Photos by Wonho Lee
Photo by Wonho Frank Lee
At Fia, the meals and the fairy-lit garden are nothing short of enchanting.
Contrary to popular belief, hiking, biking, and surfing aren’t the only things Santa Monicans do. There are countless ways to indulge in this Southern California city and, yes, make up for all those calories burned.
The food scene in Santa Monica is as vibrant and diverse as its population—as of 2018, almost a quarter of all residents were born outside the United States. You can find authentic Southeast Asian flavors, cheese-soaked Italian goodness, and a sandwich that’s famous for enticing even the carb conscious across Los Angeles. To help plan a complete food-forward Santa Monica visit, we’ve pulled together the eight can’t-miss meals from the top restaurants in town.
It’s hard to imagine a Santa Monica local—actually, an Angeleno—who hasn’t braved the lunchtime rush at this beloved city staple, which has been around since 1925 and pulls in food lovers of all ilk, celebrity chefs to pro athletes to Oscar-winning actors. Join the masses by pulling a ticket and waiting between a grocery aisle and the long glass case, which is piled with Italian salads and sides. There is no greater sandwich than the Godmother, the Italian deli’s signature. The deli meat behemoth combines prosciutto, ham, capicola, mortadella, and Genoa salami, with provolone and peppers, all folded within a generous hunk of just-baked Italian bread, delightfully crusty on the outside yet soft on the inside. Get it with the works: mayo, yellow mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, dressing, and mild or hot peppers.
If that just sounds like too much meat, try the chicken parm sandwich from the hot bar, where the wait is always much shorter. Word to the wise: always order a large.
Romance is in the air in the sprawling, fairy-lit garden at Fia, which is hidden behind an unassuming Mid-City brick building. The ambience alone is worth a reservation but, paired with the inventive cocktails and food of prolific English expat chef Brendan Collins, a meal at Fia becomes a must. California and the Mediterranean are sources of inspiration that inform bites like yellowtail in tiger’s milk and burrata with blood orange and jumbo asparagus. As much as you’ll want to share many dishes, the hand- and house-made pastas are the time to get possessive: Collins’s black capellini with lobster bolognese is a featherweight take on spaghetti bolognese, with vibrant San Marzano tomatoes, basil, and a touch of foam—the kind of dish you’ll remember years down the road.
Since restaurateur Michael McCarty opened his eponymous restaurant in Santa Monica in 1979, it’s been a proving ground for a who’s who of California chefs (James Beard Award–winning Barbuto chef/owner Jonathan Waxman, the queen of Mozza’s empire Nancy Silverton, and Lukshon and Father’s Office’s Sang Yoon among them). The landmark restaurant is still going strong, with McCarty himself a near-constant presence in the neighborhood spot, which has an interior studded with modern art and back patio (and new front outdoor seating) enveloped in greenery. Postpandemic, the local favorite happy hour is no more, but the classic Michael’s cheeseburger hasn’t gone anywhere. Nor has the $95 prime rib, a ridiculously juicy 24-ounce dry-aged bone-in cut that drips with decadence and thyme shallot butter.
If there’s a quintessential way to start the day right, it’s at Huckleberry. Give in to the panoply of treats in glass cases: cinnamon roll scones, cheesy herby biscuits, and kouign amann swirls. The star of co-owner and baker Zoe Nathan’s particular brand of edible genius, however, is the blueberry cornmeal cake. Moist, bright, and with the perfect amount of grit, it’s a fabulous way to start or (maybe and!) finish a meal. As hot items go, the savory breakfast burrito and the Niman Ranch bacon-bedecked fried egg sandwich—on the menu since the café first opened 11 years ago—are surefire hits.
Swing by Santa Monica Seafood to collect all the essentials for an epicurean feast on the beach 10 blocks away. The sustainable fish purveyors—a family affair since 1939—make a mean wild Hawaiian ahi tuna poke, available for takeaway in three sizes. Grab a few other containers of fresh, chilled delicacies—Pacific Coast ceviche, marinated octopus salad, and a sweet and smoky salmon dish called Indian Candy—to enjoy with toes in the sand. SM Seafood also sells all the perfect picnic accompaniments: branded cocktail sauce for jumbo shrimp, cheeses and charcuterie, breads from the popular Röckenwagner Bakery, wine, and California-brewed beer.
Rich is an understatement when it comes to the cuisine at Pasjoli, which in French means “not pretty.” The exquisite French bistro by chef Dave Beran is an exercise in thoughtful food. Each refined menu item is beautifully presented, though one in particular stands out. It’s imperative that future diners preorder the Canard à la Rouennaise à la presse, which is a whole experience. The Escoffier spinoff dish is created using an authentic 19th-century silver duck press, which extracts a sauce by pressing the juice from the duck bones. The theatrical process is performed tableside, after the server removes the roasted bird’s breast and legs. The result? A salad seasoned with rendered duck skin as well as a cherry- and red wine–laden duck bread pudding. If you’re going big, go all the way, with the hedonistic foie de poulet (mini brioche filled with chicken liver mousse in the style of illegal-in-California foie gras, topped with shaved truffle and truffle shallot jam on the side) and gently bitter chocolate soufflé.
You’ll feel cool stepping inside Cassia, an ode to the kinds of multidimensional Southeast Asian flavors that transport to Vietnam or Singapore. The partnership between Rustic Canyon Family restaurant group’s Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan (also of Huckleberry and half a dozen other adored Santa Monica establishments) and Kim and Bryant Ng draws on the latter couple’s culinary heritage to produce delightful (and at times quite spicy) and memorable fare. It’s a place you can unabashedly whet your palate with a piña colada and then order many, many ready-to-share plates. Go with the Kaya Toast with coconut jam and slow-cooked egg, chilled “Sunbathing” Vietnamese prawns (served with the heads ready to suck), creamy Koda Farms chickpea curry, and the can’t-miss laksa, a Malaysian-Singaporean soup (traditionally enjoyed at breakfast but also throughout the day). It’s the perfect combination of tiny shrimp, mussels, fish cake, and thick, chewy rice noodles—and relentlessly comforting.
If cheese is what excites you, consider Forma your Disneyland. The only way to begin dinner here is with—of course—cheese: Try the double cream Brebirousse D’Argental from France, or the truffle-loaded sheep milk pecorino from South Italy. Then, the wisest diners—or those ready for an Instagram moment—move onto pastas that servers toss gloriously about in one of several legendary cheese wheels: pecorino for the best-selling Chitarra Cacio e Pepe and the Bella Lodi grana wheel from Milan, which produces an unbeatably creamy sauce for cheese tortellini and seasonal mushrooms.
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