There are two types of people who live in LA: Westsiders and everyone else. And the capital of the Westside? That would be Santa Monica. The most polarizing place in all of LA, Santa Monica is very much its own city, with a population that will defend it at all costs. Everyone assumes these people are either yuppie losers, tech nerds, or wannabe hipsters who only shop at Steven Alan, and that might all be correct. But they all have one thing in common – they eat extremely well.
Whatever your opinion may be of this beach town, there’s no denying Santa Monica’s food game is ridiculously strong. Even in the shadows of the tourist death-traps that are Third Street Promenade and The Pier, some of the best restaurants in all of Los Angeles continue to open and thrive here. Here’s the best of the best in LA’s city by the sea.
Huckleberry isn’t just our favorite bakery in Santa Monica, it’s one of our favorite places on the Westside, period. The menu reads like a greatest hits of comfort food - fried egg sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, chilaquiles - that are about as good as you’ll find. You will encounter a line, but it will be worth it.
The only problem with the original Wexler’s in Grand Central Market is that we had to deal with Grand Central Market in order to eat there. But since this second location opened - far enough away from the Promenade to make it not hell on earth - we’ve found ourselves eating a lot more egg and lox bagels and pastrami than we used to.
Esters isn’t the stuffy kind of wine bar filled with pretentious people swirling glasses and talking about tannins. Obviously you can drink some good grape juice here, but order a charcuterie plate and the lamb meatballs and you’ve got the makings of one of the better casual dinners on the Westside.
Belcampo is a place for the kind of virtuous meal we can get behind - one that actually tastes good. All the meat at this meat-heavy restaurant comes from Belcampo’s own farms where, we’re assured, everything lived a happy life before it landed on your plate. The food is high-quality bistro stuff, and the setting works just as well for a casual after-work dinner as it does for lunch with the grandparents.
Whether or not you’ve realized it, Plan Check is slowly taking over the city one excellent burger at a time, and we are not at all mad about it. The newest Plan Check is between the ocean and the promenade in Santa Monica and alongside that burger, they’re doing a bunch of location-appropriate (and exclusive) seafood dishes. So next time you’re in the mood for lobster pot pie with a side of chowder fries (yep, they’re exactly what you’re imagining - fries with clams on top), you know where to go.
Way off the Santa Monica tourist track is Ocean Park, a little neighborhood that feels like people actually live there. And all those people seem to be having dinner at Local Kitchen + Wine. The menu here is full of crowd-pleasers - meatballs, fried calamari, and some tasty thin-crust pizzas all make appearances. It’s the kind of easy neighborhood spot you can drop in on when you forgot it was supposed to be date night and want it to seem like you had a great plan all along.
Farm-to-table dining without the cheesiness, Rustic Canyon is an upscale dining experience minus the white table clothes and pretension. Like every other seasonal spot, their menu changes all the time, so go and embrace that vegetable you can’t pronounce. Your parents, out of towners you’re trying to impress, and early in the game dates will all love it here.
Cassia got a lot of hype when it first opened. Our verdict? Worth it. The space is like nothing else that exists in this neighborhood and the crowd is as attractive as Craig’s in Beverly Hills, but not in an obnoxious way. If you don’t have a rez but are willing to wait for a spot on their patio, Esters is right next door for a glass of wine while you wait.
Michael’s is the almost-middle-aged mainstay of Santa Monica. Like plenty of 37-year-olds, they’ve gone through a few stages (some of which were a bit boring), but with a new chef who’s younger than the actual restaurant, Michael’s is suddenly interesting again. The back garden patio is an excellent place to be and the seasonal menu runs the gamut from an Asian-ish duck confit that comes with a spicy rice porridge to ricotta gnudi with lamb sausage. Turns out getting old(er) isn’t so bad.
Milo and Olive is king when it comes to pizza in Santa Monica and everyone knows it. People line up for their perfectly wood-fired crusts and wine list that’s loaded with Italian red. Their garlic knot (basically pizza dough stuffed with a ton of oil and garlic and fired on the same oven as the pizza) is legendary on this side of the LA world.
Unlike almost every other restaurant ever, Tar & Roses has actually gotten better with age, and feels like it’s been around much longer than it actually has. It’s the sort of place that can be as casual or formal as you need it to be, with a menu that’s perfect for sharing. The oxtail dumplings are non-negotiable.
Tell anyone in the LA area that you’re eating in Santa Monica and they’ll be like, “Oh sh*t, can you bring me a Godmother?” And unless you’ve been living under a rock you know that they’re not asking you for a new family member - they’re asking you for a sandwich: Bay Cities’ famous Godmother Italian meat sandwich. This family-run Italian deli does make one of the best sandwiches in the city, but you should also know that their meatballs are no joke.
Because it’s so much better than Sushi Roku and every neighborhood needs a Sugarfish. It’s basically like every other Sugarfish you’ve been to but tries to pretend like it’s not on the Promenade. Tourists hitting up Zara need their Trust Mes, too.
Do not trust anyone who says the Father’s Office burger isn’t as good as people claim. Or that the no substitutions make it terrible. Those people are liars. This tiny bar on Montana Ave has been around since the 1940’s and is almost always mentioned as one of the best burgers in town. First dates and out-of-town friends will always be impressed here.
Sweetfin is the best of what the Santa Monica poké scene has to offer. If you’re a first-timer, we suggest you go with one of their eight suggested signature bowls or if you’re feeling confident in your poke mixing skills, go with the build-your-own option. (We always add heavy fried garlic.) One visit to Sweetfin and it will quickly become a staple in your lunchtime (and possibly dinner) rotation.
If you’re not 90 years old or looking to pick up a 90-year-old rich old dude, but you do want to eat a meal on Montana Ave., Forma is your spot. It’s the youngest (and dare we say coolest) option on the whole street and good for those nights when you’re meeting a group for dinner, or an early in the game date, or even dinner with your parents. Pasta and cheese are what you should be ordering at Forma. Keep an eye out for the “cheese scraper” who dunks all pastas into a giant block of cheese for mixing before being delivered to the table.
Gilbert’s is where you go when you are severely hungover and want to experience the kind of Mexican food that makes you feel euphoric joy, shame, and regret in a matter of minutes. We are huge fans of their Super Mule burrito and pretty much everything else on their menu. It’s also important to know they serve breakfast seven days a week. (See: good for a hangover.) Out-of-towners looking to experience “good” Mexican food will return home talking about Gilbert’s.
Melisse1104 Wilshire Blvd
Melisse is the OG of the Santa Monica white-tablecloth fine dining establishments and serves appropriately fancy French food. And by fancy we mean expensive: a four-course meal here will set you back at least $145 and the tasting menu option will put even more of a dent in your pocket. Despite the seeming stuffiness, the food here is great, and the vibe is more fun than you’d expect.
We love this casual Caribbean spot for its BYO policy and spicy jerk chicken. Anyone who’s familiar with this stretch of Ocean Blvd in Santa Monica knows that not only are 99% of the restaurants overpriced, but a BYO policy is basically a myth. You should hit up Cha Cha Chicken for big group dinners, first/early in the game dates, lunch near the promenade, or pretty much anytime you’re in the mood for spicy jerk chicken and tropical vibes.
Via Veneto is like an old, distinguished gentleman on Santa Monica’s Main street, but one that not necessarily everyone knows. It’s one of those places that people say “I’ve never been but I hear it’s incredible.” It is. But it’s also quite expensive, so plan accordingly. The old- school charm, romantic vibes, and truly authentic Italian menu make it a Santa Monica mainstay.
Looking for sushi that isn’t Sugarfish? Noma is her name. Noma’s got everything from extreme tempura rolls to a miso cod that rivals Nobu. (Well, maybe not rivals but it’s the best Nobu knock-off miso cod you’ll find.) Apart from being an inexpensive alternative to Sugarfish, Noma is a great sushi lunch spot or place for dinner if you’re planning on an extreme night of karaoke at The Gaslite across the street.