“To eat well is to live well,” Thomas Jefferson once said. Our gourmet Founding Father appreciated fine dining as much as he did democracy. It’s a good thing he never made it to Santa Monica’s bustling shoreline, where egalitarianism reigns but the food is meh.
A vacation hop to Waikiki this week reminded me again of our dining deficiencies. I stayed in the laid-back Kaimana Beach area, which is home to the Barefoot Beach Cafe. A mix of tourists and locals lined up each morning to order from a small menu that speaks of its place and features fresh, local ingredients. Staff whipped up frothy lattes and pineapple smoothies. A pair of grandma-looking cooks plated macadamia-nut pancakes and bulging breakfast burritos dotted with Spam.
Wooden tables encircled a giant banyan tree, which provided welcome shade. Slack-key guitar wafted on the breeze. Right in front, wave-riders navigated peeling left-handers at a break called Publics. I wolfed down the “Surfers Special” — a sunnyside egg draped over fried rice and Portuguese sausage. Two young British women chatted nearby, relishing acai bowls heaping with the brightest tropical fruit you can imagine. Nothing on the menu cost more than $12.
Whenever I eat like this on travels, I feel a bit ashamed for our city. We have few affordable and savory eating options on the sand. It seems like other world-class beach cities have created a food culture along their shorelines that appeals to tourists and locals alike. Why can’t we?
I still dream of a thatch-roofed café on the Greek island of Ios. My wife and I walked up a single flight of the stairs from the beach and devoured freshly grilled octopus and icy cold bottles of Mythos beer. In Barcelona, my son and I beat the heat with fizzy Basque wine and morsels of prized Iberico ham and Manchego cheese at one of a dozen oceanfront tapas bars steps from the sand. At a Montevideo beachside food stand, our family happily wolfed down chivitos – Uruguay’s version of Bay Cities’ Godmother sandwich, filled with slices of ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato, melted mozzarella cheese and a fried egg. Yum.
I recount these culinary memories not to make readers salivate. I list them as stark contrasts to oceanside options in our city. Hungry beachgoers have few choices here – almost all of them unappetizing.
They can clamber up to the Pier, whose takeout stands offer hot dogs, funnel cakes and other County Fair food available in Anywhere U.S.A. Sit-down eateries like Bubba Gump offer long waits and touristy food that’s as generic as it comes. These establishments know it’s “one and done” with out-of-towners likely never to return. There’s a reason few residents think: “Hey let’s go the Pier tonight for dinner.” And that seems a shame in a city like Santa Monica, which rightly takes pride as a foodie magnet.
Famished families can also trudge along the sand to cafes like Perry’s, one of several nondescript outlets seemingly on ever-renewing city leases. A kids chicken-strip combo will set a mother back $16. Imagine if she’s feeding a family of four! It reminds me of the hostage prices you see for mediocre food at ballparks or airports.
Others may be tempted to saunter into the larger beachside hotels. The food is a step-up in creativity but the cafes cater to $500-a-night lodgers, not sandy locals in flip flops. Shutters now offers a luxe sunset picnic for two along the sand. It will only set you back $400.
To be clear: I’m not beating up on the hard-working owners and staff of these beachside spots. They do provide a service of sorts for the hungry masses. I just find the food overpriced and totally forgettable. There’s no jazz, no soul.
Lest I come off as a total snob, I do have a soft spot the Pier-adjacent Big Dean’s, our happy-hour hang during my tenure at Heal the Bay. It’s morphed from the menacing but appealing biker-bar vibe of my youth, but it’s still a good spot for a burger and brew. While not truly beachside, Cha Cha Chicken Cafe serves a garlicky jerk chicken plate with plantains and homemade ginger beer. When you see OG surfer and local chef extraordinaire Raphael Lunetta patiently waiting in line with tourists, you know something tasty is cooking.
There’s nothing worse than a scribe who complains but doesn’t offer solutions. So what’s the answer? Here’s one idea: reserving some space in the main beach parking lots for a rotating crew of food trucks during the summer. Preference or incentives might be given to trucks offering unique, more affordable fare that highlights greater L.A.’s diverse demographics and food cultures. Filipino adobo … Salvadoran pupusas … Shanghai dumplings.
There are surely a dozen reasons why it can’t work – lost parking revenue, protecting the interests of restaurant leaseholders, health regulations, blah blah. But I remember a truck brigade at the Main Street parking lots last year. And the County of Los Angeles has hosted trucks at its Beach Eats event on Thursday evenings in Marina del Rey. I’d like to see our city pilot a similar program in beach lots during the day. It’d be a start.
It’s time to start living well along our shorelines.
Matthew King grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica, where his father served as a County lifeguard for 30 years. He sneaks away from his communications and marketing consultancy as often as he can to surf Bay Street and other local breaks.