By Jimmy Im
Southern California’s many beach towns are often as charming as they are eternal, steeped in the laid-back cool of surf culture and anchored by the historic and seemingly unchanging State Route 1. Therein lies the reason Santa Monica shines. The world-famous coastal city is equally progressive and authentic, constantly expanding and evolving while never losing touch with its roots. Decades-old lobster eateries share the same streets as elegant restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs; contemporary designer boutiques set up shop in historic promenades and new parks pay tribute to the area’s storied heritage. Having cultivated a world-renowned identity with its terrific beaches, thriving Third Street Promenade and, of course, the iconic Santa Monica Pier, there is always something exciting to discover in this dynamic city that’s undeniably trendsetting and still quintessentially sunny Californian.
Embrace the Oudoors
Since it was established in 1875, Santa Monica’s sound infrastructure has grown rapidly with new restaurants, condos, shops and attractions, but its seaside landscape remains unchanged. Miles of sandy beaches, public parks and a world-famous boardwalk inspire locals and visitors alike to immerse themselves in outdoor fitness. The city attracts the active crowd, who take up hiking, swimming and organized classes in the park, such as boot camp, yoga and beach volleyball (which arguably originated in Santa Monica in the 1920s). A new outdoor experience luring fitness aficionados is Roga on the Pier. A hybrid of running and yoga, Roga is a free workout on Saturday mornings with a 2- to 5-mile scenic run (or walk), followed by a yoga class at the end of the famed Santa Monica Pier. The next session will run Sept. 19 through Oct. 24.
Thanks to a citywide bicycle movement, biking has pedaled its way to the top of the outdoor activities list. In fact, the Santa Monica Bike Center (which offers full-day bicycle rentals just a few blocks from the Pier) has seen a spike in visitors, prompting it to launch urban bicycle tours. The new program offers a variety of options which showcase the city’s memorable sights and attractions: the Urban Farming Tour explores local farms and gardens, the Street Art Tour offers appreciation for West Coast legal graffiti, and the Sweet Spots Tour includes a sampling of gourmet desserts.
Biking dramatically shifts gears at Izip Store, a local favorite for buying and renting electric bikes (or e-bikes), a European trend that’s breaking into the U.S. market. E-bikes run on electric power as well as traditional pedaling. They have futuristic frames, and are quite thrilling at higher speeds—not to mention perfect for those who normally strain on a traditional pedal bicycle. Haibike is the most popular option with visitors.
Since Izip opened in Santa Monica, celebrities like Maggie Lawson and Michelle Rodriguez have purchased e-bikes from the store, and Leonardo DiCaprio recently visited. “E-bikes are great for Santa Monica due to the city’s great bike infrastructure compared to the cities that surround,” says Izip store manager Steve Ryu. “Protected bike lanes are painted green; there’s great bike parking; valet is offered at the local farmers market and most hotels; and Santa Monica even has a beach bike path. It’s the perfect place to ride a bike.”
Time to Dine
Whether it’s fresh seafood or an avant-garde tasting menu, Santa Monica is home to a fantastic culinary scene that’s garnered attention for its
distinguished health-conscious, farm-to-table dining. Thanks to a major epicurean revolution, foodies have every reason to make the city their new stomping ground.
Kye’s, a new superfood mecca on highbrow Montana Avenue, is spearheading the fast-casual trend in Santa Monica. Focusing on healthful dining, Kye’s claim to fame is its KyeRito, a portable wrap that showcases a medley of premium, locally sourced fare conceived by owner Jeanne Cheng. “Our concept offers healthy and delicious options that meet every dietary preference, packaged conveniently for beach picnics,” she says. “Locals appreciate what we are offering since Santa Monica focuses on fresh, quality ingredients—with their fantastic farmer’s market—and on healthy food in general.”
Main Street was the go-to for destination dining back in the 1980s (when Wolfgang Puck opened Chinois) though it fell into a slump when few other restaurants were able to measure up. But the stretch is now experiencing a revival: About a dozen notable restaurants opened on the bustling street in 2014 alone, proving that it’s establishing itself as a contending dining hub once again. The award for most popular goes to Fork in the Road, a casual, farm-to-table restaurant that serves up hearty new-American dishes like short rib ravioli and pork belly and brown egg flatbread.
Since opening in 2013, the Water Grill has become the “it” restaurant in Santa Monica, and with good reason. The 8,600-square-foot eatery on Ocean Avenue is breezy and fun, and Executive Chef Damon Gordon’s fresh seafood options, including whole fish, cioppino and bites from a raw bar, are some of the city’s best. You’re in luck to arrive when the soft-shell crab is in season, May to September. Equally notable is the restaurant design, with rustic wooden beams, large columns inlaid with white subway tiles from New York subways, and comfortable leather sofas.
From upscale emporiums to designer boutiques, shopping is a Santa Monica highlight in itself. It isn’t unusual for visitors to peel away from the beach and devote an entire day to exploring local retailers. Most make a beeline to Third Street Promenade, essentially three blocks of Third Street that were converted into a pedestrian mall in the 1960s, though it has served as the center of business since the town’s inception. The area includes internationally recognized chains like H&M, Old Navy and American Apparel, and is also home to outdoor events, street performers and a bi-weekly farmer’s market.
Just a short stroll away is Santa Monica Place, a Frank Gehry-designed mall. It features world-famous department stores like Barneys New York, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, as well as designer shops like Burberry, Coach and Emporio Armani. But famous designers are only half the Santa Monica shopping scene, as more independent stores helmed by fashion-industry veterans are opening their doors nearby.
“As the demographic proves the affluence level has greatly elevated—thanks to the arrival of Google and many other top companies to the beachside Santa Monica community—so has the arrival of great boutiques to shop,” explains Marie Shaffer, former denim buyer at Fred Segal and owner of Hail Mary, a new multibrand boutique and denim bar selling high-end labels like LA-based eis. “We are always refining our niche and trending the up-and-coming designers who don’t have corporate structure. Customers have been coming back to us to see what’s next, and Hail Mary is in constant evolution.”
A larger-than-life retail store is Ron Robinson, opened this past winter by its legendary namesake. (The brand first debuted at Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue in 1978.) The massive flagship
store is 5,500 square feet and beautifully designed with bleached wood floors, sea-glass accents and modern displays featuring an array of merchandise, from clothing and books to jewelry and gifts.
The Night Goes On
Once upon a time, Santa Monica was a hotbed for older residents who permanently settled in the quaint seaside town for decades. But today, the younger generation is attracted to Santa Monica’s rapid development and growth, which naturally prompted a worthwhile nightlife scene.
The Misfit Restaurant + Bar, which opened in 2011, caters to the youthful crowd with its dimly-lit interiors and whimsical brasserie feel, with tall mirrors and velvet curtains, hanging bulb lamps and rotating local art. After hours, the restaurant transforms into a thriving bar scene packed with surf crews, techie hipsters and fashion trendsetters. The craft cocktails served there are innovative and unique, and it’s one of the few places in Santa Monica with a velvet rope for entrance (mind the dress code—no shorts or flip flops).
The Bungalow on Wilshire Boulevard is where visitors will really need to dress to impress for entrance: The line often wraps around the building. The sprawling, indoor/outdoor space is elegantly lit with retro-style interiors, but it’s the high-style crowd that really woos.
A brilliant new addition to the local bar scene is, well, Brilliantshine. It takes craft cocktail bars to a whole new level with drinks served in bottom-lit bulbs and delicious bites that are paired with the cocktails (rather the traditional reverse). While Brillantshine is something you would expect to debut in downtown LA, it’s a perfect fit for Santa Monica’s burgeoning nightlife.
Still, there’s no shame in an early bedtime in a city where the sunrise illuminates already-awake surfers, joggers, cyclists and others taking advantage of every drop of daylight. Early bird or night owl, active body or shopping enthusiast, there is plenty to fill every itinerary in the timeless yet ever-evolving beach-side Santa Monica.
Notable for its prime location just steps from the Santa Monica Pier, Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel is a 347-room, oceanfront resort with terrific views, offering modern luxury and pampering amenities including gourmet restaurants, an eco-friendly spa and a variety of fitness classes. It enhanced the guest experience this spring, when it unveiled a brand-new pool and pool deck.
“Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel was built on a cliff which lends itself perfectly to being able to capitalize on all that the city of Santa Monica has to offer,” says Chef Concierge Michael Fox. “When you exit our back door, you have the beach right in our backyard. You will see the iconic Santa Monica Pier right to the north and the rest of Santa Monica Beach and Venice to the south. Our lobby is located on the fourth floor so, when you exit our front door, you have the famous Third Street Promenade and the popular shops and restaurants of Main Street right at our doorstep. We are centrally located in Santa Monica … and we are only 8 miles from LAX.”