Santa Monica restaurants you should try
Nothing signifies fine dining more than crisp white tablecloths and servers in suits. Mélisse has both, but not for long. Just as it slides into its 20th year, Josiah Citrin’s flagship, tasting-menu restaurant will be closing up shop to retool and reopen with a new concept. So from now until March 2, you have every reason to visit this gem that’s hidden in plain sight, this French-inspired course-by-course ode to fine dining. Choose between four, seven and 10 courses, which include items like soft poached egg topped with smoked lemon crème fraîche and a dab of Golden Osetra caviar. “Fine” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
There’s a hefty fee to attend one of Dave Beran’s 20-odd–course tasting menus, but the price (around $220 per person, sans wine pairings) and the hunt for the front door (through a food court) are more than worth it. The James Beard Award-winning chef crafts extraordinary, monthly-rotating meals centered around California produce and attention to detail, and it’ll leave you full (of both food and whimsy). This is a special-occasion restaurant, where each dish arrives a presentation sure to wow any dining companion, so book your table accordingly.
This neighborhood staple from renowned chef Sang Yoon is always loud and jam-packed—and it probably has something to do with the famed Office burger (we’ll get to that later). Don’t let the crowd discourage you; just grab a beer from the list that’s almost three times the length of the food menu, and mingle with friends while you wait for a table. The name of the game here is upscale bar food, including garlicky mushrooms and some excellent fries. But the star is the messy, delicious, cult-favorite Office burger, made with applewood bacon, arugula, gruyère and maytag blue cheese, and a heap of caramelized onions. No substituitions, and trust us, that’s OK.
Is there anything Jeremy Fox can’t do? Rustic Canyon, his unpretentious spot that’s been a favorite for more than a decade, was one of the first to milk the most out of vegetables at the start of the “farm-to-table” movement—but the chef offers much more than that. House-made corned beef tongue drapes delicately over rye bread, a sprinkling of greens up top. There’s creamy polenta with grass-fed short rib, and Baja sea bass in an eight-month–aged miso. Dishes are fresh, comforting and comfortable—there’s not a lot of pomp and circumstance in these plates, though the flavor’s always there (vegetable or no).
Nyesha Arrington’s Native is exactly where we want to be on a cold night in Santa Monica. The lighting is low, the bar is modern but approachable, and the food is always comforting—without being boring. How could it be, with a menu so eclectic? Venison tartare in black truffle vinaigrette; Flannery Beef hanger steak with a fermented-carrot purée; and seared foie with duck gravy keep us warm, cozy and coming back for more, and the service is often stellar.
Alma chef Ari Taymor’s Santa Monica spot began as a brunch-only pop-up, but fast became a brick-and-mortar with a wood-fired menu, all-natural wine list and some of the most decadent sticky buns in the city. It’s also one of the city’s trendiest restaurants, day or night, which means there might be a crowd. No matter. Hang out at the flower-adorned bar while you wait for a table—preferably one in front of that gorgeous oven while you feast on pasta with merguez or the dry-aged steak with hibiscus-and-chili jam.
Who really invented “California cuisine”? Turn your attention to Michael McCarty and his charming bungalow restaurant, which has been a SaMo staple since 1979. Much of the food is sourced from the neighboring farmers’ market, and there’s a high importance placed on colorful combinations and locally-sourced ingredients—resulting in some of L.A.’s most, well L.A. dishes. There’s persimmon gazpacho, and sunchoke gnocchi, and rib eye served with Japanese cauliflower. There’s also a stunning, verdant back patio draped in lights, for a bit of romance just blocks from the beach.
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 up 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? Fuggeddaboudit.
When Bryant and Kim Ng closed their popular restaurant Spice Table in 2013, fans mourned the loss of Little Tokyo’s Southeast Asian star. The only consolation: a promise that a similar project, in conjunction with fellow husband-and-wife duo Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb (Rustic Canyon), would be opening in Santa Monica. That project was Cassia, and man, was it worth the wait. A beautiful mash-up between French and Vietnamese cuisine, Cassia’s menu embodies the best of both worlds: Vietnamese Pot au Feu with walnut mustard and bone marrow; chopped escargots with lemongrass butter; charcuterie boards that feature Singaporean candied pork and more.
“We’ve come a long way, baby,” is probably what a plate of Uovo’s handmade pasta might say to you if, of course, it could talk. From the minds of Sugarfish comes Uovo, a quick-and-casual Italian restaurant that only serves fresh pasta that’s been overnighted from Uovo’s own kitchen in Bologna, Italy. Sure, they could have just made the pasta here, but why do that when they can bring us all fresh noodles made in the world’s pasta epicenter? Look for classic pasta dishes from Rome and Bologna, among other locales, each topping out at around $15. With vegetable sides at $6 and wines by the glass around $10, this is one of the most affordable ways to dine Italiano—and it’s definitely cheaper than a flight to Bologna.