The beach city of Santa Monica is known for its iconic pier and beaches, but it is also renowned as home to many of the finest and trendiest restaurants around Los Angeles. Here are some of the favorites for those special date nights when you want to treat yourself to a truly excellent meal.
Welcome to Italy on the Westside
Locanda del Lago on the 3rd Street Promenade does Italian right, with extraordinary service with a welcoming family vibe. The rustic Italian menu and ambience is inspired by the cuisine and culture of Bellagio, an idyllic village in northern Italy known as “the pearl of Lake Como,” where owner West Hooker-Poletti was raised.
The authenticity of the dishes can be attributed to the imaginings of Executive Chef Daniele Turchette, a native of Porpetto, Italy, who began honing his passion for fine food when he helped to cultivate wild mushrooms with his grandmother as a boy. Later he would bring his love for organic, sustainable foods to top restaurants in New York, including Blasut Restaurant, Hostaria Mazzei and Café Fiorello, and to Bond45 in Washington DC. Among his specialties are his home-made sausage and Burrata and creative, delicious seasonal dishes.
Besides the warm familial treatment of patrons, the restaurant is also famed for its “Bite of the Beast” whole-animal five-course communal dinners held the last Thursday of every month.
Crustacean your way
The Lobster restaurant at Santa Monica Pier is an icon of the city, with a history dating back to the 1920s, in which the famed eatery has gone through many iterations to become the fine dining establishment it is today. The Lobster owes to its lasting success to its legacy of passionate owners and visionaries who wanted to create a dining experience equal to the status of one of the region’s most recognizable symbols of California life, simply known by locals as “The Pier.”
As the name implies, the restaurant is known for its shell food dishes, such as Crab Cakes Benedict with Schaner’s Poached Eggs, Windrose Farm Smoked Chili Hollandaise, Arugula, Dried Tomatoes & Fennel Salad for brunch and Crab Taquitos with Avocado Puree, Pico de Gallo & Wild Arugula for happy hour. For those who enjoy their seafood more traditionally prepared, The Lobster serves up favorite standards like The Lobster’s Steamed Alaskan Golden King Crab with Lemon & Drawn Butter and Chilled Dungeness Crab with Lemon and Sweet Mustard.
As expected with a five-star fine dining establishment, the service is always superb, and with the location at the corner of Ocean Avenue and the Pier in Santa Monica, the views overlooking the beach are spectacular and unmatched for sunsets, and of course people watching.
A range of Argentinean
You may know of Malbec as the rich, dark and juicy grape used to make red wine, which was the inspiration for Malbec Cuisine on Whilshire, formerly Ushuaia Steakhouse, which was renamed to put less emphasis on the hearty Argentinian steaks, which are still a mainstay of the menu, which also features many vegetarian offerings. The Argentinian flavor of the restaurant extends form the menu to its atmosphere and wait staff, from the Argentinian management and servers down to the swarthy bearded bartender who looks like he might have just ridden in on horseback from the Pampas.
Some of the stand out dishes include Almejas Y Mejillones Provenzal, a dish of clams and mussels with butter, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, and white wine; Salmon A La Parrilla, a grilled natural Scottish Salmon, salsa mia, Spanish rice, and sautéed vegetables; and for meat lovers the Lomo Con Compota, a grass-fed prime beef tenderloin, bacon, oyster mushrooms and gorgonzola compote, with roasted potatoes and sautéed spinach. Of course, they also serve many Malbec wines. A great finisher is the light and satisfying Mousse De Chocolate.
Down the rabbit hole for brunch
For an adventurous brunch, wander over to CAST at the Viceroy Santa Monica on Ocean Avenue. While the venue is known for its swanky lounge and nightlife with a DJ spinning poolside, its extraordinary brunch is worth waking up for, every Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 2 pm.
The clusters of oversized white leather wing-back chairs and three-dimensional checkered patterned tables on the patio and the artwork of china dishes stuck to the walls might have you thinking you have dropped into a scene from Alice in Wonderland, and indeed this is a fantasy brunch. Chef Tony DiSalvo serves up his creative favorites, including quinoa and eggs, buttermilk and brown butter pancakes and house smoked Alaskan salmon, along with classic omelets, eggs benedict, and Chilaquiles Verdes and breakfast tacos, all which can be enjoyed with a glass, or a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. If breakfast food is not your fancy, then you can indulge market oysters, served on the half shell with mignonette, cocktail sauce and ponzu, Dungeness crab salad “Rolls”, or mini dry aged burgers. This is a popular brunch, so reservations are advised.
All aboard for happy hour and more
In the bustle of downtown Santa Monica, the Independence offers a bay window view onto Broadway for people watching, along with an eclectic menu of surf and turf entrees from Chef Tom Block. While you might think the restaurant takes its name from its inventive fare, its namesake is actually a nod to the steam-powered Los Angeles and Independence Railroad that once carried Angelenos from 5th and San Pedro St. downtown to the Santa Monica Pier from 1875-77. Now diners come from across the city by any means to grab a seat in thei brigh airy space for this restaurant’s popular extended happy hour, 12 noon to 6 pm, Tuesday through Sunday, as well as their diverse dinner offerings and weekend brunch.
Specialties include shellfish stew with clams, mussels, chili, tomato and lime; chicken wings with salsa verde; roasted mushrooms with 62 degree egg and yuzu kosho hollandaise; and dry aged rib eye with wild mushrooms, bordelaise sauce and celtuce.
One of the city’s most famed mixologists, Vincenzo Marianella, stirls up concoctions that pay homage to the train’s original stops, such as LA Speedway, a blend of gin, dry fino sherry, marsala, and orange bitters; or the light and refreshing Laurel Canyon, made with gin, lime, honey ginger, and organic egg white. Some of the savory snacks include $2 smoked onion soup shooters, $4 hanger steak skewer with chimichurri, and $3 Cincinnati chili sliders. The eatery also touts a super burger with a splash of French onion soup onions, gruyere, herb aioli, and onion bun.
California cuisine reinvented
It’s not just because we were sitting next to Shirley MacLaine during my last visit to Michael’s that I love this restaurant. This mainstay establishment of 37 years in Santa Monica along 3rd street has seen many changes, but has always managed to keep its edge as one of the city’s finest dining experiences. Currently, 28-year-old Chef Miles Thompson, whom foodie critics have unanimously put at the top of LA’s top 10 chefs list, is heading up the kitchen. Founder Michael McCarty is credited as a pioneer in California Cuisine, and Thompson continues that trailblazing tradition with what he calls “high definition” food.
The one-page menu of entrees features the simple categories of bread, raw, small and large plates and dessert. While there might not be an expansive selection, the excellence of the food proves it is better to do one (or a few) things well. Besides expected the raw offering of oysters, there’s smoked trout roe with burrata, chow chow and picked black mustard. Small plates include pork cheese sandwiches with Brazilian cheese bread, plum jam and cornichon; and blistered baby broccholi of braised pig ears, spicy peanuts and soft egg Milanese. Large dishes include black cod on lemongrass rice, scored little gems and jaew; and duck breast with huckleberry-juniper pickle, water spinach and delicate squash. As Thompson reboots the restaurant, the menu is sure to change up with even more imaginative fare.
Besides its fabulous menu, Michael’s is famed for one of the city’s most beautiful garden patio dining areas and exhibits a collection of magnificent art on their walls including works by David Hockney, Robert Graham, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Dennis Hopper.