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This must be Santa Monica

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New York City has the Empire State Building, Hollywood has cutout letters strung across a hillside, and Santa Monica has its pier: a single, focus-pulling element that looms large in the public consciousness. So large, in fact, that it attracts an estimated 10 million tourists a year. Some come to ride the world’s only solar-powered, LED-covered Ferris wheel. Others come to complete a a pilgrimage that began in Chicago — reaching the western terminus of historic Route 66.

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But there’s more to the roughly 8.3-square-mile city than that 1,651 feet of wood jutting out into the Pacific Ocean — much, much more. If you let your gaze wander away from the Ferris wheel, past the stretch of sand next to it and inland from the endless blue ocean, you’ll discover that the city at the end of the Mother Road was also at the beginning of aviation history. And, if you have the right guide, you might just find yourself collecting mermaids in a nautically themed bar, noshing on the best grilled cheese sandwich in the universe or catching a stand-up comedy set performed by kids.

That’s not to say you should skip a trip to the fabled Santa Monica Pier. Far from it. Especially if you’ve never done it before. Like Times Square in New York, it’s the kind of teeming tourist throng everyone (except, perhaps, the severely agoraphobic) should experience at least once. Pause under the iconic archway (take a selfie or it didn’t happen). Seek out the End of the Trail Route 66 marker out on the pier (the long-decommissioned historic highway technically ended at the intersection of Lincoln and Olympic boulevards). While you’re there, get your amusement-park fix at Pacific Park. If a stroll is more your style, then seek out Ocean Front Walk instead.

But only do it after you’ve made a promise to yourself. A promise that, once you’ve given in to the pier pressure, once you’ve spent some time in the tourist catch basin at the foot of Colorado Boulevard, you’ll give the rest of Santa Monica its due by roaming farther afield and digging in a little deeper. Promise to take a workout class that makes you feel like a pole dancer. Or swim in the pool William Randolph Hearst had built for his mistress. Or shop a parking lot for the perfect piece of Midcentury Modern furniture, tuck into a plate of chicken and waffles, or kick back in a busy urban park to watch baby boomers lawn bowl.

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If you do, we’ll promise you something in exchange: Next time you head off to explore Santa Monica, the pier won’t loom quite as large and what once seemed like the end of a fabled road is actually the beginning of an adventure. — Adam Tschorn

What's included in this guide

Anyone who’s lived in a major metropolis can tell you that neighborhoods are a tricky thing. They’re eternally malleable and evoke sociological questions around how we place our homes, our neighbors and our communities within a wider tapestry. In the name of neighborly generosity, we included gems that may linger outside of technical parameters. Instead of leaning into stark definitions, we hope to celebrate all of the places that make us love where we live.

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Booths at Rae's Restaurant.
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Grab breakfast the way it's been since 1958 at Rae’s Restaurant

Santa Monica American
A simple recipe for starting any day right: Head to this tiny diner that’s been a local fixture for nearly 70 years. Grab a seat at one of the 18 counter seats (or, if your party is larger than one, plop down in one of the dozen booths). Order a cup of steaming hot joe and order some breakfast. Maybe you’ll gravitate toward the 2 + 2 + 2 (two eggs, two pancakes and either two strips of bacon or two sausages). Perhaps you’ve got the chicken-fried steak in your sights. Or maybe the buttermilk biscuits and country gravy — presented like a bowl of peppery chowder — is more your speed. Whatever it is, if you’re expecting classic diner fare you won’t leave disappointed. Or hungry.

Longtime readers of The Times might be familiar with Rae’s, which was most recently featured in a guide to classic local diners in 2022. The only thing that’s changed since then (or 1958, really) is that the old metal cash register is gone and the once famously cash-only diner now accepts credit cards.

From where I’m sitting — at the counter on a well-worn blue upholstered stool — the day doesn’t start much better than that.
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The pool and beach at the Annenberg Community Beach House.
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Summer like a silent film star at the Annenberg Community Beach House

Santa Monica Beach House
In the 1920s, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst snapped up 15 beach lots on this narrow sliver of land between the Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica State Beach and built a love nest for his mistress, silent-film actor Marion Davies. At its height, the compound included a William Flannery-designed Georgian Revival main house and four other homes, boasting a total of 110 bedrooms and 55 bathrooms. Residents and guests were tended to by a retinue of 30 full-time servants.

Today, the property is owned by the state and leased to the city of Santa Monica. It is home to a beachside facility that includes volleyball courts, changing rooms and a community events space. While most of the evidence of that era is long gone, two things remain: a single building — known as the Guest House — and an elaborately tiled pool, both designed by famed architect Julia Morgan. The former is open for tours (free, Friday through Monday, noon to 2 p.m.), but it’s the latter that makes this the ideal place to head to for a you-can-have-it-all beach excursion between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

That’s because, if you’re lucky enough to score a $10 pool pass (sold only in person on a first-come, first-served basis, and you’ll shell out another $12 to park all day), you’ll have access to the very same pool where Davies hosted the likes of Charlie Chaplin, restored to its Gold Coast glory, complete with green and white marble decking, mosaic pool-bottom tiles and an exquisite hand-painted decorative fish motif. What makes this a clutch place to post up is that, should you wish to leave your lounger in the lap of luxury — even briefly — you’re just steps from the sand and a few more steps from the Pacific Ocean. It’s the best of both worlds. No affair with a newspaper magnate required.
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A person stands at the bar of the Galley restaurant.
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Add to your mermaid collection at the Galley restaurant and bar

Santa Monica Steakhouse Seafood
This nautical-themed hole in the wall, which opened in 1934, is believed to be the oldest in Santa Monica and is visual comfort food at its finest. From the constellation of year-round Christmas lights covering the ceiling to the sawdust on the floors and every puffer fish, ship’s wheel, fishing net and rusted lantern in between, it feels like a safe haven, a reliable, never-changing friendly port of call tricked out in bamboo, starfish and life preservers. (How never-changing? Some of the decor is nearly as old as the restaurant itself, having come from the 1935 film “Mutiny on the Bounty”).

Some pop in for the nightly 5 to 7 p.m. happy hours. Others come seeking a solid steak (you can’t go wrong with the 14-ounce New York strip — ask for peppercorn) or the salad dressing with a backstory (it involves the restaurant’s purchase by its current owner). For me it’s about collecting mermaids — the tiny colorful, plastic ones that arrive at the table with their elbows over the rim of your Mai Tai (or martini or Manhattan) like a hot-tubbing house guest, a cherry or olive skewered upon her tail. I cherish these mermaids, usually hanging one in a front shirt pocket or tucking her through the buttonhole on my lapel as I head out the door. When I get home, I add them (there are usually two — I don’t like them to be lonely) to the candy-colored collection on the corner of my desk. Whenever I find myself in the doldrums, I just pick one up and try to remember how she ended up here. How I traveled back in time, how I set sail without weighing anchor and how I found my sea legs in that magical place beyond the porthole windows where the Christmas lights are always up, the sawdust is always down and the ship’s wheel is always in my hands.
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A view of the Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica.
(Douglas Friedman)

Take a Wes Anderson-worthy staycation at the Georgian

Santa Monica Historic Hotel
Even on the visually cluttered, traffic-clogged pier-adjacent main drag, this jewel box of a hotel stands out thanks to its unabashedly Wes Anderson aesthetic: bellmen in crisp pastel uniforms and matching pillbox hats, boldly striped awnings and a fa?ade in a shade of turquoise that plays perfectly off the setting sun over the Pacific. Built in 1933 and recently restored to its former glory, this eight-story hotel is an Art Deco delight that’s worth checking out even if you’re not checking in.

Just inside the front door you can grab a cocktail or a glass of Champagne at a horseshoe-shaped bar appointed in emerald quartzite. Toward the back you can browse the Library Lounge (curated by Arcana: Books on the Arts) or the artwork on display in the on-site Gallery 33. (A recent visit found the walls hung with paintings by Alexandria Hilfiger, daughter of fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.) Dining options include a breezy front patio or a dark, subterranean speakeasy spot.

If you do decide to spend the night (rooms start at $509, suites at $870), consider a suite if only because the built-in, floor-to-ceiling bars in each of them have the most indulgent four buttons this side of Willy Wonka’s great glass elevator. Above each brass button is a label (“Champagne,” “Book Club,” “Dessert” and “The Usual”) that, when pressed, summons a room-service delivery of said item. (“The Usual,” set up during check-in, can be anything you’ve specified — perhaps an extra-dirty martini or the local newspaper.)
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A person sunbathes at Douglas Park in Santa Monica
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Enjoy an urban oasis at Douglas Park

Santa Monica Park
All of one block wide and wedged between a pickleball outfitter and a Del Taco on a bustling stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, this is an easy park to overlook — especially if the ocean is beckoning barely two miles away. But once you’ve spent even a few minutes exploring this urban oasis, you’ll find it impossible to forget, thanks to the way it slopes gently uphill away from a flat, neatly manicured lawn bowling green fronting Wilshire to paths meandering upward past majestic trees toward playground equipment and tennis courts in the back.

Giving the park a particularly tranquil feel is its focus-pulling waterscape: three manmade ponds and a gently gurgling waterfall connected by meandering streams. Considered the largest municipal pond in the country, and dating to 1931, it feels barely bigger than a Beverly Hills hotel pool but teems with wildlife; ducks paddling serenely on the surface, a dole of turtles sunning on a grassy outcropping and hummingbirds flitting about on a never-ending hunt for nectar. A sign posted nearby explains the presence of some of those ducks and turtles: They’re illegally abandoned pets that have since become part of the urban-meets-nature ecosystem. (The sign discourages folks from feeding the animals, which, judging from the slice of white bread floating in one of the ponds on a recent visit, may be an oft-ignored plea.)

Two things to note for first-time visitors: First, even though the park is open to the public, the fenced-in bowling green part is not. It’s overseen by the Santa Monica Bowls Club (which will happily offer a free lesson to anyone interested in exploring the sport). Second, before you leave, be sure to check out the plaque installed at the southwestern corner of the park barely a bean-and-cheese burrito’s toss away from Del Taco’s front door. That’s where you’ll learn about the park’s namesake and place in aviation history: It’s named for Donald Douglas, who opened an aircraft factory in the site in the 1920s that would build the first planes to circumnavigate the globe in 1924.
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Visitors, reflected against a window, at Santa Monica Museum of Art building at Bergamot Station.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Enjoy chaos-free culture at Bergamot Station Arts Center

Santa Monica Art Gallery
Because it’s tucked away at the dead end of Michigan Avenue a couple of tight right turns just off the 10 Freeway, you’re not likely to discover this former rail yard turned creative arts complex by accident (unless maybe you’ve overshot the valet stand en route to Birdie G’s). Which is too bad, because it’s a welcome respite from the pedestrian-clogged chaos closer to the pier.

The city-owned, privately managed complex, which turns 30 this year, is best known for the deep bench of art galleries (19 as of this writing) and assorted art exhibitions and installations that call the funky chic cluster of corrugated-steel-clad warehouses home. But it’s worth making a beeline (or taking Metro’s E Line, which stops here) even if you’re not browsing for wall candy. That’s because the offerings here also include a low-key place to grab an outdoor bite to eat (Le Great Outdoor), polish your screenplay (Writers Boot Camp), catch a Pinter play (at City Garage Theatre, which has made its home here since 2010) or shop for an artsy gift (at Our Gallery Store, adjacent to Lois Lambert Gallery and the Gallery of Functional Art).

More recently, the center has become a destination for live laughs thanks to 2-year-old comedy club the Crow. In addition to featuring traditional stand-up sets by the kind of funny folk you’d recognize from Netflix, HBO or Comedy Central, the Crow’s programming includes Comedy Confessional (secrets are anonymously collected from the audience and worked into comedy acts), Read the Room (comedy show meets tarot reading) and comedy showcases for kids.
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An airplane on the exterior of the Museum of Flying.
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Explore Santa Monica's role in early aviation at the Museum of Flying

Santa Monica Museum
The nose section of a FedEx delivery plane jutting out of the side of a hangar-like building. A red, white and blue DC-3 held aloft on a concrete pedestal. A cluster of fighter jets in a parking lot. These aircraft, as eye-catching as they are, merely hint at the collection of winged wonderment to be found just inside the corrugated metal fa?ade of this museum located at Santa Monica Airport. Arranged roughly chronologically from the Wright brothers’ early flight to space travel, the collection in the two-story space (built on the collection of Douglas Aircraft Co. founder Donald W. Douglas Sr.) is a hodgepodge of artifacts, movie props (several from “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”) and who’s who of American flight.

Its strongest suit is showcasing Southern California’s — and Santa Monica’s in particular — contributions to aviation. These include Douglas building the first planes to circle the globe (in what’s now a park just off Wilshire Boulevard) and churning out 90% of the world’s commercial aircraft from 1935 to 1957. One exhibit explains how a Douglas factory in Santa Monica was camouflaged as a fake town to protect it from aerial attacks during World War II. Another consists of a slender plank of wood in a glass case that looks unremarkable — until you realize you’re staring at a piece of Howard Hughes’ famed H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose. It was, you’ll discover from the accompanying text, actually made of birch. You’ll even be able to peer into the cockpit of a Boeing 727 once used by Federal Express (that’s the nose section that appears to be taxiing toward Airport Avenue).

You can breeze through in less than an hour or while away an entire afternoon. It all depends on two things. The first is how much you’re into aviation history. The second is whether you swing by on one of the select Sundays that the blue and yellow gondola-shaped MaxFlight simulator is operating ($8 in addition to the $10 museum entrance fee; call ahead to make sure it’s up and running). One of the museum’s big draws, it can put you in the virtual pilot seat for pleasure flights or aerial combat sorties alike.
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The exterior of Chez Jay in Santa Monica
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Dine like Hollywood royalty at Chez Jay

Santa Monica Dive Bar
If you’re headed to this landmark eatery a seashell’s toss from the pier, you might be tempted to grab a table on the first-come, first-served patio where you can enjoy the coastal breeze and soak in the sun. Don’t. Book a table inside — even if it means planning ahead — because you don’t really come to this nautically themed dive-bar-meets-time-capsule to grab a bite to eat so much as you do to feast (gorge yourself, really) on its rich history.

There’s the story of the Astro-Nut — a peanut from the restaurant that patron Alan Shepard smuggled to the moon and back aboard Apollo 14, later presenting it to the owner. There’s the small sign near the bar noting that it’s home to the oldest Heineken tap in Santa Monica. There’s the constellation of Hollywood stars who have dined, drank and debauched here since it opened in 1959: Lee Marvin (who apparently rode his motorcycle up to the bar to order a drink), Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, John Belushi, Jim Morrison and Judy Garland, to name just a few. And it would be hard to find a spot as steeped in restaurant seating lore as the curtained-off Table 10 where the Rat Pack dined with Marilyn Monroe, Warren Beatty entertained his lady friends and, in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg reportedly passed the Pentagon Papers to a New York Times reporter.

You don’t need a seat at that fabled table to be treated like Hollywood royalty, though; any one in the postage-stamp-sized dining room will do. Order a stiff drink before dinner (a dirty martini feels right), and whatever you order for an entree — maybe the butter steak aux fines herbes or the swordfish “roti” au poivre — consider making the La Jolla potatoes your side dish. It’s a wholly unappetizing-sounding but absolutely delicious combination of potatoes, cheese and bananas that comes with its own bit of Hollywood lore. It was invented by actor Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock in the original “Star Trek” series) and the restaurant’s founder, Jay Fiondella, who had roomed together in the 1950s.

There’s a strict no-photos policy inside, so consider commemorating your visit on the way out by snapping a selfie in front of the giant clam shell next to the parking lot. Because you’ll no doubt be leaving as happy as a ... well, you know.
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Three people sit at a pub table. One person is clutching his head with both hands.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Have fun feeling stupid at O'Brien's Irish Pub

Santa Monica Bar
Some folks might be drawn to this 30-year-old bar for the Irish pub grub (think corned beef and cabbage, bangers and mash and a served-all-day Irish breakfast), or to down a pint and watch a game on one of the 15 big-screen TVs. But I head here on a Wednesday night to be humbled. Schooled. Taken down a peg or six in the mastery of trivial knowledge. That’s when the O’Brien’s Irish Pub quiz folks convene to stage the longest-running pub quiz in the L.A. area.

It is hands-down the most challenging, vexing, brain-straining, genius-level test of useless knowledge you’re likely to encounter in a SoCal bar — and maybe anywhere else. It’s the place seasoned game-show question writers and researchers — and a whole bunch of “Jeopardy!” champs — can be found dueling on the elevated plains of arcana, and mere mortals are likely to feel like collateral damage, clutching their skulls and drowning their sorrows in draft beer and well drinks.

The Wednesday night contests here (there are also Monday and Tuesday night games hosted by different game runners) are organized by a cabal of big-brained folks who post up in the corner of the bar just to the right of the entrance. Roughly 30 in number, they take turns writing the slate of weekly questions, as well as serving as the quizmaster who unleashes them in two timed, 15-question rounds. There are also bonus-question rounds with seemingly impossible asks such as matching Pantone color swatches to audio tracks (the brownish 17-1134 would be the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” for example) or sussing out film titles from punny clues (“paternity of Apollo or Kartikeya (1972)” would lead the learned to “The Godfather”). It might just be the most fun you’ll ever have losing.
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Two people stand in front of Pasjoli.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Order the best grilled cheese in the universe at Pasjoli

Santa Monica French $$$
Ever since I wrote a column claiming that the Croque Matthieu from Pasjoli is the best grilled cheese in the universe, I’ve had relatives and random people sliding into my DMs and readers emailing me to ask if it’s true. Really? The best in the universe? I stand by this opinion. I know I’m right when the sandwich hits the bar counter and my fingers embrace its shiny edges. When I take my first bite and the butter leaks from the bread and I get the first bit of crunchy Gruyère. When the Mornay sauce and onions turn into a melty, luscious center slapped next to the salty ham. I stand by what I said. Name a better grilled cheese sandwich. I’ll wait. Please note that the sandwich is only available between 5:15 and 7 p.m. at the bar.
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The sign and entrance of the Brentwood Country Mart.
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Take a retro retail romp through the Brentwood Country Mart

Brentwood Shopping Center
Upscale shopping meets nostalgic longing at this 76-year-old high-end plaza that abuts Santa Monica’s eastern border just south of San Vicente Boulevard. Part of that has to do with the look — a red-and-white barn-like fa?ade fresh out of Mayberry, two courtyard areas full of gleaming white, umbrella-shaded picnic tables and the occasional coin-operated toy horse that you probably thought went the way of the landline phone. But a lot of it has to do with a retail mix that’s Fred Segal by way of Garrison Keillor: a barbershop (Lloyd’s) where kids sit patiently getting their hair cut, the window display at the toy store (Toy Crazy) includes an honest-to-goodness board game (and Candyland at that) and the men’s haberdasher (Sid Mashburn) has a full-service tailor shop upstairs and boxes of home-cooked Virginia peanuts across from the cash wrap.

The narrow alleys connect a rabbit warren of postage-stamp-sized shops that range from the retro-delightfully mundane (a U.S. Post Office substation, a shoe repair place and a takeout barbecue joint called Reddi Chick) to the SoCal stylish (the Paris-meets-L.A. vibe of Clare V. and the elevated basics of James Perse, to name just two). Throw in a Goop lifestyle store, a Christian Louboutin boutique and a luxe kid’s store (Poppy) and you’re well on your way toward the rare kind of retro-retail romp that will empty your wallet and feed your soul at the same time.
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A view of the Santa Monica Antique and Vintage Market.
(Adam Tschorn / Los Angeles Times)

Outfit your Airbnb like a pro at the Santa Monica Antique and Vintage Market

Santa Monica Flea Market
Not as daunting as the Rose Bowl Flea Market, not as elbow-to-elbow as the Melrose Trading Post, this first and fourth Sunday of the month event had been a go-to for locals and design professionals alike for more than two decades. (On a recent visit I spotted French fashion designer Isabel Marant shopping Aiyia, a zero-waste label that upcycles quilt scraps into one-of-a-kind jackets and adds artful appliques to sweatpants and sweatshirts).

Thanks to the ample free parking and dog-friendly policy, it’s worth the $5 price of admission alone to spend the day (it opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 3 p.m.) wandering the tented parking lot stalls marveling at truly eclectic mix of clothes, antiques, home furnishings and glassware that all feel a a notch above the regular mix of flea market merch.

If you’re furnishing a guest house, ADU or Airbnb, you’re unlikely to leave without some fun piece of furniture (a Pedro Friedeberg hand chair, perhaps, Mid-century Modern side table or an antique bureau with drawer pulls as ornate as western-wear belt buckles), conversation-starting decor (Pink’s Hotdog sign, a lamp made out of recycled coral, a dreamcatcher, a decorative geode the size of a fire hydrant or a tiki-bar’s-worth of taxidermied pufferfish) or wall art (framed paintings of angry-looking rabbits, an embroidered version of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” or a caped Jack Black leaping about in a “Nacho Libre” movie poster).

Likewise if you’re looking for eye-catching clothes or unique accessory. A recent spin through the market turned up, in no particular order, denim trucker jackets reworked with olive drab flight-jacket arms; brightly beaded, disco-worthy tops; white silk varsity jackets emblazoned with Wonder Woman’s comic-book likeness, fluffy white handbags that fall somewhere between small cumulus cloud and cartoon sheep.
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 Tartine Bakery in Santa Monica
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Marvel at the architecture and croissants at Tartine

Santa Monica Cafe
There’s a touch of the ecclesiastic when you visit Tartine’s Santa Monica location, one of its six L.A. outposts.

The white brick exterior resembles a church with a round stained glass window atop the door. In truth, the site previously housed a funeral home, a slightly macabre piece of trivia apropos of nothing.

Inside the airy, high-ceilinged structure, the wide archways and latticed windows allow light to stream in beautifully, perfect for content creators looking to capture that clean food blog shot. Order a turkey sub, a summer lunch that’s equal parts fresh and flavorful thanks to the addition of crispy chicken skin and pickle mayo. And if you ever move away from L.A.? The 20-year-old-brand, which has published six cookbooks, offers nationwide shipping on its website.
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The counter of Demitasse in Santa Monica
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Perk up with a Kyoto iced coffee at Demitasse

Santa Monica Coffeehouse
They’re serious about their coffee at Demitasse, the specialty coffee roaster located on a quiet block west of Santa Monica’s busy promenade. Each brew is painstakingly crafted with gorgeous equipment you won’t see behind a Starbucks counter, including a Hairo siphon from Japan that looks fit for a chemistry experiment.

The last location left standing for the long-running coffee brewer, Demitasse Santa Monica is in a cozy, narrow storefront with limited seating indoors and outdoors. The leafy plants that decorate the small shop in architectural planters are available for purchase.

Demitasse, which means “small coffee cup” or “half cup” in French, used to have a handful of locations including Mid-Wilshire, Hollywood and Little Tokyo . The former L.A. Times building on Spring Street was within walking distance of the shop’s first outpost in Little Tokyo, which closed in 2021.

Get there early to snag a seat or grab a cup and walk down to Palisades Park or the promenade. Try the popular iced minty Cubano, the Kyoto iced coffee or one of the specialty pastries sourced from local bakeries.
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Shoop's Restaurant
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Try the hot-smoked salmon at Shoop's

Santa Monica European Restaurant
Tucked away from the most touristy stretch of Santa Monica sits a small European deli and market that stocks a wide array of rare candies, meats and cheeses from the far reaches of Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The family-owned-and-operated shop has served the neighborhood for 24 years, offering its signature smoked salmon (available in toast, sandwich, salad and pancake variations) and cured gravlax (akin to lox but with Scandinavian seasoning).

Authentic German breads are baked here daily. There’s a cheese called Young-Old Gouda as well as more familiar imported brands like Kinder, Marabou and Haribo. In fact, an entire wall is covered by an assortment of deep-cut Haribo fruit gummies in their native German packaging. I bought a couple of bags of the cherry candies for my mom, who has a notorious sweet tooth.

Shoop’s also offers hot food for dine-in, with an extensive breakfast menu that is served all day (or until the restaurant’s 3 p.m. closing time). Just be sure to park around the corner — Shoop’s has repurposed a shared parking lot into an outdoor dining area, complete with Dietz & Watson umbrellas, which provide much-needed shade.
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The Pole Garage in Santa Monica
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Work the pole at the Pole Garage

Santa Monica Pole Dance Studio
When most people think of pole dance, their first thought goes to the strip club. But the activity can also serve as an acrobatic, body-weight workout that incorporates play as fitness. And while some pole dance classes emphasize unlocking one’s inner sexiness and sensuality, many more closely resemble a gymnastics or aerial yoga class.

Take, for example, the Pole Garage, owned and operated by Drea and David Roers, which has been in business since 2009. Drea Roers was an early adopter of pole fitness, beginning her pole dance journey in 2003. “I fell in love with how pole dancing made me feel: alive, strong and confident,” she said. “In my heart and soul, I needed to share that profound and personal sense of freedom and expression I had experienced.”

Since then, the Pole Garage has hosted a variety of classes, including choreography, floor work, chair and heels, as well as contemporary dance and handstand training. In a progressive class series, patrons attend classes at the same time each week with the same cohort of students as they progress from beginner to intermediate and advanced classes.

“The energy at the Pole Garage is contagious,” said Drea Roers. “Our instructors and clientele are supportive and encouraging, whether new to pole dancing and fitness or experienced dancers. You will hear our laughter echoing through the hallway as we are sweating, supporting each other and having fun.”
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Person changing the marquee at the Aero Theatre
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Catch a classic film at the Aero Theatre

Santa Monica Movie Theater
Rounding the corner onto Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue in the evening and seeing the Aero’s familiar marquee — the neon, when lit, turns pale green and pink — is always a thrill, no matter how many times you’ve been there.

It’s a neighborhood theater. Ideally, you’d walk there. Parking can be a pain, though regulars know how to navigate the permit-zoned streets to find a spot.

The American Cinematheque‘s programming is a mix of revivals and retrospectives, with a few first-run special evenings with filmmakers mixed in as well. It’s on the Westside, so you never know who you might see. Robert Redford came here as a kid. Donnie Darko took a date there once. It’s been around for 83 years and, with a little luck, will live to be a centenarian. Oh, and the popcorn’s pretty damn good too.
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Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery in Santa Monica
(Kendra Frankle / For The Times)

Dine with the legendary Godmother at Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery

Santa Monica Italian Deli
The lunch line usually snakes throughout the crowded aisles of Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery, a neighborhood hallmark since 1925. Just grab a ticket and wait for one of the red-aproned employees to call your number (although on the day I went, the line was so long, an employee led some of us customers to the back to order cold custom sandwiches directly from the kitchen).

Open Wednesday through Sunday, the deli has separate dedicated hot and cold service counters and is most famous for a sandwich known as the Godmother, a stack of salami, mortadella, capicola, ham, prosciutto and provolone between slices of the restaurant’s fresh house-made bread.

Pair your Godmother with one of the deli’s abundant side salad offerings; displayed under the glass case are trays of macaroni, tuna, spinach, potato, chicken, garbanzo, corn, cucumber, four-bean and eggplant pasta varieties. And save room for dessert. Bay Cities offers ready-made cannolis, tiramisu, chocolate cake, bread pudding and New York-style cheesecake.

But leave your credit card at home: The store only accepts debit cards or cash.
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A dish from the menu at Bru's Wiffle.
(Eric Shin / Bru’s Wiffle)

Stop for chicken and waffles at Bru's Wiffle

Santa Monica American Restaurant
Breakfast is the only meal of the day where dessert can serve as the main course. What are pancakes and waffles anyway if not pastries masquerading as entrees?

For the fluffiest, thickest waffles in town, look no further than Bru’s Wiffles. Their chicken and waffles plate, dubbed the Dwight’s Special, is among the best in L.A. and features two pieces of boneless crispy chicken atop a Belgian waffle or slice of French toast.

The restaurant’s other inventive waffle offerings include banana split, churro, red velvet and apple pie variations. Pair your order with a sunrise, a refreshing blend of freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit, carrot and ginger juices that is extra pulpy.

Owned by Ebru Fidan Caplan (the restaurant’s namesake Bru, also the proprietor of the neighborhood’s Flapjax Diner), the small, family-owned business has been operating for 13 years. It has outposts in Santa Monica and Marina Del Rey (Real Bru’s fans will remember the now shuttered Beverly Hills location which predated the pandemic).

“I am a food creator,” said Caplan, who studied hotel management and worked in hospitality before opening the restaurant. “I love fresh, good food with creation. I believe I create something unique.”
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People wait to order food at Cha Cha Chicken in Santa Monica.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Feel the island vibes at Cha Cha Chicken

Santa Monica Latin American Restaurant
The best thing about Cha Cha Chicken, the family-run Caribbean and Latin fusion eatery on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, is the restaurant’s tropical aesthetic.

Its brightly colored beach-shack vibe feels right at home on the beach, or at least a block away from it. With mismatched cushioned seats and well-worn tables painted in primary colors, it’s easy to feel transported to a Caribbean island, provided the breeze from the Pacific isn’t too cold.

Cha Cha Chicken has been serving locals since 1996 and still lists a fax number on its website for Luddites looking to place an order of ropa vieja or jerk salmon tacos. Need to feed a large party? The restaurant offers catering for 15 people or more out of its Northridge location.
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Shutters on the Beach's Coast patio at dusk.
Shutters on the Beach offers patio dining at Coast, above, and Living Room & Terrace.
(Fred Licht / Shutters on the Beach)

Watch the waves crash at sunset at Shutters on the Beach

Santa Monica Cocktails
Shutters is home to three dining establishments, including a beachside restaurant called Coast and a more formal dining room, 1 Pico. But my favorite is the patio at Living Room & Terrace, which offers a vaunted 180-degree vista of the beach, the pier and the roaring Pacific Ocean. There are about a dozen seats on the patio, which can get competitive, and the sun is mighty strong in the afternoon, glinting off the roller coaster at Santa Monica Pier, but here you can actually hear the waves crashing and take in the multimillion-dollar view.

The offering on the terrace is broad, from Little West juices (Green Detox, Ginger Snap) to imported bottled beers to a $55 California whiskey flight. Each guest is served a little dish of chips, a treat best paired with the Sage Advice, the bar’s house flip cocktail with Amass gin, egg white, lemon and California sage, or a Banana Bread Spritz with walnut crème de banana and Prosecco. There are snacks available too, pretty much in the style you’d expect, including ceviche, shrimp cocktail and a chicken club sandwich.

On my last visit I ordered a very well-made shot of La Colombe espresso, pulled on a La Marzocco Italian espresso machine and served in subtle English ceramics. This — with the sunset and the waves — was a moment of accessible luxury.
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