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 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.
You won’t find many places near the Promenade on this guide, mostly because unless you’re a tourist, very interested in shopping at Brandy Melville, or a regular at the Farmer’s Market, you avoid the area at all costs. But you should make the exception to go to Hiho. You won’t mind that you just drove all the way to the top of a parking structure with no spaces left just to eat a perfect, simple burger with fries and a slice of pie for less than $15. That’s way cheaper than a “one-size-fits-all” shirt from Brandy Melville.
There are special occasion restaurants you use for when you got a promotion or it’s your best friend’s birthday. And then there are special occasion restaurants for when you inherit your grandfather’s priceless Hummel figurine collection. Dialogue is for the latter. You enter the small room with a handful of tables and a kitchen counter through a food court on the Promenade and end up eating 21 courses of inventive, delicious food that will set you back about $700 for two. Good thing you sold that Apple Tree Boy for $10,000.
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.
The food at Via Veneto is, in a way, background food - and we mean that as a compliment. All the Italian classics here are fantastic, it’s just that you won’t be talking about them all through dinner, mostly because you’ll be having too much fun. This place knows how to do atmosphere with white tablecloths, servers who are probably talking about you in Italian as they serve you, and great music. The crowd is a mix of couples who’ve been eating here every Friday night for 15 years and people having four-hour birthday dinners. Sure, it’s expensive here, but after a few bottles of celebratory prosecco, the pricepoint will fade into the background too.
You just saw a guy with a snake wrapped around his neck near the pier, and now you need somewhere quiet (with wine) to help you process that experience. Tumbi is pleasantly calm, and happens to be a place where you can eat some pretty great Indian food and drink good wine. It’s casual and inexpensive, and you should absolutely order the Patagonian toothfish masala, even though it is the priciest thing on the menu (at $29).
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 a modern space that gives you a reason to be in this part of town. 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.
Santa Monica has a bunch of super-casual restaurants and a bunch of very fancy restaurants, but not a whole lot of places that fall in the middle. Little Prince is a newer option that fills the gap, and manages not to be boring while doing so. This Main St. spot is nice for a casual date or a catch-up friend dinner, with good cocktails and a menu of things like salmon rillette and octopus roasted in a wood-fired oven. Always order things from wood-fired ovens.
It’s hard to tell if this Italian restaurant is good because Rihanna and George Clooney eat here or if Rihanna and George Clooney eat here because it’s good. Either way, you can count on people paying too much money for fantastic burrata and very good agnolotti, just on the off-chance that George will be at the next table. Obviously, it’s expensive at this Pacific Palisades-adjacent spot, but it’s a perfect option for a special occasion meal where you might catch Dustin Hoffman taking a sambuca shot.
If you’re looking for the romantic candle-lit atmosphere of Giorgio Baldi without the collection of paparazzi out front, try Delfini across the street. This Italian place is a little less expensive and a little more low-key. You might accidentally eat the entire bread basket before the food comes, but don’t - you’re going to want to make room for every last bite of your fettuccine bolognese or veal chop milanese. Reservations aren’t necessary, but it’s a place that always feels just the right amount of busy.
Some days, you want to pretend you spent the day on a beach in a Hawaii instead of at your desk in a snuggie because there’s an office civil war happening regarding the thermostat. On those days, you should have dinner at Shaka Shack. This little burger place on Ocean Park looks just like a touristy restaurant in Honolulu, which would be annoying if you were actually in Hawaii, but is kind of charming in Santa Monica. The burgers are solid (get the Shaka Royale), the fries are good, and the owners are both grumpy and extremely nice at the same time.
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.
There are many things Solidarity has going for it, like the old-school Polish food, the nice patio in back, and the $12 sausage platter you can get during Happy Hour (which goes from 5-7pm). It’s a family-run spot, with a crowd of locals on kind-of-boozy dates eating plates of pierogies. So, you’ll forgive the place for being on Lincoln, which will inevitably force you to sit in traffic on Lincoln.
You go to Lula’s when you want to eat a lot of very solid Mexican food and drink fresh margaritas on a bright patio that the Pier tourists haven’t discovered yet. This is a fun cantina where you will eat an entire order of fajitas to yourself and might consider slurping the complimentary salsa with a straw. Fill a booth with friends before a night out or come with a date on a weeknight - just know that one margarita here is powerful enough to make you click purchase on everything that’s been sitting in your Amazon cart since 2014. Plus, they have a great Happy Hour with food and drinks from 1-5pm on weekends and until 6pm during the week.
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.
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.
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.
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.