The secret’s been out for the last few months about Le Great Outdoor, a scrappy new plein air restaurant taking over the patio space and small kitchen that once housed Bergamot Café. While the former tenant served local artists, gallery owners and whoever else wandered through the Santa Monica fine arts compound, co-owners Rudy Beuve and Pedro Mori have lured a younger, slightly more diverse crowd with high-quality vegetables, meat and seafood charred on an enormous wood grill steps away from your table. The combination of smoke and olive oil starts to get old by the end of a meal, but it’s clear the California cuisine and chill ambience at Le Great Outdoor have managed to strike a chord with folks of all ages; dinner reservations usually book out weeks in advance, and walk-in parties happily nurse glasses of wine as they wait for a table to open up.
Now that I’ve experienced Le Great Outdoor firsthand, however, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. The family-style grilled seasonal produce and proteins are fairly delicious, but the piecemeal ordering system, shortcomings in service and the shameless overuse of microgreens, thyme sprigs and edible flowers scattered over almost every dish make an overall dining experience here feel sloppy and muddled. Still, I can’t deny the appeal of Le Great Outdoor’s aesthetically pleasing setting, reminiscent of a barbecue in a rich friend’s backyard, or the handful of culinary highlights that make the slick olive oil feeling in your mouth and smoke inhalation feel totally worth it. (On our second visit, though my two-person party was seated quite far from the grill, massive plumes of smoke started blowing towards us when something caught fire.)
The confit potatoes and burnt red pepper with chimichurri are definitive must-orders, but skip ordering the white rice; it might come to your table mushy and overcooked. Among the mains, the beautifully medium-rare lamb chops steal the show and more than justify the prodigal use of thyme, while the flaky, perfectly grilled branzino with za’atar is a steal at $40. Mainly consisting of olives, tinned fish, bread and/or cheese, the appetizer, or “collation,” section tends to blend together, but the hummus tartine—at least once you pick off some of the herbs—and bonito del norte with red pepper spread provided enough flavor contrast to stand out from the rest. (I’ve yet to try the mussels escabeche, which seem to perpetually sell out early.)
Most of the food menu, except a few of the desserts, are ordered outside at the grill, while drinks are ordered inside at the counter, but you can’t order any food unless someone has assigned you to a table. Staff members tend to only partially explain this ordering system to first-time visitors. Wanting to make use of my time (and eyeing the five or so groups already waiting in line to order), I lined up to order food at the outdoor grill station on my first visit after finding out, despite my reservation, no tables were immediately available. Once my friend and I got to the front of the line 10 minutes later, we were told we couldn’t place our order; if a table had not happened to open up right then, we would have been sent to the back of the line.
On my second visit, though seated promptly, I never received a carafe of water or a water glass. There’s a self-serve water station with plastic cups inside the café, but since a runner dropped off a carafe and real glasses on my first visit, it’s unclear whether or not guests are expected to fetch their own drinks. At the beverage station, where you can purchase natural-ish wines by the bottle or the glass, the staff also isn’t exactly knowledgeable about said wine. My friend asked for a chilled red and ended up with a room temperature Sangiovese. These logistical and service snafus might seem minor, but a meal at Le Great Outdoor, especially once wine gets involved, isn’t exactly cheap: Before drinks, you’re looking at $50 to $60 per person for a few appetizers, a couple of vegetable sides and a family-style item or two off the “Terre & Mer.”
Like most places specializing in California cuisine, Le Great Outdoor’s menu changes regularly with market and seasonal availability, so many of my ordering recommendations may soon become moot. I wouldn’t necessarily go out of the way to have another meal here, but warm-to-hot weather season in L.A. generally lingers through Halloween, making this breezy (and, for the cooler nights ahead, heated) patio a great spot for those in the area to keep the summer vibes going year-round. Plus, the parking is free—when else can you say that in L.A.?
The vibe: Relaxed—so don’t expect much in terms of service.
The food: Vegetables, meat and seafood grilled and cooked in olive oil, plus a smattering of tartines, tinned fish and charcuterie. Highlights include the lamb chops, confit potatoes and mixed berry crumble.
The drink: A short wine list, plus a few sodas.
Time Out tip: Come with a group of four or more—you’re more likely to get a table that isn’t wedged in the corner.