When it comes to Santa Monica nightlife, you generally think of three things: Hungry cougars prowling down Montana, wide-eyed tourists looking for a buzz on The Promenade, and hammered 22-year-olds stumbling their way around Main Street. For a town that’s not as big as people think, Santa Monica’s nightlife is vast. But unfortunately, most of it isn’t really worth your time.
However, for every dime-a-dozen sports bar with 20 dudes staring in silence at a Lakers game, there are two other spots down the block with actual activity happening inside. From throwback dives to cocktail bars on the beach, there’s real drinking to be done in Santa Monica. And here are the best places to do it.
It might not be fair to judge a book by its cover - but in the case of Big Dean’s, what you see is what you get. And that’s why we like it so much. Because even though this beachside sports bar is basically underneath the pier, it’s one of the few places where you’ll find actual Santa Monica locals hanging out this close to the tourists. Grab an excellent burger (an underrated LA classic) and a pitcher of beer, then head to their turf patio to watch whatever game is happening.
Esters Wine Shop & Bar
Esters is an all-purpose wine bar and restaurant directly next to Cassia (and also run by the same people) that’s perfect for a first date, a pre-dinner drink with a group, or getting some work done when you’re sick of coffee shops. In addition to a fantastic selection of wines by the bottle and glass, they also have a full bar - and excellent cocktails, like the LA-tini with gin, scotch, chartreuse, and jalapeño, and the only pisco sour you’ll ever want to drink again.
When it comes to Santa Monica bars, there’s a belief that it’s Chez Jay and everyone else. It’s hard to argue otherwise. Opened in 1959, this nautical-themed landmark (literally) is a one-of-a-kind watering hole where you can get a dangerously stiff drink and a 10 oz. butter steak all at the same time. There are peanut shells on the floor, a weird giant fish on the wall, and The Stones just came on the jukebox. If you want one of the last remaining authentic Santa Monica experiences, drop what you’re doing and head to this crazy shack by the water.
There are a whole bunch of run-of-the-mill sports bars in Santa Monica, where you’ll find Brentwood bros drinking Bud and watching college football. Sonny McLean’s is not one of those places. Or it’s at least a lot more than just one of those places. Sonny’s is a bit like walking through a portal three time zones east of here - there are characteristically surly bartenders, some great IPAs on tap, and extremely heavy pours. It’s a Boston bar, but unless you’re there during a huge game, no one is going to harass you for wearing a Dodgers or Kings hat (maybe leave the Kobe jersey at home, though).
The Gaslite remains one of Santa Monica’s best - and most authentic - places to cut loose. The name of the game at this den of debauchery is karaoke. Not to mention the free popcorn and a dance floor that gets wild in a hurry. So skip the scene and the long lines at a bar you don’t want to be at anyway, and go experience the dive bar of your dreams.
Santa Monica Brew Works
Santa Monica Brew Works is the only brewery in town not located in a mall, so they could probably just skate by on mediocrity - but they don’t. The beers are actually very good, and while the taproom is pretty standard for a brewery (a bunch of picnic tables, an industrial space, and some pictures of skateboarders on the wall), there’s a daily rotation of food trucks that help set it apart, and will undoubtedly help you spend way too many Saturdays here drinking session IPAs.
It’s not too difficult to find a bar with a tiki theme, or an Irish theme, or a “You can’t find the door so now it’s a speakeasy” theme. But a bar solely commemorating Charles Bukowski, the American poet, novelist, and legendary drinker? Santa Monica has one - and it’s excellent. Expect a dimly-lit, 1960’s-dive feel, with lots of tall boy cans, some pool tables, and plenty of Bukowski writings hanging on the walls for you and your friends to argue over.
Does Father’s Office have one of the best burgers in LA? You better believe it - and the bar’s not bad, either. Admittedly pretty claustrophobic during peak hours, the original location on Montana is a small, but nonetheless fantastic, place to get really beer drunk on a Saturday afternoon. The rotating craft beer list is solid and the people sipping them are unfairly attractive. The vibe is fun, casual, and laid-back. Oh, and did we mention there’s a burger?
The Library Alehouse
Located in the heart of the post-grad, Fireball-shot-consumption-zone that is Main Street, Library Bar is a craft beer oasis. A solid restaurant in its own right, Library also boasts a rotating lineup of more than 25 beers, and big-name tap takeovers on any given weekend. So if you’re in the mood for an IPA and a bison burger in relative peace, Library Bar is your one-stop Santa Monica shop.
While there’s no real formula for making a bar a success, The Craftsman sure seems close to cracking the code. For starters, there’s a four-hour Happy Hour every day that’s easily among the most popular in the area. Then there’s the bar food, which is also excellent (spicy tots are a must). Top it all off with nightly live music, shuffleboard, and a great outdoor patio perfect for catching that ocean breeze, and it’s not hard to see why The Craftsman is one of Santa Monica’s best.
In a town that doesn’t exactly hold on to its past, the Daily Pint remains a classic. The 25-year-old English pub/dive might not look like much, but the fact remains you’re not going to find a much better craft beer list on the Westside (not to mention those 300 kinds of whiskey either). Quirky, dimly lit, with old pool tables scattered about, this is the kind of place 50-year-old pirates go to get their Stone Imperial Russian Stout and reminisce about ports of call.
The Misfit Restaurant + Bar
Located just a little too close to the Third Street Promenade, The Misfit is completely worth the hassle. Because at the end of the day, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better all-around bar/restaurant in Santa Monica. Their happy hour is one of the best in town, with $7 select beer and wine, and discounts on cocktails. The food is also pretty delicious and the historic setting is a nice change of pace from the Aeropostale apocalypse happening outside.
If the crew is rolling deep on Saturday, West 4th and Jane is your move. The casual downtown spot has long communal tables on the main floor and a private event space upstairs if things get official. With more than 24 taps, there’s a great beer stock and a nightly 4-7pm Happy Hour where discounts run wild. Just don’t sleep on the food - it’s quite good. The lamb burger and sriracha ginger wings are musts.
Santa Monica is full of legitimate English pubs, and while everyone seems to have their personal favorite, we’ll never pass up the chance to sip some whiskey and chow down on fish & chips at King’s Head. Mere steps from the beach, it’s a staple that can certainly get a touch touristy, but that somehow adds to the allure. Come here for a Premier League match and see what true sports passion looks like.
If you’re looking to get rowdy and make a few mistakes, but drink well-made cocktails while you’re doing it, Chestnut Club is where you go. The craft cocktail bar is located in that strange, sleepy stretch of inland Santa Monica, but it still gets all-out mobbed on the weekends. So get there early or prepare to wait in line. Or just go during the week when things have calmed down considerably and you can drink in peace.
You could stumble past JP’s a hundred times and never notice it. But that would be a huge mistake. Because if you’re looking to get a little weird, dance to an old Garth Brooks song, and throw darts until you can’t, this Wilshire Blvd. dive has all your needs covered. JP’s isn’t the kind of joint you make an entire night out of, but with a who-cares-if-you-can’t-stand vibe and zero lines, this should definitely be your last stop of the night.