For those who don't live in Santa Monica, making the trek there can be a daunting journey. Will there be traffic? Probably. Will it be hard to find parking? Oh, most definitely. Will it be worth it? Yup. Fantastic happy hour deals and beautiful beaches abound in this city, and if you're lucky enough to live in the area, you know that there are some killer restaurants, too. Check out our list of Santa Monica restaurants you shouldn't miss—then get back to that beach life.
Santa Monica restaurants you should try
The Godmother at Bay Cities is one of those dishes that you have to try before you can really call yourself an Angeleno. Piled high with salami, mortadella, prosciutto, coppa, ham, provolone cheese, mild or spicy peppers and served on freshly baked, housemade bread, it's a sandwich that draws lines almost every hour of the day. There is a shortcut, though, and you can take it by ordering from Bay Cities' website and picking your colossal sandwich instead. Inside, a gourmet market offers Italian specialty foods, like fresh pasta, olive oil and cheeses. But really, you're going to come here and not get a sandwich? Fuggetaboutit.
This neighborhood staple (a touch smaller location than its Culver City locale) from renowned chef Sang Yoon is always loud and jam-packed. Don't let that discourage you, though—just grab a beer (the beer list is almost three times the length of the food menu) and mingle with friends while you wait for a table, which is first-come, first-serve. Upscale bar food includes the messy, delicious cult-favorite Office burger with Applewood bacon, gruyere and maytag blue cheese, but a lesser-known favorite is the steak frites, which comes with prime hanger steak and crispy shoestring fries.
A seasonal bistro named after Santa Monica's famous landmark, the Moreton Bay Fig tree, FIG emphasizes sustainability and local ingredients. The restaurant, located inside the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, keeps things interesting with an ever-changing seasonal menu, as well as a cheese and charcuterie bar, impressive wine selection and a signature cocktail program. The best feature of this beloved spot? It's happy hour, which is just one hour long but slashes the price of everything on the menu (OK, except for the steaks) in half.
Executive chef Piero Topputo of Forma—short for formaggio—crafts contemporary Italian cuisine starring none other than parmigiano, pecorino, romano and pecorino gran cru. Nestled in the heart of Santa Monica, this AERO Collective-designed space offers a modern ambiance to complement innovative Italian classics. Though tantalizing dishes like the artichoke and fennel casserole and grilled octopus with lentils are growing local favorites, you want to order the dalla forma risottos and pasta dishes for the ultimate cheesy experience. These piping hot Italian savories are finished up and tossed in a wheel of cheese right before your eyes—it’s basically heaven.
Nothing signifies fine dining more than crisp white tablecloths and servers in suits. Mélisse has both. Hidden in plain sight in Santa Monica, this French-inspired gem offers tasting menus only, highlighting quality seasonal ingredients selected by chef Josiah Citrin. Featured dishes include seared foie gras with cherries, almond crusted Dover sole, and pork with green figs. The beautifully plated fare is enhanced by the warm ambience of the purple-hued dining room, lending an entirely elegant dining experience. Don't miss Citrin's "Egg Caviar ($25 supplement)," a soft poached egg served in an egg shell with lemon crème fraîche and topped with American Osetra caviar. "Fine" doesn't even begin to describe it.
Mercado's Beverly Grove and Hollywood locations have drawn praise in their own respective neighborhoods, but Westsiders are getting a piece of the action with their own Downtown Santa Monica outpost. Bringing an inventive mix of food, atmosphere and tradition, partners Jesse Gomez and chef Jose Acevedo have created a space that is perfect for relaxing with a margarita and taquitos, or indulging in their popular Sunday brunch (helloooo Chipotle Bloody Marys). Take in the colorful artwork, the relaxed atmosphere and, yes, the tequila, and it's like your own private Mexico.
Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica's unpretentious neighborhood favorite for over half a decade, is flexing its cooking muscle in all the right ways and is now the best it’s ever been. Chef Jeremy Fox (of Napa’s famed vegetarian Ubuntu) orchestrates a seasonally changing menu of high quality, farmers market dishes like summer bean salad, chicken nduja frittata and Monterey squid ceviche. For those that love a sweet and salty tango, the lavender sugar and sea salt almonds are a great way to begin a meal. There’s not much to be said about the restaurant’s simple dining room—the minimalist, wood outfitting hasn’t changed much changed over the years—but the service is always friendly and the space is constantly packed (meaning: reservations are strongly encouraged).
When Andrew Kirschner temporarily closed Tar & Roses, Santa Monica mourned a beloved neighborhood restaurant. Thankfully, the talented chef has returned with a seafood spot just as exemplary: Santa Monica Yacht Club, where top-notch service is coupled with fantastic dishes from the sea. A raw bar boasts oysters, ceviche, and sea urchin toast, while main entrées include crab cakes, blackened trout and whole fried snapper with soba noodles. Brighid Maguire has crafted an exquisite cocktail program, where imbibers can sip on drinks like Leo Carillo (vodka, lemongrass, peach and arugula) or Mavericks (tequila, mezcal, agave, chile and cilantro).
There are a number of solid pizza joints in town, but Stella Barra Pizzeria (both the Santa Monica and Hollywood location) makes for a particularly good nosh session, no matter what side of the 405 you're on. Fantastic, seasonal pies use local ingredients—a crowd favorite is the purple kale pie, or the housemade pork sausage with fennel pollen. Don't forget to ogle at the baked goods on display, where you'll most likely come away with an oversized Rice Krispy treat or bacon chocolate chip cookies.
The Santa Monica outpost of David Lentz's The Hungry Cat screams upscale New England seafood shack. There’s no shortage of seafood options here: a raw bar of goodies on the half shell and in the shell, lobster and clam rolls, several grades of caviar, plus plenty of composed plates of land and sea. Depending on the season, kabocha squash soup might join Nantucket bay scallops and sage brown butter, or grilled striped bass might be dressed in carrot purée, spigarello, hazelnuts, blood orange and chermoula. Of course, another way to enjoy the fruits of the sea is an oyster with an Old Bay–rimmed vodka chaser, as in the Maryland Mary, a tasty (and eye-opening) weekend cocktail.