Whether it’s the world-famous façade that greets millions of visitors to the Santa Monica Pier each year or the memory of an iconic seafood shack to locals, the Lobster restaurant which was originally opened in 1923 by the Castillo family is as much a part of Santa Monica’s history as the pier itself.
Dishwasher-turned-owner, Mateo Castillo took the helm in 1950, feeding strolling tourists and retirees who found themselves at the final stop of the western conclusion of Route 66 near Santa Monica Blvd. for decades. But the fading fish market shuttered in 1985, not long after the historic pounding El Nino of 1982-83 tore off a 400-foot section of the Santa Monica Pier, leaving locals in a state of fear of its fate.
The shack sat empty until a group of a dozen investors, including the Roberts family behind Topanga Fish Market and Reel Inn up the road on Pacific Coast Highway , put together a partnership to secure the site and build a bigger, brasher seafood restaurant. The new Lobster was built on two levels cantilevered out to take in a 180-degree view of sea and sand, reopening in 1999.
About two years ago they brought on the talents of famed Angeleno chef Govind Armstrong, a longtime advocate of food sustainability, responsibly and locally farmed ingredients. The Inglewood-born Top Chef raised in Costa Rica has been mentored by the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Mark Peel and Susan Feniger and is breathing new life into an ever-evolving menu.
“It’s a magical unicorn and a special place to come and work,” Armstrong tells L.A. Weekly in the twinkling dining room overlooking the Ferris wheel on a cold and rainy night. “I want to challenge the customer a little more. We’ve been having a lot of success with the octopus that we run, and we just got in some live sea urchin from Santa Barbara this afternoon. And of course the California spiny lobsters just sell themselves. It’s a real treat to have such a hyper local product from 45 minutes away coming in here alive and kicking. It’s just us having fun back there.”
Having fun alongside Armstrong in the kitchen are staff that have been there for the duration including sous chefs who have been there 20 years and line cooks who have been there for 18 years. What was once 900-square-foot ripe fish shack is now a big place without feeling big.
“I had just gotten my certification in massage therapy and I was ready to leave the restaurant industry when my roommate’s cousin was playing volleyball down by the pier and met one of the owners of The Lobster,” Director of Sales and Marketing Lynne Thomas tells L.A. Weekly. “ They were looking for a restaurant manager. I interviewed in the architect’s office – the restaurant wasn’t completely built yet – and was hired on the spot. To this day I still have my massage table, but never got a chance to try it out.”
Whether you find yourself sitting next to a Los Angeles legend like Carolina Winston Barrie, direct descendant to Arcadia Bandini who owned the original Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica, or a young Asian tourist couple who just ordered three of Armstrong’s Santa Barbara uni, the Lobster feels like home to everyone.
“This is the spot that I would always come to and bring my daughter,” says Armstrong, father of three. “Any time we went to the beach we’d always come here because of the consistency of the food and the service was always on point. It never felt like a tourist trap to me. The location is totally deceiving and has always been a draw for locals. You just can’t get this view anywhere.”