Santa Monica's 10 best restaurants: great food with a view (and more)

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 Chinois on Main, the always delicious Pan-Asian 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) and incredibly good pizza from Stella Barra. No matter what culinary style suits your fancy, Santa Monica has it in spades.


Water Grill Santa Monica
Photo courtesy of The Water Grill

Like its older sibling of the same name in downtown L.A., the Water Grill in Santa Monica is a seafood lover's paradise. Huge towers of raw and chilled shellfish are par for the course, served up in a large convivial space dominated by wood and leather. And there are plenty of other delicious cooked choices on the menu, ranging from crab cakes and fish tacos to a wild Mexican Mahi Mahi entree that will knock your socks off. Other wild choices include swordfish, halibut and sea scallops; you name it and the Water Grill probably has it on the menu. They'll grill your favorite seafood to perfection or oven roast it or combine it into a tangy Cioppino, whatever your heart desires. Be sure to taste some of their spectacular sides, too: the mac & cheese is grandly gooey and the braised kale with Greek yogurt and hazelnuts is seriously good stuff.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: Since 1989, the Water Grill has been doing seafood right in SoCal, in Santa Monica and beyond.

Jenny's expert tip: Always look for the hand-written whole fish choices at the bottom of the menu for a sublime treat.

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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.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: Locanda Portofino feels just like the place you remember fondly from your last visit to Italy; and the food tastes like it, too.

Jenny's expert tip: Ask for advice on pairing wines with each course you choose; the result is a perfect marriage of food and wine.

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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 a Ferris wheel and other carnival rides that light up the night sky. Chef Govind Armstrong has recently taken over the kitchen, but he's not messed with making sure The Lobster serves lobster, offered 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. Time your arrival to coincide with sunset and you'll be rewarded with a colorful sky and a Happy Hour menu (from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays) highlighted with fresh raw oysters paired with a delicious specialty cocktail. Try their famous Mojito for a tasty delight.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: The Lobster combines wonderful views of the Santa Monica Pier and a terrific seafood menu, including a raw bar and special lobster offerings.

Jenny's expert tip: Be sure to reserve a table by the westernmost glass wall for a glorious view of the ocean and the Santa Monica Pier.

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Enterprise Fish Company has been a culinary mainstay of Santa Monica's Main Street district for over 40 years, serving up fresh seafood and other delicious fare to locals and tourists alike. You'll find everything from super-fresh shellfish like clams, mussels and oysters to salmon, halibut, swordfish, mahi mahi and many other types of fish. Located in a brick building built in 1917, Enterprise Fish Company recently did a complete interior makeover, creating a convivial space where friends gather for a seafood feast. The big favorite is their Happy Hour, offered every day (including weekends)from 4-7 p.m. Grab a table on the patio (which is heated on chillier beach days) or settle inside and indulge in luscious lobster mac 'n cheese, raw oysters, tuna poke, crispy calamari and much more, all at highly reduced prices.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: Happy Hour here is done to perfection and it happens every day from 4-7 p.m. AND late on Friday and Saturday, too, 9-11 p.m.

Jenny's expert tip: Make sure you get a cup of the creamy lobster bisque to go along with your entree - it's a popular menu item for a reason.

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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, pomegranate 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.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: Rick Bayless is one of the world's acknowledged masters of Mexican food; plus, this Santa Monica outpost is a great spot to people watch.

Jenny's expert tip: Sit at the bar if you love tequila, for Red O has a wall of choices waiting for your pleasure.

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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 homemade pasta, 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.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: Cheese lovers will swoon over Forma's incredible, extensive selection; and their truffle-asparagus risotto is to die for, too.

Jenny's expert tip: Foodie Instagrammers will love taking a shot of the chef tossing pasta or risotto in the giant hollowed-out bowls made of pecorino romano or grana padano cheese wheels.

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Stella Barra
Photo courtesy of Stella Barra

When Chef Jeff Mahin opened Stella Barra a while 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 pie 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.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: This is the best pizza you'll find near the beach in SoCal. And maybe the best pizza in all of SoCal!

Jenny's expert tip: Be sure to taste the Proscuitto & Local Burratta appetizer â€" it's outrageous.

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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 tuna or king crab. In a nod to the California food culture, diners will find gluten-free and vegan options.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: BOA Steakhouse is one of Southern California's best places to eat a memorable piece of meat.

Jenny's expert tip: Park in one of Santa Monica's numerous public parking lots, then take a stroll along the Third Street Promenade after your meal.

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FIG Restaurant
Photo courtesy of FIG Restaurant

FIG Restaurant, located inside the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, is both a locals' hangout and a traveler's oasis, a lively place fueled by Executive Chef Jason Prendergast. Start with the Bread Balloon, then move on to two incredibly tasty appetizers, the Crispy Soft Shell Crab served with a tangy Salsa Verde and the Omega Blue Baja Kanpachi, served with strawberries and Fresno chilies. Main dishes like the Branzino with peas and the Diver Harvested Sea Scallops are cooked to perfection. Try the wood-fired vegetable side dishes for a smoky delight, and make sure to have some of the spectacular cheese chosen by Fromager Eric Brazel. He curates the best from around the world and creates an individualized cheese platter for your table that is spectacularly tasty and divers. The menu is seasonal and predominantly locally sourced, so changes to the menu are to be expected.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: A Santa Monica's locals' favorite watering hole, FIG proves that being inside a hotel doesn't mean only hotel guests get to indulge in great food.

Jenny's expert tip: Hit "FIG at FIVE" for Happy Hour, when most menu items are half off, from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. seven nights a week.

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Chinois on Main
Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group

Chinois on Main, the second restaurant that Wolfgang Puck opened way back in 1983, has always been a perennial favorite on the Westside of Los Angeles. Located on Main Street in Santa Monica, Chinois was one of SoCal's first Asian fusion eateries, melding Chinese, Korean and Thai flavors with Puck's signature California-French tastes. Classic menu items include Shanghai lobster with curry sauce and crispy spinach, Whole Sizzling Catfish and Szechuan Beef. The famed Chinois Chicken Salad is one of Puck's truly inspired inventions, a dish that has spawned countless imitators across the Southland. But there's only one place to get the crunchy, delicious original, and that's right here, at this beautifully decorated classic spot that's just a few short blocks from the ocean.

Recommended for Santa Monica's Best Restaurants because: This Santa Monica culinary institution is the original Asian Fusion restaurant in all of L.A.; 36 years later, it still is incomparable.

Jenny's expert tip: Go for lunch and have the Menu Chinois, a four-course meal for two chosen by the chef. It's a great deal!

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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