The one restaurant most closely associated with fine dining in Santa Monica is still Michael’s. While it has not followed the many fads into more modern or experimental foods, it has maintained the same level of quality and consistency since it opened in 1979. And while dining has gone through a number of phases since 1979, Michael’s original concept of light dishes prepared from local products with French, Italian and Asian accents remains the standard yet today.
I hear a rumor that owner and chef Michael McCarty was financed by the owners of the Santa Monica Bank at that time, because they wanted a nice place to have lunch near the bank. True or not, I did used to see them there at lunchtime, and certainly the patio at Michael’s is one of the nicest places in town to have lunch, with its semi-enclosed, yet open-air garden.
McCarty is still there to greet customers. He became enamored with France while a young student there, and later went back to study food, wine and cooking, then finished training at Cornell and the University of Colorado. As a result, he himself can handle many of the decisions that other restaurant owners leave to chefs, and the restaurant operates without the reputation of a chef to promote it.
On the contrary, many of the well known chefs and restaurant owners in California owe their training to their time at Michael’s. Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Roy Yamaguchi and Sang Yoon all spent time at Michael’s before branching out on their own.
In addition to the beautiful garden patio, which is very French in feeling, the restaurant is more beautiful than one might expect because of the many works of art on the walls. Much of the art is from contemporary Southern California artists, such as Sam Francis, who lived in Santa Monica Canyon near our house; David Hockney, who lived nearby in Santa Monica; and Robert Rauschenberg.
And so we come to the food and wine. The menu changes frequently, but there is always a good hamburger, one of the best steaks in town, often served with Bordelaise sauce, fresh fish and poached lobster usually prepared in the manner of a fine French restaurant, and a few more exotic dishes, plus great desserts. I recall a typical dinner I had there a few months ago, with a veal chop served with spaetzles and wild mushrooms in a red wine reduction sauce. The soups and salads are exceptional.
Unlike many restaurants today, a knowledgeable wine steward is always there, and the selection of wines is amongst the best in town. And Michael himself has a vineyard in Malibu and makes his own wine which, while the Burgundians need not have fear, is not bad.
All of this does not come cheaply, of course. I recall spending about $15 for an appetizer, $35 for my veal chop, and had I eaten dessert it would have been another $10 or so, for a total of about $60 before tax and tip, coffee, wine and Armagnac. In other words, if you are going to live it up there as you should, it might cost $100 or so per person. On the other hand, you can save a few dollars by not using the valet service, as a public parking lot is right next door where you can park for a few quarters. It may not be a big dollar saving, but it feels good. Just like the restaurant itself.
If You Go
Michael’s Santa Monica
1147 Third St.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at email@example.com.