The future of Santa Monica’s culinary scene
Those who’ve lived or worked in Santa Monica for a long time say that the city’s come far, even if it may have lost some of its cool, indie cred along the way. “[The restaurants] have become more sophisticated,” says Feniger. “Blue Plate, Water Grill, Santa Monica Yacht Club, Milo & Olive -- all these places popped up in the last five, seven, years.”
When Loeb returned here after living in food-centric cities like New York City, San Francisco, and Berkeley, he realized his was missing out on something: “Santa Monica had some high-end, special-occasion restaurants like Mélisse and Michael’s,” he says. “And then they had [Numero Uno]. There wasn’t a whole lot in between.” His solution was Rustic Canyon, which the community welcomed with open arms. “The story in Santa Monica is that you shouldn’t open a restaurant here because everyone eats at home,” he says. “The reality is that we do have access to a great farmers market and generally a lot of people have nice kitchens, so they can cook at home if they want. They’re not going to go out unless there’s something worthy. But as soon as something is worthy, they’ll go crazy. A lot of restaurants, including ours, have seen that if you make something really good, people will go. Nobody wants to have to drive across town for a good restaurant. So the community here is very supportive of the restaurants they love -- at least in our experience.”
Santa Monica has almost everything: beaches, balmy weather, beautiful homes, laid-back vibes. But even with all of its charms, the city’s culinary scene still comes up short compared to LA’s thriving food destinations. (Which is too bad, considering how much its residents appreciate good food). “I think a great city is when you hit on all cylinders and the people, environment, independent businesses, and physical beauty is supported,” explains Loeb. “I think you want to have all those things going and it’s the one part of the city that’s kind of brushed off. We opened these restaurants in Santa Monica because we love it and we wanted to have good places to go to, not just because we wanted places to own. We want others to open great places here and it’s frustrating when you see spaces taken up by corporate chains that don’t have any soul or connection to the area.”
The city insists that despite these adversities, opening a restaurant in Santa Monica is still highly advantageous. “For any challenges Santa Monica presents as an expensive, competitive location, the benefits are greater,” McKeown promises. There’s no shortage of people clamoring to do business in this beautiful city, including Makani Gerardi, who’s the chef/owner of Pono Burger. “We chose Santa Monica because we wanted to be a part of this community, especially because it's always changing -- from the growth of the tech segment to most recently, the new Metro line. There are a lot of restaurants here, but there are also a lot of people to feed, so we just focus on doing that and doing it with care.” Meanwhile, Licklider says that since Aestus closed, he’s received numerous inquiries from restaurant operators about the location. No wonder new incarnations keep popping up where Santa Monica restaurants shutter: Real Food Daily’s been turned into another plant-based concept, Erven; a modern Greek joint called Inotheke has set up shop in the old Hostaria del Piccolo space; and seafood restaurant Maré’s taken up residence in the former JiRaffe.
Only time will tell if these dining establishments will survive and thrive -- and for the sake of our stomachs, fingers crossed they do.