Santa Monica is an obvious and popular destination for hanging out with friends or someone special. As a native, I’ve spent a lot of time there. Here are my top night and daytime itineraries for a fun time in my home town and the in the Palisades. Note: many of these involve a significant amount of walking.
1. Dinner and Drinks on Ocean Avenue
Ocean Avenue is a very popular spot for locals and tourists alike in Santa Monica.
Some of my favorite restaurants are Herringbone, Ivy at the Shore, and the Water Grill. For more details see my list of Best Restaurants and Bars on Ocean Avenue. Many of these restaurant are national chains, but they are high-end and have good food and ambiance.
Ocean Avenue has some of the hippest and most popular bars in Santa Monica. My favorites are The Veranda (at the Georgian Hotel), ONYX (the rooftop bar at the Hotel Shangri-La, with an amazing view), and The Bungalow (the ultra-popular outdoor bar at the Miramar Hotel). Yes, the common thread here is that these are all hotel bars, but they all have charming vintage ambiance. Note, Suite 700 and the Bungalow can get really crowded with singles later at night.
2. Palisades Park
After dinner and drinks on Ocean Avenue, cross the street to stroll along the cliffs at Palisades Park. There’s a great view of the ocean and pier, especially if you catch it during sunset.
If you’re there during the day, check out the Camera Obscura on Ocean near Arizona. It’s a pinhole-camera that you can pan 360 degrees. It’s nothing to get too excited about, but it has some old-school charm, and hey, it’s free and it’s a chance to cozy up to your date inside a dark room!
3. Third Street Promenade and Mall
Third Street Promenade is an obvious date destination with lots of interesting shops, restaurants, and street performers, ideal for an after-dinner stroll. At the end of the promenade is the Main Place mall, with more window-shopping opportunities.
There are tons of restaurants to choose from right on the Promenade, and many are just fine (like Locanda del Lago), but during peak periods they can be crowded with tourists and noisy – maybe not ideal for a quiet date. I’d like to recommend a few that are off the beaten path that I enjoy:
For great Italian food, I go to Fritto Misto, located a few blocks east at 601 Colorado Ave. (cross street is 6th Street). They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait during peak periods. This place is quite a way off the beaten path and has a feel of a neighborhood family-owned restaurant. Their fried seafood and pastas are outstanding. I like the jumbo chicken ravioli with sun-dried tomatoes and cream sauce (yes, it’s very heavy, but good). During peak periods, this place can be a bit noisy, but the reasonable prices, huge portions, and outstanding food make up for it. Insider tip: I recommend getting ONE appetizer, ONE salad, and ONE main dish and sharing it. It’s plenty of food for two people.
Some people say that Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa has the best sushi in Santa Monica, and I would agree. Their signature is the warm sushi rice. If you hate deciding, you can choose a set menu of sushi chosen by the chef. Note, however, that Sugarfish does not have California Rolls, chicken teriyaki, miso soup, or other common Japanese restaurant dishes. This is an authentic sushi place! Sugarfish is located on 2nd Street north of Santa Monica Boulevard.
If you are looking for a very high-end, quietly romantic dinner experience, check out Michael’s, which is famous for it’s sublime patio dining area. It’s very pricey, and portions are small, but if you need something formal near the Promenade, this fits the bill.
For a daytime activity, check out the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings on Arizona avenue and stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables, and more.
4. The Santa Monica Pier / Beach
The Santa Monica Pier is touristy, but can be fun. You’ll pass the vintage merry-go-round, the new Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and carnival games. Be sure to walk to the very end and look back towards land to see a great view of Santa Monica and Malibu. Generally, I avoid the restaurants on the pier itself, because they are crowded with tourists and noisy.
If you want some really quiet time, walk down from the pier to the beach. It’s hard to beat the simple pleasure of walking along the beach with someone special.
As great as the beach is during the day, I think it’s even more sublime at night. Bring a towel and blanket, find a spot, and listen to the waves. There’s usually not as many people there at after dark, making it a perfect place for an after-dinner stroll.
5. Casa del Mar / Urth Caffe
For great drinks, amazing ambiance, and a spectacular view of the sunset, go to the vintage lobby lounge at Casa del Mar. This is one of my favorite hangouts in Santa Monica. They sometimes have live music on Friday nights. Although this place is right by the Strand, it is a bit upscale, so if you’re in rollerblading attire you might need to throw something a bit nicer on, though they probably wouldn’t kick you out.
If I’m hungry, I usually just order food in the lounge area, although there is a formal seafood restaurant adjoining.
If you want coffee afterwards, take a walk to Main Street where Urth Caffé will satisfy your needs, with a great selection of organic coffees, teas, and awesome pastries! Or, if you’re willing to go for a longer walk, head over to the pier and see the Ferris wheel.
Coming in at number 7 on LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s list of 101 best restaurants is Cassia. Foodies will appreciate the French-Asian mashup which works splendidly. Last time I went, I had the Cold Sesame Noodles, Beef Rendang, and Grilled Chinese brocoli, all of which were excellent. Ambiance is very open and hip. My only complaint is that gets very noisy inside when at maximum capacity, so try to book a less-popular time if you want quieter conversation, or opt for an outdoor table if the weather allows.
After dinner, walk four blocks to Third Street Promenade and burn off some of the calories while window-shopping.
7. Brentwood Country Mart
At the intersection of 26th Street and San Vicente, you’ll find a charming farmhouse-themed shopping area called the Brentwood Country Mart. Stroll the shops or dine in the inner courtyard. For dessert, you must go to Sweet Rose Creamery located there. There’s always a line, so be prepared to wait!
8. Bergamot Station Art Galleries
If you’re into art, check out Bergamot Station, a large complex of art galleries located right next to the 26th Street exit of the Expo Line. Parking is free. There is no admission charge, but certain galleries are by-appointment only at certain times, although most are open to everyone without appointment from Tuesday through Saturday. There are over twenty galleries to browse, but check out their special open house events. Grab a bite at their cafe, then take the train to Third Street Promenade for further adventures.
9. The Penthouse at the Huntley Hotel
For the absolute best views of Santa Monica and many miles around, there’s no substitute for the Penthouse at the Huntley Hotel. The restaurant features new American cuisine, friendly staff, and amazing ambiance, especially around sunset.
Later on in the night, the restaurant has a more rowdy dance-club atmosphere, but it’s perfectly fine for a quiet dinner before then.
After dinner, it’s only a short walk to Third Street Promenade or Ocean Avenue. The penthouse at the Huntley is great for those special-occasion dates!
10. The Strand, then Cha Cha Chicken
How about a low-cost daytime date idea? Santa Monica is well-known for the Strand, the beach pathway where you can jog, bike, or Rollerblade all the way down to Venice.
There are lots of beach parking lots. I like to park at the one next to Casa del Mar, off of Bay Street, since it is a good, central location.
Afterward biking or blading on the Strand, a perfect place for an informal but really good lunch or dinner is Cha Cha Chicken, an outdoor Caribbean joint at 1906 Ocean Ave. south of Pico. It is very reasonably priced and has great Jamaican food (mmm, plantains), and you’ll be fine going there in rollerblading attire. There might be a line, but it goes fast and it’s worth it!!
If you want drinks afterwards, Casa del Mar is just one block away!
11. The Santa Monica Food Truck Lot on Tuesdays
Every Tuesday evening on Main Street, you can choose from six or seven food trucks which park adjacent to the Victorian from 4 or 4:30 PM (depending on time of year) to 9:30PM. Unlike the insane Venice First Friday food truck night, this food truck event is tranquil and relaxing. There are no long lines, and parking is no worse than usual. Bring a blanket and picnic in the lawn of the Heritage Museum below the lights in the trees. It’s kind of romantic when it gets dark. Or, if it’s too cold out, have your food at the Victorian; they don’t mind as long as you buy drinks. Afterwards, walk around Main Street to work off the calories.
If you are looking for the ultimate French dining experience for a special occasion, and have deep pockets, go to Melisse. Its reputation is unmatched, with four-and-a-half stars on Yelp. The award-winning menu and service are impeccable. It’s been voted Zagat’s number one rated restaurant in Los Angeles. It’s a perfect place to take a foodie on an anniversary or birthday.
There’s not much else to do near there other than grab a coffee at Starbuck’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. But, Third Street Promenade is a short drive away, and an ideal place to walk off the amazing meal you just had.
13. Montana Avenue / Forma
If you are looking to avoid the crowds and craziness of the Promenade and surrounding area, check out the much quieter and sublime Montana Avenue, which runs parallel to Wilshire, four blocks north. It’s a charming street with lots of restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and stores.
My top date restaurant recommendation on Montana Avenue is Forma, named after its star ingredient, “Formaggio”, cheese. They’re known for preparing their pastas inside of carved-out cheese wheels. If you can get a table nearby, it’s fun to watch!
Other restaurants on Montana that I like are Art’s Table (American), Father’s Office for great burgers and beer (crowded during the weekend though), R&D Kitchen, and Margo’s. For Italian, I like Osteria Bigoli. A charming place for lunch or brunch is the Courtyard Kitchen. For dessert you can walk to Sweet Lady Jane Bakery.
Afterwards, take a stroll down Montana. Most of the stores will be closed at night but you can window-shop. It’s a pleasant walk.
14. Main Street
Main Street in Santa Monica is another area with some great restaurants and bars. One of my favorites is Thirty One Ten, which features indoor and outdoor dining, as well as an outdoor fire pit in the bar area. It’s usually pretty quiet during dinner time, but can get loud later in the night for the bar/club singles crowd.
Chaya Venice is highly recommended for its seafood and overall nice atmosphere.
For a unique bar experience, walk further down Main Street, to the Victorian, a super-charming vintage “home” with several bars (it’s sometimes closed for special events though). If the Victorian is rented out, go to the back and enter the Basement Tavern for drinks and occasional live music. Note these venues get pretty crowded on weekend nights with young single people, so those times may not be ideal for a quiet date.
For coffee and dessert, I’ve already mentioned Urth Caffe, which is awesome.
Main Street has it’s downsides. It’s a bit on the seedy side. There can be lots of homeless people there. But, it’s improving and can be a fun and interesting area.
15. Tar & Roses
This unassuming restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd. with a somewhat unappetizing name gets rave reviews from foodies who appreciate the small and medium-sized plates. It’s great for a date because you share and get to try a lot of dishes.
The dining room is small so be sure to make reservations. This place can get noisy if there’s a big party seated that night, just be aware. After dinner, take a short walk to Third Street Promenade to burn off the calories! Tar & Roses serves New American cuisine.
16. Milo + Olive
This neighborhood restaurant specializes in wood-fired pizzas, home-made pastas, and wonderful salads (their steak salad is amazing).
They don’t take reservations and the lines are usually long. But, the food is worth it. Their signature oven-baked garlic knot is a “must-try” (be aware of the 20-minute prep time though).
This place can be crowded and noisy, so I actually recommend sitting side-by-side at the bar, where you can sit closer together and watch the kitchen in action. It’s almost like watching a show. If you’re prepared for the wait, Milo + Olive can be a satisfying casual foodie date destination.
If you’re looking for authentic Japanese-style ramen in Santa Monica which rivals what is available on Sawtelle or in Little Tokyo, look no further than Ippudo. This is a Japan-based restaurant with only a few locations in the United States. The Santa Monica location just opened and they haven’t even updated their website yet.
Get the noodles firm; that’s the way I like them anyway. If you have soup left over you can get more noodles to add in for a small charge. Don’t forget their amazing buns, with pork, shrimp, or other fillings, as well.
They don’t take reservations but the line moves quickly. The space is a bit noisy but it’s worth it for the food. This is not a quiet date spot – go when you’re craving good ramen!
Ippudo is located on 2nd Street just south of Santa Monica Blvd. near the Third Street Promenade.
18. Santa Monica Seafood
Santa Monica Seafood on Wilshire is one of our favorite “go to” restaurants in the area. If you have a craving for oysters, (or want to give them a try), look no further than this neighborhood restaurant and seafood market, which has some of the freshest catches around. (Their motto is “the freshest seafood in the West”).
The environment is casual and lively. Basically the restaurant is part of an on-site fish market which actually supplies other local restaurants with seafood. I wouldn’t go here for a formal date, but it’s great if you just want amazing food.
Note, they don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait if you go at peak dinner times. Hint – the bar sometimes has a shorter wait, and you get to watch them shuck the oysters there.
What Are Your Favorites?
Well, there you have it! My picks for cool areas in or near Santa Monica to hang out at. Please leave your ideas and comments below! I’d love to hear about some unknown restaurant or bar that you’ve discovered.