The Wikipedia definition of a bistro — “a small restaurant serving moderately-priced simple meals in a modest setting” — pretty much describes Upper West. It seats about 140 people, and it’s not at all “fancy” or high priced. The feeling is sort of “industrial tech” with high ceilings and cement floors. In spite of the hard surfaces and a room full of customers, I didn’t find it too loud.
When I think “bistro” I picture a lot of people during mealtimes. Boy is that ever true of Upper West. It seems fully packed most of the time. I rarely have seen an open spot at the bar.
A French artist’s paintings of local scenes depicting Santa Monica and Venice decorate the walls, and I’m told the paintings are rotated with the seasons. But that’s really the end of the French part of this bistro. The rest is much more American in spirit.
When I was last there I saw the movie “Frankenstein” being shown silently on the wall of a glass-enclosed room for those needing extra stimulation — perfect for the Halloween season. One of the owners, Fred, stopped by the table on a regular basis to make sure everything was OK. Our waiter, Kevin Broberg, seemed to know how to get the food out quickly. The chef, Nick Shipp, stopped by to get compliments.
Naturally the first thing I looked at was the wine list, and I was pleasantly surprised. There were 16 wines by the glass. I ended up with a Syrah by Adelaide wines in Paso Robles, Calif. and I loved every drop of both glasses that I drank.
Fred recommended the short ribs. My date (OK, it’s one of my regular luncheon companions, a fellow foodie) recommended the corn soup. I looked longingly at some of the dishes on the bar menu, but the bar menu was not available until later in the afternoon.
Following my lunch companion’s recommendation I ordered the corn soup. Pure corn flavors with a touch of chili oil (they say Sumac oil) made for a great start.
Next came some lamb crepes, which were good, but a touch too sweet for my taste. Being particularly fond of Middle-Eastern food, I ordered the Tawook chicken, which turned out to be marinated in Lebanese spices and yogurt — just the kind of food I love. And the short ribs were just what one would expect.
I saw a lot of very good looking hamburgers going by, interspersed among many young techies from the Google-Yahoo-film industrial complex that has now arrived in Santa Monica.
To finish it off I had a taste of the bread pudding; warm, moist, and fruity with some caramel syrup on top. Yummy!
I’ve been there a couple of times, but it would take a lot more visits to get through the extensive menu. I like the diversity of the offerings. If you feel like meat you can order a typical pan-roasted filet mignon; there are also more unusual meat offerings, such as meatloaf and the lamb crepes. All the usual dishes are available like shrimp, salmon, white fish, etc., but there are lots of unusual dishes as well, including lobster gnocchi, vegetarian specialties and even macaroni and cheese. I’ve already mentioned the wine list, or diners can choose from a selection of a dozen beers on tap. And with a lot of the bar menu dishes, a beer is just right.
Variety is one of the best features of this restaurant. There is something for everyone, and enough both in the way of choices and in the way of unusual dishes that you can come back often and never feel bored. The quality of the preparations and the price range puts it just in the right niche. No wonder business is so good.
I would recommend the restaurant more highly, but it’s already so busy that if you go you might take my table. Go on a Tuesday night when wine bottles are half price. Plan to spend about $20 at lunch, and $40 to $45 at dinner. I think you will be pleased if you go there, and, as they say, “once is not enough.”
If you go
3321 W. Pico Blvd.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.