I live in the sprawling city of Los Angeles, which is composed of more than 100 multicultural neighborhoods. Over my 20 years here, I’ve enjoyed exploring most of them via their restaurants and bars, seeking a sense of their history and community, and the dishes, drinks and treats that’ll keep me coming back.
One of my favorite repeat destinations is seaside Santa Monica, on L.A.’s far Westside. It’s also a favorite for Destination Food Tours, which shares my passion for culinary exploration. They recently invited me along on their A Taste of Santa Monica food tour and showed me a whole evening’s worth of places I’d never visited.
The tour proved my theory that you don’t have to travel far afield to discover something new and exciting — you just have to leave your house.
Focused on three long blocks’ worth of Santa Monica’s relatively quiet and non-touristy Main Street, the evening version of A Taste of Santa Monica is referred to as a “progressive dinner.” This is a hyper-local experience that involves parking once and walking, a rare treat in Los Angeles.
For this Thursday night adventure, I brought along my boyfriend, Eric; we enjoyed chatting with everyone on our small tour, including the delightful Amy Schuster and a guy from Tasmania in the midst of exploring the Western U.S. Not unlike an underground dinner that moves, it’s a fun concept to stick with the same group through multiple changes of venue and get to know other people who are into going out for food, cocktails and more.
On the first bonafide chilly night of L.A.’s autumn, we put on real, actual jackets (I know, right?) and met Destination Food Tours’ founder Annie Breheny out in front of a Starbucks. Breheny started DFT in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2007, but recently moved with her husband and child to the Main Street area. She’s already fallen in love with the area, but hopes to someday offer food tours around other parts of L.A., too.
From 6-9 pm, Annie led our group to the following spots along Santa Monica’s Main Street:
MEAL: edamame, hot sake, and three different sushi cut rolls
(spicy tuna, tuna and lobster)
Chaya is the Japanese word for “shade,” a nod to the big tree that sits beside the Hayama, Japan tea house where this family-owned business began over 400 years ago. There are now two Chayas in Japan and four in the L.A. area; the Main Street one sits right on the border of Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
I’d visited the Chaya outposts in Downtown Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, but hadn’t yet made it to this one, which is best known for its happy hour. This is indeed a happening joint at 6 pm, attracting locals between 30- 60, ranging from wanna-be starlets to workaday joes. The cocktail bar’s on the left, the sushi bar’s in the middle, and the splashy dining room rolls to the right. You could easily make a whole night of it here.
The sushi doesn’t qualify as L.A.’s best or most inventive (personally, I’d send you to Studio City’s Kiwami or Culver City’s n/naka for that), but it’s fresh, small enough to put in your mouth and made by Japanese chefs, so it works for me. Bonus: you won’t find a lobster cut roll on many local menus. The house sake manages to be both spicy and floral, and if you sit at the sushi bar you can see the workings of the whole kitchen.
Note: Returned here with Eric about a week later, sat by the window on the bar side at about 5:30 pm, and we each had a glass of sangria, sweet potato fries and some salmon sashimi. I like the friendly vibe here, and would come back yet again — especially for those salty-crisp fries.
MEAL: Margherita pizza; squash blossom with balsamic, bacon and honey;
glass of Summerland Viognier
On the site of the former World Café (a Main Street mainstay in the ’90s), this laid back bar/restaurant is centered around a breezy, fairy-lit courtyard paved with terra cotta tiles and featuring an outdoor fireplace. Billing itself as “focused on the social aspect of enjoying food,” Areal risks confusing this message with football posters out at the street and a TV on the patio. I’d rather it decided if it was a sports bar or a friendly place to linger over a meal.
The food was a little uneven, too. The sauce on their Margherita pizza packed a nice punch of oregano, but the dry, tasteless crust was a special disappointment to Eric, who counts a Margherita among his favorite things on Earth. However, Areal served up my favorite appetizer of the night: a light, crunchy, salty and sweet squash blossom that paired beautifully with a glass of crisp Viognier from Summerland, a small winery up near Santa Barbara.
On a non-game night, I can see myself stopping in here again for a glass of wine and a squash blossom or two; I haven’t had another one in Los Angeles that I’ve liked as much.
MEAL: grilled cheese and tomato soup; Delilah’s Elixir
(bourbon, raspberry juice, citrus, agave)
The former home of Santa Monica’s co-founder John Jones, this Victorian mansion was originally located on the site of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel (where you’ll still find the beloved Moreton Bay fig tree planted by Jones’ wife, Georgina). The house was moved here in the 1970s and set beside the the former home of Jones’ son Roy, which is now the California Heritage Museum.
Popular as a wedding and events location, The Victorian is also a happy hour draw. Out front, its brick patio is worth a swoon, with long light-cicles hanging from graceful Chinese elms, and good-looking locals (ages 20-50) enjoying some live music. During our tour, a talented duo were doing great justice to Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat.”
The dimly-lit front room was a bit less delightful. While young singles clustered by a small bar and a TV played an obscure noir film from the 1940s, we huddled around our iPhone flashlights, trying to see what we were eating and drinking. The barely-toasted wedge of grilled cheese and bland tomato soup didn’t inspire me to return for the food, but Eric and I found the sweet and fruity Delilah’s Elixir cocktail more to our liking.
The reason we’ll definitely be back, though, is the amazing downstairs bar, Basement Tavern. A windowless warren of cozy/quirky nooks dotted with leather armchairs, taxidermy, and exposed pipes, the focus here is on bourbon and not giving a damn what time it is. Can hardly wait to return.
MEAL: Juice blend of pineapple, cucumber, lemon and ginger;
walnut-bean nachos with cashew cheese
At the northern end of Main, this blissfully calm raw foods joint sports brass singing bowls and softly glowing alabaster votive holders on the tables. Opened in 2006, this is one of L.A.’s great success stories; they’ve managed to sway the hearts and minds of many folks who hear “raw food” and quite possibly make the face you’re making right now.
I loved the tart, green and warming juice we were given upon arrival, and could see making it as a treat for myself at home. The nachos were certainly compelling, with their sturdy, chewy chips, lemon-bright guacamole, spicy bean dip and drizzle of vegan cheese, but I wasn’t as wowed by them as Eric, who proclaimed them his favorite snack of the tour.
Note: I liked this restaurant’s peaceful mood and felt curious about the contents of its shiny dessert case, so a week or so after the tour, I returned here with my friend Sally for beverages and a treat. Our slice of pumpkin-apple “cheesecake” could have been more aptly described as a sweet apple cinnamon mousse. (Upon closer inspection, by the way, most of the desserts here appear to be balls of plant-stuffs rolled in coconut or seeds.) My coconut-pomegranate water was just lovely, while Sally’s bottle of water was billed as having an emotional frequency.
DESSERT: Italian ices topped with vanilla custard
Back in 1987, a fireman in Philly bought an Italian ice recipe from his neighbor, and now there are hundreds of Rita’s franchises in America. I was initially confused when I heard this is where we’d be having dessert, because I thought it couldn’t possibly be the same chain my brother had taken me to in Maryland. Happily, it was.
Rita’s calls its pairing of Italian ice and custard a “gelati,” and it’s absolutely delicious. Eric was happy with his choice of root beer ice (which really tastes like root beer), and I was thrilled by my combo of mango and coconut ice. Adding a dollop of rich vanilla custard gives this treat more depth and helps it melt more slowly; I may never have Italian ice all on its own again.
Note: On the east side of Main Street, the trash bins have mail-box-like handles that are freakishly heavy and hard to open. So, when you’re done with your Rita’s treat, hold out for the far more normal trashcans on the west side of the street (the side closer to the ocean).
A few things to keep in mind about A Taste of Santa Monica:
Dress for the weather and wear comfortable footwear.
Try to park in the public lots one block west of Main Street, along Neilson Way. The tour will last three hours, but you’ll probably want to pay for 3 ½ to 4 hours’ worth of parking, to be safe.
There’s a daytime version of this tour, focused around Santa Monica’s more touristy Third Street Promenade.
Destination Food Tours’ A Taste of Santa Monica
Progressive Dinner Tour
Thursday-Sunday, 6 – 9 pm
$79 US per person
We were sponsored guests of Destination Food Tours,
but all opinions expressed are our own.