There are two types of people who live in LA: Westsiders, and everyone else. The unofficial capital of the Westside is Santa Monica, a part of town that’s happy to lean into every insult you can throw at it. Sure, there are tourists everywhere, and it’s populated almost entirely by people who don’t seem to have jobs, but there’s no denying that it’s also home to some of the best restaurants in all of Los Angeles. Even in the shadows of tourist traps like The Third Street Promenade and The Pier, exciting and innovative spots continue to open and thrive. Here are the best of the best in LA’s city by the sea.
Birdie G’s is one of the most exciting restaurants to open on the Westside in a long time. Located far from the chaos of The Promenade, the large, industrial space looks more like something you’d find in the Arts District, not Santa Monica. And while the exposed air ducts, cement floors, and open kitchen are all pretty standard design flourishes these days, it’s the food that’s objectively different. Whether it’s sweet and savory noodle kugel, crab cakes, house-made matzo, or Sloppy Joe made with strawberry Bolognese on Texas toast, eating at Birdie G’s feels simultaneously nostalgic and completely new.
Santa Monica has no shortage of great patios, but Fia’s might be the best of the bunch. Walking into the multi-level space feels like you’ve left Santa Monica and flown to the Mendocino coastline, where pine trees outnumber palm trees and all daily obligations immediately evaporate. As far as the food goes, expect a standard array of burrata appetizers, pastas, and big plates of meat that anyone will enjoy. It’s not the most groundbreaking food of all time, but it still tastes good, and you’re just happy to be on that patio.
Finding affordable Italian food in Santa Monica isn’t difficult. Finding affordable Italian food that you’re actually excited about eating, though, was always pretty hard - until Colapasta came around. From the outside, it may look like any of the 6,000 insurance offices in the area, but inside, you’ll find excellent pastas that are hand-made daily. The casunziei all’ampezzana - beet ravioli with poppy seeds and butter - is our favorite, but if you want something a little more traditional, the lasagna al ragu is absolutely fantastic. They’re still waiting on their beer and wine license, but once they get it, this will be a go-to spot for some pasta and a glass of wine.
A multi-course tasting menu served in a tiny room inside of a food court on The Promenade sounds like the set-up for a not-very-funny joke. But Dialogue still manages to be one of the least-pretentious multi-course experiences in the city. The meal will run you in the high three figures, but you’ll get to chat with the very friendly chef as you eat the inventive, unusual, and extremely delicious food. This is a place where you should go all-in, so ask for a seat at the chef’s counter, add on one of the wine pairings, and have a bunch of fun eating some outstanding food you’ll never encounter anywhere else.
Huckleberry isn’t just our favorite bakery in Santa Monica, it’s one of our favorite places on the Westside, period. The order-at-the-counter menu reads like a greatest hits of comfort food, with fried egg sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, huevos rancheros, and turkey-meatball subs that are definitely better than they sound. You will encounter a line, but it will be worth it.
Rustic Canyon has been doing farm-to-table dining (without the pretension or white tablecloths) since before it was cliche. Like every other seasonal spot, their menu changes all the time, so go ahead and embrace eating those vegetables you can only find for one week of the year. Your parents, out-of-towners you’re trying to impress, and early-in-the-game dates will all love it here.
Little Prince is just the kind of restaurant people who live near Main St. have been looking for - it’s casual and semi-quiet, with a fun atmosphere and interesting food. We’ve had mixed experiences at dinner, but love Little Prince for brunch. Waits aren’t usually too long, and the menu is a nice mix of things, with everything from a breakfast salad and green pea pancakes to a breakfast sandwich and a patty melt. They also do a fun Happy Hour during the week, with a menu of snacks and bigger dishes, plus a couple of $7 cocktails.
Tumbi is a restaurant you wouldn’t expect to find in such close proximity to the Third Street Promenade, but you should play a game of dodge-the-tourist for some excellent modern Indian street food. To start, order some pani puri, and then move onto the dosa (there are six different options at dinner) and the Patagonian toothfish masala to share. It’s beer and wine only, and the list isn’t long, so you might want to pick up a bottle on your way in if you’re willing to pay corkage. This is a perfect low-key dinner spot.
You’ll find more Italian restaurants in Santa Monica than you will in some parts of Italy, so Cassia’s French-Southeast Asian food is a very welcome change. It’s also fantastic, and served in a huge space will instantly make you feel like you’re on vacation. It’s a great place for an impromptu date, too - put your name down, and go next door to Esters for a couple of glasses of wine while you wait. Once you’ve got your spot on the patio, make sure you order the kaya toast at both ends of the meal.
You might think Main St. in Santa Monica is too obvious a location for the best cantina on the Westside, but it’s not. Lula is a great Mexican restaurant that serves lunch, dinner, and a lot of other purposes - like having the ideal patio to bring all of your friends and their significant others (who you didn’t even invite but showed up anyway) together for your birthday dinner. We also like to come here after a day at the beach for Happy Hour, sit in a booth, and order a full fajita set-up plus a few rounds of very fresh margaritas. And like at any great cantina, the chips are both your worst and best friend.
The only problem with the original Wexler’s in Grand Central Market was that we had to deal with Grand Central Market in order to eat there. But since this second location opened - far enough away from The Promenade to make it not hell on earth - we’ve found ourselves eating a lot more egg and lox bagels and pastrami than we used to.
Esters might be a wine bar, but it isn’t one of those stuffy ones filled with people swirling glasses and talking about tannins. This is more a place where you can hang out at the bar or one of the patio tables, pick a wine from the list or a bottle off the shelves, order a few things to eat, and end up having one of the better casual dinners on the Westside.
Do not trust anyone who says the Father’s Office burger is overrated. Or that the “No Substitutions” rule makes it terrible. Those people are liars. This tiny bar on Montana Ave. operates out of a space that’s been around since the 1950s and churns out what is easily one of the best burgers in town. First dates and out-of-town friends will always be impressed here.
If the blue cheese and lack of ketchup at Father’s Office strikes fear into your heart, HiHo is probably more your style. But really, HiHo is pretty much everyone’s style. The burgers are simple and plain delicious - the crispy patties come sandwiched between toasted buns with lettuce, pickles, cheese, and onion jam. Expect a bit of a wait, especially around office lunch hour, but you’ve waited longer in an In-N-Out line, and these burgers are better.
Tell anyone in the LA area that you’re eating in Santa Monica and they’ll be like, “Oh sh*t, can you bring me a Godmother?” And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that they’re not asking you for a new family member - they’re asking you for Bay Cities’ most famous sandwich, a stack of meats (prosciutto, ham, salami, mortadella, and capocollo), cheeses, and peppers on crunchy bread. This family-run Italian deli makes plenty of good sandwiches besides The Godmother, too - like their chicken parm sub - but you should also know that their meatballs are excellent.
Milo and Olive is king when it comes to pizza in Santa Monica and everyone knows it. People line up for their perfectly wood-fired crusts and wine list that’s loaded with Italian reds. Their garlic knot (basically pizza dough stuffed with a ton of oil and garlic, and fired in the same oven as the pizza) is a Westside legend.
Unlike almost every other restaurant ever, Tar & Roses has gotten better with age, and feels like it’s been around much longer than it actually has. It’s the sort of place that can be as casual or formal as you need it to be, with a menu that’s perfect for sharing. The oxtail dumplings are non-negotiable.
It’s not like Montana Ave. (or Santa Monica as a whole) needed another Italian restaurant, but at least this one won’t put you right to sleep. There may not be anything on the menu here you haven’t eaten before, but Bigoli really does nail the classics, like handkerchief pasta with pesto and a great veal Milanese. The tiny space is always full of locals who are happy to pay Montana Ave. prices for a relatively low-key Italian meal.
Michael’s is the middle-aged mainstay of Santa Monica. Like plenty of 40-year-olds, it’s gone through a few phases (some of which were a bit boring), but good news: Michael’s is interesting again. The back garden patio is an excellent place to be and the seasonal menu runs the gamut from jamon iberico to rigatoni to fried whole flounder. Turns out getting old(er) isn’t so bad.
Way off the Santa Monica tourist track is Ocean Park, a little neighborhood that feels like people truly live there. And all those people seem to be having dinner at Local Kitchen + Wine. The menu is full of crowd-pleasers - meatballs, flatbreads, and some tasty thin-crust pizzas all make appearances. It’s the kind of easy neighborhood spot you can drop in on when you forgot it was supposed to be date night but want it to seem like you had a great plan all along.
Forma is the coolest dinner option on Montana Ave. and good for everything from a group dinner to a meal with parents. Pasta and cheese are what you should be ordering at Forma. Keep an eye out for the “cheese scraper,” who dunks all the pastas into a giant block of cheese for mixing before they’re delivered to the table.
Gilbert’s is where you go when you are severely hungover and want to experience the kind of Mexican food that makes you feel euphoric joy, shame, and regret in a matter of minutes. The Mule Burrito is great, but so is pretty much everything else on their menu. It’s also important to know they serve breakfast seven days a week. (See: good for a hangover.) Out-of-towners looking to experience “good” Mexican food will return home talking about Gilbert’s.
In a part of town where a full BYOB policy is basically a myth, Cha Cha Chicken is a Caribbean-themed oasis where you can bring a six-pack (or a whole handle of tequila) to enjoy after the beach. You shouldn’t really need a reason to eat spicy jerk chicken in a tropical setting, but Cha Cha is especially great for big group dinners, early-in-the-game dates, or lunch near The Promenade that doesn’t make you want to die inside.
Via Veneto is like an old, distinguished gentleman on Santa Monica’s Main St., but one that not necessarily everyone knows. It’s one of those places that people say “I’ve never been - but I hear it’s incredible.” It is. But it’s also quite expensive, so plan accordingly. The old- school charm, romantic atmosphere, and truly authentic Italian menu make it a Santa Monica mainstay.