There are two types of people who live in LA: Westsiders, and everyone else. The unofficial capital of the Westside is Santa Monica, a part of town that’s happy to lean into every insult you can throw at it. Sure, there are tourists everywhere and plenty of people who don’t seem to have jobs and spend a lot of time at the farmer’s market, but those are two groups of people who are probably pretty happy with their life choices. And from the dads who wear head-to-toe Lululemon to the babies who are trendier than you are, one thing remains a commonality - everyone eats extremely well.
Whatever your opinion may be of this beach town, there’s no denying the quality of food in Santa Monica is ridiculously high. 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.
A 21-course tasting menu in a tiny room inside of a food court on the Promenade sounds like a not-very-funny joke. But Dialogue manages to be one of the least-pretentious tasting menus we’ve experienced. The meal will run you in the high three figures, but you’ll get to chat with the very friendly chef as you eat the inventive, unusual, and extremely delicious food. This is a place where you should go all-in, so ask for a seat at the chef’s counter, add on one of the wine pairings, and have a bunch of fun eating some outstanding food you’ll never encounter anywhere else.
Huckleberry isn’t just our favorite bakery in Santa Monica, it’s one of our favorite places on the Westside, period. The order-at-the-counter menu reads like a greatest hits of comfort food, with fried egg sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, chilaquiles, and meatball subs that are better than most. You will encounter a line, but it will be worth it.
Rustic Canyon has been doing farm-to-table dining (without the pretension or white tablecloths) since before it was cliche. Like every other seasonal spot, their menu changes all the time, so go ahead and embrace eating those vegetables you can only find for one week of the year. Your parents, out-of-towners you’re trying to impress, and early-in-the-game dates will all love it here.
Tumbi is a restaurant you wouldn’t expect to find in such close proximity to the Third Street Promenade, but you should play a game of dodge-the-tourist for some excellent modern Indian street food. To start, order some pani puri (they involve rosewater shots), and then move onto the dosa and the Patagonian toothfish masala to share. It’s beer and wine only, and the list isn’t long, so you might want to pick up a bottle of wine on your way in if you’re willing to pay corkage. This is a perfect low-key dinner.
You’ll find more Italian restaurants in Santa Monica than you will in some parts of Italy, so Cassia’s French-Southeast Asian food is a very welcome change. It’s also fantastic, and served in a huge space will instantly make you feel like you’re on vacation. It’s also a great place for an impromptu date - put your name down, and go next door to Esters for a couple of glasses of wine while you wait. Once you’ve got your spot on the patio, make sure you order the kaya toast at both ends of the meal.
The only problem with the original Wexler’s in Grand Central Market was 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 might be a wine bar but it isn’t one of those stuffy ones filled with people swirling glasses and talking about tannins. This is more a place where you can hang out at the bar or one of the patio tables, pick a wine from the list or a bottle off the shelves, order a few things to eat, and end up having one of the better casual dinners on the Westside.
Do not trust anyone who says the Father’s Office burger isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. Or that the no substitutions make it terrible. Those people are liars. This tiny bar on Montana Ave has been around since the 1940s and is easily one of the best burgers in town. First dates and out-of-town friends will always be impressed here.
If the blue cheese and lack of ketchup at Father’s Office strikes fear into your heart, HiHo is probably more your style. But really, HiHo is pretty much anyone’s style. The burgers are simple and plain delicious - the crispy patties come sandwiched between toasted buns with lettuce, pickles, cheese, and onion jam. Expect a bit of a wait, especially around office lunch hour, but you’ve waited longer in an In-N-Out line, and these are better.
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.
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 Bay Cities’ famous 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 excellent.
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 reds. Their garlic knot (basically pizza dough stuffed with a ton of oil and garlic and fired on the same oven as the pizza) is a Westside legend.
It’s not like Montana Ave. (or Santa Monica as a whole) needed another Italian restaurant, but at least this one won’t put you right to sleep. There may not be anything on the menu here you haven’t eaten before, but Bigoli really does nail the classics, like handkerchief pasta with pesto and a great veal scallopine. The tiny space is always full of locals who are happy to pay Montana Ave. prices for a relatively low-key Italian meal.
Michael’s is the almost-middle-aged mainstay of Santa Monica. Like plenty of 37-year-olds, it’s gone through a few stages (some of which were a bit boring), but good news: Michael’s is 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.
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. This one is between the ocean and the Promenade in Santa Monica, and alongside that burger, they serve 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 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.
Every neighborhood needs a Sugarfish. The Santa Monica location is 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.
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.
Your nieces are in town, you just spent two hours at Forever 21, and if you don’t get off the Promenade quickly, someone’s going to have a meltdown and it’s probably you. North Italia is a giant Italian restaurant on 2nd St. with food that will keep both you and the monsters related to you very happy. They can splatter their new clothes with spaghetti and meatballs while you calmly sip Pinot Grigio and remind yourself that they normally live on the other side of the country.
Forma is the coolest dinner option on Montana Ave. and good for everything from a group dinner to a meal with parents. Pasta and cheese are what you should be ordering at Forma. Keep an eye out for the “cheese scraper,” who dunks all the pastas into a giant block of cheese for mixing before they’re 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. The Super Mule burrito is great, but so is 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.
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 $135 and the tasting menu option will put even more of a dent in your pocket. Despite the stuffy facade, the food here is great, and the atmosphere is more fun than you’d expect.
There seems to have been some sort of city-wide ordinance passed that every corner of Los Angeles needs to have its own Australian cafe, and Bondi Harvest is Santa Monica’s. It does all the things we now expect of our Australian establishments: excellent coffee, very good breakfasts, and plenty of people saying things like “no worries” and “how’s it going, mate?”.
Not only are 99% of the restaurants on this strip of Ocean Blvd overpriced, but also a full BYOB policy is basically a myth. Cha Cha Chicken’s patio is a Caribbean-themed oasis where you can bring a six-pack or a whole handle of tequila to enjoy after the beach. You shouldn’t really need a reason to eat spicy jerk chicken in a tropical setting, but Cha Cha is especially great for big group dinners, early-in-the-game dates, or lunch near the promenade that doesn’t make you want to die inside.
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 atmosphere, 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 knockoff 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.