besha Rodell 2311 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 917-2244, tacospuntacabras.com.
9. Water Grill Santa Monica
Apart from the view, the best reason to come to Water Grill in Santa Monica is the raw bar. There's a fantastic selection of oysters, and the iced shellfish platters both here and downtown are one of L.A.'s great treats. The smallest (dubbed "the Grand") is one of the few things on the menu that could be described as a bargain: For $39, you get four oysters, two cherrystone clams, two Peruvian scallops, six shrimp, six mussels, half a lobster and a smattering of periwinkles that you pry from their shells with tiny plastic picks. It's enough to satisfy two people easily, an affordable indulgence. Water Grill's greatest strength, the quality of its product, is evident here: sweet, tender lobster meat; fat, briny oysters; mussels and shrimp that pop with freshness. That freshness carries over to the rest of the menu, where you can order just about any type of fish or shellfish, prepared simply or as a composed dish. -BR 1401 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 394-5569, watergrill.com.
8. 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 strict. -BR 1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 736-2224, fathersoffice.com.
7. Milo & Olive
In the over four 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 handful of communal tables. 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 two giant pizza ovens that are the focal point of the open kitchen, the literal hearth warming the whole house. -BR 2723 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 453-6776, miloandolive.com.
6. Santa Monica Yacht Club
Add chef Andrew Kirschner to the short list of purveyors of West Coast–style seafood. If anything, his restaurant, the Santa Monica Yacht Club (known also as SMYC), is even more Californian than the Hungry Cat. There are no lobster rolls here; instead, there is lobster on toast. With burrata, of course. There's a midcentury nautical vibe to SMYC. And there is a lot that it borrows from Asia, borrows from Mexico, borrows from South America. Yet it all shares a common theme of colorful, bold flavor, an aesthetic that is certainly Kirschner's but also Southern California's. It's breezy and fun and, yes, almost too fashionable, but this chef in this town can get away with overt trendiness. It's a style of seafood restaurant we, as a region, can be proud to call our own. -BR 620 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 587-3330, eatsmyc.com.
5. Belcampo Meat Co.
Belcampo is notable as much for its revolutionary business model as it is for its food. Its owners operate a meat company of the same name, which means they control every aspect of the supply chain — the farming of the animals, the slaughtering process, the distribution and the sale to the consumer. Whether you’re buying Belcampo's cuts from its butcher counter or in one of their restaurants, rest assured these folks really know their meat — which is all very nice, though it would matter less if it weren’t for the fact that their product is also delicious. At Belcampo's Santa Monica outpost, in a large room with a serious cocktail bar, you can get tartare made from beef, lamb or goat, and giant steak dinners that vary from night to night in terms of cut and price. This is a restaurant that serves as a front for indoctrination: The higher-ups at Belcampo are betting on the fact that, once you taste meat of this quality cooked incredibly well, you’ll never go back to the cheap, mass-produced stuff again. They’re probably right. -BR 1026 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (424) 744-8008, belcampomeatco.com.
4. Tar & Roses
With Tar & Roses, chef Andrew Kirschner has done something quite rare: taken the food of the moment and elevated it beyond what we expect, beyond — probably — what he needs to do to keep the room packed (and it is very packed). Kirschner has a way with contrasts, on the vegetable portion of his menu and beyond. A serving of Jerusalem artichokes seems almost ludicrously generous in nature, dotted with goat cheese and showered with hazelnuts. It’s stunningly delicious. Crostini with sardines and lush avocado comes topped with fistfuls of cilantro and pickled onion for tang. Risks are taken, meats that other chefs have forsaken (such as venison and lamb heart) are prized and elevated here. In the restaurant’s two-year journey, it has become one of the most interesting, reliable and often thrilling places to eat in Santa Monica. -BR 602 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 587-0700, tarandroses.com.
It’s easy to become jaded about luxury fine dining, to forget the pleasures of eating in an elegant room with formal service (Captains! Sommeliers and assistant sommeliers! Runners who swoop in to drop food or bus your tables as if they’re performing ballet!). If the great things about dining in this manner have slipped your mind, it really is worth a trip to Mélisse, Josiah Citrin’s modern French restaurant, to refresh your memory. Here, you can revel in extravagances such as caviar service, or a tableside filleting of Dover sole, or carving of truffle-stuffed chicken, or Citrin’s “carte blanche” menu (available by request only), which spans 15 courses and will cost you a cool $275 per person. But even if you don’t have quite that much cash to throw around, it’s worth using the excuse of a special occasion to come here for one of the less extravagant tasting menus and see what Citrin is capable of — his soups so much silkier than anyone else’s, his sauces so much more refined. For being one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, Mélisse has an exceedingly reasonable wine list — don’t get me wrong, you can easily spend a month’s salary on booze here if you want, but there are treasures to be found on the lower end as well, and a staff that’s happy to guide you. For about double what you’d spend at many of our trendier eateries, you’ll leave with the warm glow of a rare experience, one that has been perfectly calibrated from the second you stepped through the door until you finish with the gorgeous plate of petit fours delivered with your check. -BR 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 395-0881, melisse.com.
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2. Rustic Canyon
Jeremy Fox is one of those chefs about whom other chefs gush, and Rustic Canyon is the restaurant where you’ll find many of those other chefs when there’s cause for celebration or need of inspiration. Since Fox teamed with Rustic Canyon’s owners, Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb, in 2013, the restaurant has gotten better and better, and Fox’s ideas seem to be more distilled than ever. There are longtime favorite dishes, such as the bright shellfish pozole verde, which is both soothing and exciting. But with each new visit, you’re bound to find something that spends only a few days on the menu and is as delightful as it is fleeting. The artistry of a recent olive oil–poached sturgeon with bok choy, chickpea panisse and smoked bone broth had us clutching our pearls in delight. If you don’t believe us, check out Fox’s gorgeous Instagram account for visual proof. -BR 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 393-7050, rusticcanyonwinebar.com.
The excellence of Cassia kind of sneaks up on you. The collaboration between Zoe Nathan, Josh Loeb and Bryant and Kim Ng may look and feel like just another trendy restaurant, and certainly there is a sense of taking all that’s fun about big, fashionable places and pouring those elements on thickly. But Cassia delivers so much more in the substance of the cuisine, so much more heart and flavor and ingenuity. Chef Bryant Ng has brought some of the sensibility that made his now-departed Spice Table such a favorite, but the context is slightly different. Here, he’s riffing on the interplay between French and Vietnamese cuisines, both the influences that are born of the historical French occupation of Vietnam and crossovers born of Ng’s imagination. Cassia is part grand brasserie and part modern Asian eating house. You can order a chilled seafood platter in various sizes, but rather than the tower of chilled crustacean bits that’s customary, you get a sampling of Ng’s cooked and raw cold seafood creations: a bowl of large prawns bathed in an aromatic Vietnamese hot sauce; smoked salmon dip topped with fresh salmon roe and served with grilled country bread; hunks of raw scallop in chile oil with tiny bits of ham and corn and gobs of fresh herbs; long spindly king crab legs cut lengthwise so the sweet meat is easy to access, topped with a lemongrass fish sauce and a flurry of shiso leaves. Other French/Vietnamese mashups, such as the pho-influenced pot-au-feu, are striking in their cleverness but also in just how well they sum up the aim of this restaurant: an elegant ode to what both Europe and Asia have taught us about deliciousness. -BR 1314 Seventh St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-6699, cassiala.com.