Back home in Freeport Illinois in the 1940s and 1950s, fine dining usually meant cooking up something really special at home. There were two restaurants one could go to for a special occasion. There was Angelo’s, which would be as an American-style restaurant, and a steak house on the outskirts of town. Occasionally we would go to a Chinese restaurant.

There was also a pizza restaurant as well famous for being owned by the nephew of a Chicago mobster, but we never went there. The first time my dad had pizza in 1952 at Micelli’s in Hollywood, he declared that it was “OK” but a fad that would soon pass.

When we moved to California in the 1950s, fine dining took on a very different connotation. We ate out more often. For fine dining we went to Lawry’s, which is still on La Cienega Blvd., for prime rib, or one of the other restaurants on “Restaurant Row.”

If it was a celebration for something extra special, we would either go to Sneaky Pete’s Steakhouse on Sunset Boulevard, or the French “wannabe” called La Rue, where we would walk by Frank Sinatra’s table to look at him and he would wink at us. There was really no fine dining in Santa Monica.

In the last few decades, a few fine dining restaurants opened in Santa Monica. Perhaps the first was Valentino, which lasted over 40 years.  In the early years, it was really first class: an Italian staff, beautiful tables well separated from each other for privacy, and beautiful fixtures.  The food, and especially the wine list, is often as good as in Italy. It closed this year.

Melisse was a big hit, and secured a Michelin star. It was French in ambience, and excellent in the early days.  As time went on, the menu changed to a pre-fix menu, and the customers were comprised of more and more tourists. It too has closed, allegedly for remodeling.

Little by little the French influence disappeared, and one is hard pressed to find fine French food on the West Side since Maison Giraud in Pacific Palisades closed a few years ago to make room for Rick Caruso’s Palisades Village.  The trend for fine food has turned toward Italian and Japanese cuisine. But are even the top restaurants in those categories “fine food” restaurants?

For me, eating even at the top-quality Japanese restaurants is usually not fine dining.  First of all, for the best of it one sits at the sushi bar so you can “smooze” with the sushi chefs.  That is not conducive for conversation with friends. Then there is the pressure to order the omakase (chef’s selection) for the best dishes.  I think the reason people think the top Japanese restaurants are fine dining is because of the price—several charge $200-300 per person. But some of the ingredients of fine dining are missing: the quiet table, the excellent table service, a first-class wine list…

There is certainly no shortage of good Italian restaurants—but those are closing as well.  One of my favorites for years was Lago on the 3rd Street Promenade.  That closed this year. Thank the Lord that Orto opened on the site of the old JiRaffe Restaurant at 502 Santa Monica Blvd. The food and wines could well be considered fine dining, the service is as good as in Italy (the waiters are not actors working part time until they get a part) and the only thing lacking perhaps is that the tables are too close together and the sound level too loud for fine dining.

The trend on the West side is clearly away from fine dining.  Fast food is taking over. The restaurant reviewers for the major tabloids seem more interested in food trucks than fine restaurants.  Food court food is becoming more and more popular and a few months ago I reviewed a pasta restaurant that just serves pasta—no appetizers, no dessert, just eat your pasta and get out to make room for someone else.  Last night I met the owner of the same kind of pasta outlet in Santa Monica Place.

For dinner now, we often go to a Mexican restaurant and have one plate, or to a Thai restaurant for one spicy dish.  No more do we look for a restaurant that will serve a nice “amuse bouche,” followed by an appetizer, a fish course, the meat course, the oil and vinegar salad, with dessert and coffee.  Where have those days gone? The new reviewers for the LA Times, just like the late Jonathan Gold, are more interested in Chinese food in Alhambra than fine dining in West Los Angeles.

So where do we go in Santa Monica for whatever has replaced fine dining? The best we can do is the Water Grill.  The seafood is first class, the staff moderately well trained, and the servings not so large that you have to avoid a little appetizer or clam chowder before the main course. Of course, it’s very crowded and loud.  Another option is a steak at

either Meat On Ocean, or Boa, both of which have first quality meat and excellent wine lists.

It’s not the fine dining of the old days, and we don’t spend two to three hours over dinner talking with friends and family as we used to, but I guess it’s not all that bad– if you can sit far enough away from the always on TV set.

Merv Hecht, like many Harvard Law School graduates, went into the wine business after law.  In 1988, he began writing restaurant reviews and books. His latest book is “The Instant Wine Connoisseur” and it is available on Amazon.  Or you might like his attempt at humor in “Great Cases I Lost.” He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and beverages, including wines, internationally.  Please send your comments to: mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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8 Comments

  1. Fine dining seems to have been over for a long time in Santa Monica. Restaurants don’t seem to train their servers to the level of dining “mature” people enjoyed and took for granted in the past. Along with those items mentioned in the piece: taking away plates before the diner has finished chewing; asking if the diner would like dessert while they are still chewing; stacking up tables and chairs before closing; turning off music as a hint to leave; let alone the above mentioned 3-4 courses that used to be typical.

  2. It’s actually “Lawry’s” and “omakase.”

    Dave Beran’s Dialogue on 3rd Street is a hidden gem, and it was recently awarded a Michelin star. The format is not stuffy white tablecloths, but it is definitely fine dining.

    I’d recommend Capo if you’re into something more traditional.

  3. What about Michael’s? Or Pacific Dining Car?

    And a bit farther afield, but still on the Westside, there’s Saddle Peak Lodge.

  4. The author seems to have a narrow sense of fine dining. In particular, he seems to mistake that fine dining must be accompanied by a thoughtful selection of beverage that defines his occupation.

    Dining at the sushi counter need not be some smoozefest as the author suggests. If he has actually been to proper sushi counter at an upscale venue in Tokyo, he would see that the itamae will quietly keep to himself unless spoken to.

    While I agree with the sentiment that Santa Monica lacks fine dining options, I do so with a broader notion of “fine” than the narrow Francophilic douchebaggery this author yearns for.

  5. Via Veneto on Main Street is pretty darn fine, too.
    I believe Rustic Canyon got our other Michelin Star.

  6. There is also Wallys Wine and spirits on wilshire and 2nd! Great food and amazing wine. Check it out!!

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