Where To Eat When You’re Trapped On Third Street Promenade
How to make sense of the scariest three blocks in Santa Monica.
Santa Monica is a lovely city. There are sandy beaches, tree-lined streets, and a subconscious understanding that you’re never too far from Reese Witherspoon. But behind all the sunny bliss lies a chaotic monster—The Third Street Promenade.
The three-block-long pedestrian mall in downtown Santa Monica is home to chain restaurants and clothing stores that exist everywhere else in America, and for that reason alone, tourists go crazy for it. And as much as we try otherwise, every Angeleno ends up here at some point. So whether you’re appeasing extended family on vacation or fixing your MacBook, here are some restaurants that’ll make it all (slightly) less excruciating.
photo credit: Matt Gendal
There are so many manic tourists on The Promenade that, after a while, you’ll begin to completely dissociate and let the crowd take over your movements. Go regain bodily autonomy at Le Purépecha. This casual Mexican restaurant is only about four blocks from The Promenade, but feels like a clean break from the chaos. The bright, casual space is filled almost entirely with people who live in the area and the food is both reasonably priced and delicious. Go for the tacos—they’re our favorite in Santa Monica—which are made with handmade corn tortillas sturdy enough to support generous scoops of meat, guacamole, cilantro, and onions.
Your direction-averse cousin insisted on waking up early to see the sunrise over the ocean, only to realize that’s not possible here. Now, it’s 7:45am and you’re slumped over outside a Philz Coffee wondering why you have such a hard time saying “no” to people. Go heal yourself at Interstellar. The fusion-y Korean American restaurant is open all day, but we particularly love it for breakfast because you can walk right in. They serve everything from waffles to breakfast sandos, but we’re partial to the smoky, spicy chilaquiles.
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photo credit: Matt Gendal
One would assume an area that overlooks the ocean would have rooftop pool restaurants on every corner, but downtown Santa Monica proves otherwise. Luckily, there’s still Calabra. Perched atop the Santa Monica Proper Hotel, this splashy Mediterranean restaurant has an indoor lounge, poolside patio, and curved couches that you can rent out for more privacy. The music is loud and people are definitely dressed up, but the atmosphere is fun and breezy, and the Mediterranean-leaning food is really good. Get the steak kebab and any dip that’s calling your name.
photo credit: Berbere
Unless you’re in the mood for yogurt smoothies and pre-frozen acai bowls, lunch can be a trying time on The Promenade. Berbere makes things more interesting. This counter-service vegan spot serves Ethiopian twists that’ll have you returning again and again like a mama bird to its nest. Our usual order is the Eat The Rainbow combo, which comes with a few rolls of injera. The red lentil and turmeric garbanzo stews are creamy and rich, while the purple cabbage with potatoes and sautéed greens smells like a well-stocked spice cabinet. The next time your visiting great-aunt claims vegan food equals bland, bring them here.
photo credit: Jakob Layman
An affordable dinner on The Promenade usually means closing your eyes inside a food court and hoping for something that's at least room temperature. Colapasta is certainly an upgrade from that. This neighborhood spot on 5th St. serves tremendous pasta in big portions, at prices that feel like a bargain given the area (everything is generally $20 or under). Our top picks include their classic beef ragu lasagna and beet ravioli in brown butter.
photo credit: The Misfit
The Misfit Restaurant & Bar
Turns out there is a limit to how many children on leashes you can handle in one day, and you hit it within five minutes of being at The Promenade. Time to go take the edge off at The Misfit. The American gastropub is a time-tested standby with good bar food, a low-key space mostly devoid of tourists, and one of the best Happy Hours in the area. Running daily until 7pm, all cocktails, spirits, and glasses are half-off—an ideal excuse to stop in for a quick drink and mentally skewer other people’s parenting skills.
You just watched a preschooler vomit rainbow sherbet into a water fountain, and suddenly, you’re feeling nostalgic. Time to head to HiHo for a classic American cheeseburger. This local fast-casual chain serves a very straightforward burger (bun, lettuce, onion, pickles, meat, and cheese) that hardly tastes ordinary. With quality toppings and patties made from mustard-grilled wagyu beef, this is a balanced burger that’s still one of our favorites in the city.
photo credit: Holly Liss
Esters Wine Shop & Bar
It’s been a good 40 minutes since you’ve seen your two teenage sons, and at this point, you don’t care. Go wait out their eventual phone call with a glass of wine and some charcuterie at Esters. The casual wine and cheese bar on 7th St. is best known as the place you hang out until your table’s ready at Cassia next door, but it's worth a visit on its own. Their wine list is strong, the bar snacks are way better than they need to be, and there’s a front patio ideal for scolding 14-year-olds who just had their first Juul experience.
photo credit: Kate Previte
KazuNori Santa Monica
You thought you were well-versed in the trappings of The Promenade, but a work interview brought you down here today, and you're still stunned by the madness. Go make the most of it at KazuNori. This handroll-only spot from the Sugarfish people can certainly get swamped during peak rush, but if you’re able to sneak in before or after the crowds die down, you’ll be treated to a relatively calm atmosphere and the best rolls for the price in Santa Monica.
Cha Cha Chicken
You’re almost positive a street magician just killed a bird during his act and now you’ve got a hankering for chicken. The only move is Cha Cha Chicken. The classic order-at-the-window Caribbean jerk spot is one of our favorite casual meals in Santa Monica and home to a patio that’s always on the verge of becoming a full-out party. One of the most lenient BYOB policies in town probably has something to do with that.
Big Dean's Ocean Front Cafe
If California ever designates a historic district for mediocre sports bars, downtown Santa Monica will be where it happens. That said, there are a few of them worth going to, such as Big Dean’s. The classic bar right on the Santa Monica boardwalk is one of those places that, on paper, couldn’t possibly be a good time, but somehow always ends up being exactly what you want. The crowd is mostly local, there are two patios perfect for sprawling out and getting some sun, and their burger is our favorite on the beach.
Even if you just moved to Santa Monica to pursue your dream of posting highly curated beach photos on social media, Bay Cities is a place you’ve heard about. And rightfully so. This Italian deli and grocer has been around since 1925, and is home to one of the most famous sandwiches on the West Coast: The Godmother. This salami, capicola, ham, mortadella, and prosciutto-topped behemoth is a cold-cut masterpiece and one of the few upsides to being anywhere near The Promenade. Tip: Lines are always bad here, so just call-in your order ahead of time and jump to the front.
You just mouthed off to a child wearing an Elsa dress and you’re not even out of the parking ramp yet. Stop what you’re doing and go right to Wexler’s. This Jewish deli has only been around since 2014, but is one of our go-to spots for great pastrami. The MacArthur Park (an ode to Langer’s famous #19) comes topped with coleslaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, and is the exact kind of comfort you need right now. That and the chocolate babka you’re definitely getting on your way out.
photo credit: Jakob Layman
Tar & Roses
Thanks to being stuck on the 4th/5th Street off-ramp for 45 minutes, you completely missed the start of your movie at the AMC. Text your friends you’ll meet them afterward and go find a seat at the bar at Tar & Roses. This American/California/Whatever spot has been open since 2012, but is still one of the most consistently great dinner spots in the neighborhood. The menu covers a lot of ground, but whether it’s oxtail dumplings, mushrooms with soft eggs, or a strawberry ricotta crostata dessert, this is food that will easily fill the void of missing Fast And The Furious 27: We Drive Minivans Now.