Seaside Eats in Santa Monica: The City's 10 Best Restaurants

Santa Monica is one of California's most famous beach cities, for many very good reasons. Beautiful beaches, the iconic pier with its Ferris wheel that lights up the evening sky, and – of course – its countless wonderful restaurants. Visitors (and locals, too) have so many eating choices it can be a bit overwhelming, from classic high-end dining spots to restaurants overlooking the Pacific Ocean to more casual places where a bit of sand in your shoes is the norm. We've chosen our favorites, the 10 Best restaurants in Santa Monica, which include Mélisse, the award-winning, high-end French spot, as well as more relaxed spots including Italian standouts Forma and Locanda Portofino (both found on chic Montana Avenue), seafood specialists like The Lobster, classic Mexican from a famed, James Beard award-winning chef (Red O), incredibly good pizza from Stella Barra and even a wine-centric place with the best sunset view in town. No matter what culinary style suits your fancy, Santa Monica has it in spades.


Locanda Portofino
Photo courtesy of Locanda Portofino

Since Locanda Portofino opened its doors in the cozy indoor-outdoor space on Montana Avenue in 1995, it has been a local favorite, serving up a fusion of Northern and Southern Italian dishes that keep people coming back for more. With the later addition of the private dining room and wine cellar (which holds over 600 varieties of Italian and California wines), the restaurant draws in-the-know Hollywood celebrities as well as tourists who have heard tell of their famous sea urchin pasta or the spectacular veal meatballs that owners Alberto Ferrari and Florestano Caracciolo di Nicastro offer up each night. Using locally grown and organic ingredients, the duo mixes traditional and modern Italian flavors into a menu that is incredibly satisfying.

The Lobster

The Lobster began its life in Santa Monica as a little seafood shack in 1923. These days, it's a sleek, modern restaurant with huge glass walls that offer up stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the iconic Santa Monica Pier, complete with Ferris wheel and other carnival rides that light up the night sky. Naturally, Chef Collin Crannell offers lobster served up a number of different ways; that crustacean isn't local to California, but a lot of the other entrees and produce on the menu certainly are. If romance is on your mind, time your arrival to coincide with sunset and you and your sweetie will be rewarded with a colorful sky and a Happy Hour menu (from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays) highlighted by aphrodisiacs like fresh raw oysters and truffle-laced fries paired with a delicious specialty cocktail. Share the rum-based Tide Pool for a tasty delight.

Sonoma Wine Garden - Santa Monica
Photo courtesy of Sonoma Wine Garden

Sonoma Wine Garden sits above the beach overlooking Santa Monica, from its location on the top floor of Santa Monica Place, the sophisticated shopping mall just steps from the ocean. The extensive wine collection pairs with a menu that leans toward seafood â€" think raw oysters, salmon, sea bass, cioppino and more â€" along with plenty of classic American comfort food. Featuring a full line of craft cocktails, too, Sonoma Wine Garden has just the thing for sipping and snacking while watching the sun go down over the water. The restaurant features plenty of outdoor seating and if you happen to get chilly when the sun goes down, they'll give you a cozy blanket to snuggle into as the stars come out.

FIG Restaurant
Photo courtesy of FIG Restaurant

FIG Restaurant, located inside the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica, is both a locals' hangout and a traveler's oasis, a lively place fueled by Chef Yousef Ghalaini's inspired Mediterranean-influenced menu. Start with the Bread Balloon, paired with Hummos or Eggplant Salad, then move on to shared plates of charred octopus or albacore tuna crudo. Large plates are equally delicious, with the Grilled Maine Scallops and the Grilled Wild Sea Bass as standouts. Ghalaini uses a wood-fired oven and grill, so try the pizza, too, for a crunchy, smoky taste. The menu is seasonal and predominantly locally sourced, so changes to the menu are to be expected.

Stella Barra
Photo courtesy of Stella Barra

When Chef Jeff Mahin opened Stella Barra a few years ago in Santa Monica, it was actually called Stella Rossa. We're not sure what prompted the name change, but one thing has stayed the same â€" the pizza. It's so good you'll be texting your friends to come join you for some at this convivial place on Main Street in Santa Monica, where the chef uses a traditional oven to make spectacular pizza. His dough is handcrafted daily, then fermented for at least 18 hours to give it a unique flavor. Then Mahin adds market-fresh ingredients (think butternut squash, charred cherry tomatoes, calabrian chilies) onto that crispy, yet chewy crust, resulting in a seriously great pizza. It's so good that there are now three other Stella Barra locations, one in Hollywood and others in Maryland and Illinois.

Red O Santa Monica
Photo courtesy of Red O Santa Monica

Red O is James Beard award-winning chef Rick Bayless' modern Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica, just steps from the pier (and the Metro stop). Bayless covers all the bases here at Red O, from classics like luscious guacamole, tangy salsa, crunchy tacos and soft quesadillas stuffed with blackened chicken to his unique takes on dishes from states located south of the border. Be sure to taste the branzino, served with a winning combination of wild farro, pepitas, pomegrante seeds and pea tendrils, for a delicately delicious dish. The filet mignon is served with chipotle crema and cojita mashed potatoes, while the shrimp ceviche is a fiery combo of serrano chiles served with plantain chips.

Photo courtesy of Jenny Peters

Forma takes its name from formaggio, the Italian word for cheese, which is clearly dearly loved food in this convivial contemporary Italian eatery. Go with a crowd and share an assortment of small plates or perhaps sit alone at the bar and have a main dish all to yourself. Whatever way you choose to experience the fare at Forma, you'll head home completely sated, especially if cheese makes your heart go pitter patter. There are luscious risotto dishes and home made pastas, all tossed inside huge hollow wheels of cheese while diners look on, as well as over 50 cheeses. Choose a selection of soft-ripened, semi-soft, washed-rind, semi-hard, blue-veined, hard or truffled cheese to make your own unique selection. For something completely different, taste the strangely appealing Burnt Spaghetti Assassina, one of Executive Chef Piero Topputo's recipes from his native Apulia.

BOA Steakhouse - Santa Monica
Photo courtesy of BOA Steakhouse

Steak lovers know that BOA Steakhouse is the place for top-notch meat in Santa Monica. This outpost is a bit more casual than its West Hollywood predecessor (with a more relaxed dress code), but there's nothing casual about the food served here. The steak menu covers dry-aged beef, including 40-day New York Strip, massive filets and Japanese Wagyu. Plus, like every world-class steakhouse, BOA has signature rubs and sauces to choose from, along with a "Surf" menu including seafood options like lobster tail, salmon, ahi tun or king crab. In a nod to the California food culture, diners will find gluten-free and vegan options.

Photo courtesy of Melisse Restaurant

Ever since Mélisse opened its doors in 1999, Chef-Owner Josiah Citrin has pushed for excellence in every element of this fine-dining experience â€" and has succeeded admirably. His restaurant is the kind of place where patrons dress for dinner, the silver is real and every dish is precisely made to the exacting standards of French haute cuisine. Constantly showered with accolades, Mélisse led the way toward seasonal menus sourced via local farmer's markets (Citrin is a fixture at the famed Santa Monica market) and continues to innovate. Try the legendary Dover sole made tableside in the summer or share the Cote de Boeuf Roti for two, made with a beef rib dry aged for 35 days. Make sure to pair your whole meal with wine, as Melisse has one of the best cellars in the city.


Meet Jenny Peters

Jenny Peters – aka Jet Set Jen – is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, editor and party columnist specializing in travel, entertainment, film, food, wine, fashion and the other good...  More About Jenny