The chefs behind Border Grill helped define Santa Monica’s culinary scene for a quarter of a century.
Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken will return to the city in the spring of 2019 with a new restaurant featuring the fresh, inventive Mexican food the pair are known for. However, their new venture will be located in a part of town that couldn’t be more different from Border Grill’s bustling 4th Street location, which closed in 2016.
Socalo will be housed in the to-be-remodeled Gateway Hotel on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 20th Street, across the street from Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
The spot may not be an obvious choice for the two chefs, who have opened four wildly popular eateries and a food truck across Los Angeles and Las Vegas and hosted their own Food Network show, but that’s part of the appeal.
Feniger and Milliken enjoyed running Border Grill on 4th Street when it was a quieter part of town and appreciate the similar feeling in the area around the Gateway Hotel. (The ample parking available under the hotel is also a perk, they said.)
And they aren’t alone in seeing the potential for a new restaurant scene in the area – Bruce Marder’s New American restaurant Rooster opened a block away in November, and Gideon Kleinman and Robbie Schaeffer opened an outpost of their trendy cafe 10 Speed Coffee across the street in July.
“The location is really great for us to be a part of the community,” Milliken said. “We’ve always gone into areas where people sometimes ask what we’re thinking going there … the idea of coming to an area that hasn’t been explored much is really exciting.”
Creating community is central to the pair’s vision for Socalo – the name is a play on “SoCal” and the Spanish word zócalo, meaning “town square.” Feniger and Milliken plan to position the restaurant as a neighborhood gathering place by hosting lively indoor-outdoor happy hours and dinners with shareable small plates and unusual varieties of tequila and mezcal.
“In Mexico, the town square is a place where people sit and gather,” Feniger said.
Socalo will also be open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Milliken and Feniger are aiming to draw in Saint John’s employees and others who work in the area during the day.
“We want to have a place where people can hang out casually or get a quick to-go order,” Feniger said. “Or they can spend two to three hours working on the patio, eating lunch, and using the WiFi.”
The two chefs are in the midst of testing recipes for tacos, ceviche and other Mexican specialties for a menu that will be inspired by a recent trip to Tijuana and present a flavor profile distinct from Border Grill’s.
“What Santa Monicans came to know and love us for, we’re still going to be doing,” Milliken said. “We’ll be serving organic, locally-sourced vegetables, rice and beans, meat free from antibiotics, and we have a non-GMO masa producer for tortillas and chips.”
But Milliken said the new digs also offer a chance to experiment food-wise and create a restaurant that reflects today’s dining scene. Customers nowadays prefer more intimate spaces than Border Grill’s expansive 4th Street location, she said.
“This is a perfectly-sized spot and it’s in a part of the city that hasn’t gotten a lot of love from restaurants,” she said. “We’re thrilled we’re coming back to Santa Monica and can do something a little new, exciting and different. We want it to be an evolution of what we love so much about Mexican food and hospitality in Mexico.”