If you’ve ever been to Paris without doing enough research, this situation might sound familiar: you’re looking for a great dinner spot, but every restaurant looks the same - blue or green awning, wicker chairs on a patio, and identical menus on chalkboards. You have no choice but to pick one at random and hope for the best. Chances are, you wandered into another tourist trap and you’re about to pay too much money for some cheese on a plate.
Why are we talking about Paris in a guide about Santa Monica? Because Santa Monica has a similar problem, except instead of every restaurant looking like a quaint French bistro, you’re bombarded with the words “farm to table” and “small plates” and surrounded by people pitching their meditation-slash-dating apps. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up eating boring octopus at an empty promenade-adjacent restaurant.
So we’ve done the research for you. Whether you’re looking for a casual after-work dinner or a more upscale date spot, here are all the dinner spots in Santa Monica that won’t make you sad.
Cassia is a newer member of the mini-empire comprised of Huckleberry, Rustic Canyon, Milo and Olive, and just about every other Santa Monica restaurant. The modern Vietnamese food here is fantastic (get the pot au feu and the grilled pork belly vermicelli) and so is the space, which is pretty much always filled. Expect a wait, because everyone working in Downtown Santa Monica is heading here for a cool work dinner. But you can always head next door to Esters for some wine and cheese - just don’t get too full, because you’re going to want to finish all those curries.
Montana Avenue is like the most popular member of your grandma’s Bridge club: loves to flaunt her wealth, and knows too much about everyone in the neighborhood. She’s not exactly your ideal dinner guest, just like Montana is not your ideal dinner destination. But Forma is here to change that - this Italian restaurant is a newer, modern space worth traveling north for. The small plates are great across the board, the cheese and charcuterie list is extensive, and the pastas are tossed in a cheese wheel for extra flavor. Just like that time Ethel casually told you about her stint in a traveling circus, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much fun you can have at Forma.
This Santa Monica institution serves one of LA’s classic burgers in a tiny, dark room that overflows with people while the rest of Montana Avenue is asleep. You might have to hover over some other diners while you wait to grab their spot, but in the meantime there’s a fantastic beer selection to choose from and plenty of people to mingle with. You can also just get your meal to go if you want some solid comfort food without the crowds - just don’t let it travel too far, because you will end up with a soggy burger. And that is the opposite of comfort food.
Like any 38-year-old, Michael’s has had its ups and downs. The restaurant was the place to be back in the 1980s, but it’s been slow to change with the times - the food is a little on the heavy, traditional side (although it’s been getting better recently). But Michael’s gets a spot on this list because of its patio. The outdoor-ish dining situation feels like you’re eating at a grown-up Rainforest Cafe, with ferns and lights and wildlife noises. It’s possible we’re imagining that last one. If you’re looking for a more upscale choice for dinner with your parents, make a reservation at Michael’s.
Library Alehouse is a solid choice for an easy Main Street dinner, especially if you’re a beer person. There’s good American food, and generally less of the rowdy Main Street atmosphere. The beer list is enormous and constantly changing, and they even have a live feed of their beer list on their website that definitely belongs on a list of pointless live feeds. This is a good place to go with friends for some burgers and fries on a weeknight.
You know those dates you go on when you’ve been together for years? They’re casual but still fun, you don’t have to try too hard, and you pretty much know what to expect. Local Kitchen is exactly like one of those dates. It’s a neighborhood restaurant on Ocean Park, just far enough away from Main Street and Abbot Kinney so as not to be filled with tourists and food bloggers looking for the next big trendy restaurant and/or angel wings mural. Local has solid pizza and pasta dishes, a great wine list, and groups of friends (and comfortable couples) enjoying predictably good weeknight dinners.
At this point, if a Santa Monica restaurant isn’t doing weird things with farmer’s market ingredients, it might as well pack up and leave. But just like you learned the hard way in high school, being unique in a way that works is pretty difficult. Avoid disappointment and make a reservation at Rustic Canyon, the restaurant that does the whole fresh/interesting combination thing really well. Expect to eat (and thoroughly enjoy) dishes like chicken liver mousse with berries, squid with lemon and mint, and something called a sand dab. Add a lively but not loud atmosphere and some stellar cocktails, and you’ve got yourself a pretty perfect date spot.
Here’s one reason to go to Downtown Santa Monica. Plan Check is the perfect first date spot: casual but not sloppy, excellent food, and an atmosphere that’s fun, but where you can still hear yourselves talk. Even if you’re not taking someone out, Plan Check is a great place for a dinner with friends or coworkers, or even solo. The space is big, so you’ll usually be able to get a table - which is good, because you’ll have spent an hour searching for parking. Get the Smokey Fried Jidori chicken or any of their location-specific seafood dishes, and save room for the cruller donuts.
Being at Melisse feels like you’re eating at a restaurant in Paris in the 1920s, except instead of authors and surrealists, you’re surrounded by studio executives and Instagram models who are about to get proposed to. The space is all white tablecloths and heavy chairs, where you sit and enjoy an expensive ($135 per person without alcohol) prix fixe French menu. The food comes in ridiculously small portions, but the good news is it’s all really excellent and unlike any French food you’ve had before.
Tar & Roses is Rustic Canyon’s cousin who just got a motorcycle. It has the same focus on fresh ingredients and shared plates, but with a more industrial feel, and also more meat. This restaurant works for pretty much any dinner situation - you can have a slightly nicer weeknight meal here, or make the most of the low-lit interior with a first date. The menu has lots of unique plates to share (get the oxtail dumplings and the bone marrow) and a solid wine list. Tar & Roses has been open for over five years and it’s still tricky to get a Friday night reservation, so clearly they’re doing something right.
All of Belcampo’s meat-centric dishes are from animals that were treated well, so if you want your cow to have run around in a meadow before you eat it, this place might be perfect for you. Hidden behind a butcher shop, this is a sit-down restaurant with full service, lots of whiskey, and a very solid menu. While the interior is pretty casual, the prices are high - a burger is $18, and the steak is almost $40. You gotta pay for all that pasture. Still, Belcampo makes for a great date night, or a night when you just want some very good meat.
Some days require pizza. There are infinite reasons for wanting to shove dough and cheese into your mouth - but if you’re in Santa Monica, your options are limited. Don’t think, just head straight to Milo & Olive. Their pizza toppings range from classic to unique options like stone fruit and bacon, but pretty much any choice will be good. Also, get the garlic knots. The space is bright and casual and there are plenty of wines to choose from, so at the very least, you can wash down your sadness with something other than the old Coronas in your fridge.
Gilbert’s is classic, accessible Mexican food served in a festive space that makes for a great night out. You won’t find any new takes on Mexican here - what you will find are huge, delicious burritos, excellent tacos, and strong margaritas. Bring people you know won’t judge you for having mole dripping down your chin. You’ll be too busy slipping into a food coma to care.
If you need dinner plans post-beach, head for Tallula’s, a modern and not-totally-authentic Mexican restaurant just off PCH. You and your group can enjoy some strong margaritas and small plates in a colorful, loud atmosphere that’s usually packed with groups of people also downing too many cocktails. The food here is expensive but solid, especially the fish tacos and the duck confit chilaquiles.
We’re not going to tell you to drive across town for this restaurant, but if you’re in the area and feel like some old-school Italian food, head to Osteria Bigoli. Here, you can get some better-than-average fresh pasta dishes (albeit at Montana Avenue prices) in an intimate but lively space. This place is typically filled with regulars, so it might feel like you’re intruding on someone else’s dinner party - but the service and atmosphere is friendly enough that you’ll quickly feel part of the club.