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Planning a Santa Monica trip in February; need additional advice

Many thanks to those who contributed to my initial post to help us choose our base of operations. If interested, see link below:

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/929787

We will be staying in Santa Monica from 2/14 - 2/19, coming in from Portland, OR. The purpose is to celebrate our 20th anniversary and we will be looking for a fine dining experience on our actual anniversary (Tuesday night), as well as one other fine dining experience. Pretty open budget for this trip and we definitely like restaurants that have great cocktails. We will want to spend most evenings in Santa Monica/Venice area.

I have researched previous Santa Monica/Venice posts and the places that l am most interested in are:

Capo
Rustic Canyon
Melisse
Tar & Roses
Tasting Kitchen

If we were to do seafood, the menu at Water Grill appeals to me more than Catch, but if the reverse is true please let me know.

On Valentine's Day (which is a Friday, so I am expecting busy restaurants), we will arrive early evening and would love to just walk to a place that has some nice bar seating and have cocktails and great food (we are not much for the Valentine's Day out experience generally but we will have to eat!). Do any of the above places fit the bill for that?

Lastly, we are willing to venture out a bit further (but not WAY further) for one dinner and top contenders are (in no particular order):

Nobu
Bazaar
Lucques
n/naka
Red Medicine
Jitlada

Are we missing anything on the above lists? Thanks in advance!

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  1. I think the fine dining night would be well spent at Melisse, if you stay in the 'hood. And if you ventured a bit further out, you might want to consider Providence. I'm not a Water Grill fan...I think it's gone downhill. Others on the board will disagree. For a casual seafood experience, Santa Monica Seafood on Wilshire has a cafe. Very fresh and good and reasonably priced. No cocktails, but wine and beer. I'm sure others will have good ideas about a casual spot for Valentine's Day....but another option might be a picnic in the room with food from Bay Cities Deli. The godmother sandwich is pretty spectacular. I'm not sure how late they are open, though...and I just reread your post that you're arriving that night. So....time may be an issue there. Have a great trip. Report back!

    1 Reply
    1. re: perk

      Some wonderful restaurants very close by in Venice including Gjelina and Superba Snack Bar.
      Nobu Malibu is one of the most beautiful restaurants in LA. And don't miss Sweet Rose Creamery.

      Bay Cities Italian Deli is open till 7pm & 6 on Sundays & closed Mondays

    2. After all these years chinois still only restaurant I'd drive to sm for. Have a great anniversary and be sure to get a frozen custard concrete at pier burger on the pier. I drive for that too. Oh wait also Gilbert's el Indio ... Basically u won't go hungry!

      14 Replies
      1. re: jessejames

        I am also still a big fan of Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main.

        1. re: wienermobile

          so many good memories there and such classic dishes: the catfish, the lobster thing, the sliced steak, the fried oysters with the salmon roe -- even their chinese chicken salad...it seems stuck in the 80s in a good way!

          1. re: jessejames

            The strategy for dining at Chinois is to concentrate on the smaller dishes -- usually almost as large as the big plates with the baby lettuce and herb salads accompanying and less expensive. The mains to choose between are the whole deep-fried catfish with ponzu or the sliced filet in szechwan sauce. You may want to try to sit at the back counter looking into the open kitchen if you enjoy that sort of show. Every Puck restaurant I've ever eaten in has excellent, professional service.

            1. re: nosh

              i choose both nosh - two dynamite dishes.

              1. re: jessejames

                I agree both are great, but with both large plates you now have a more expensive dinner and you have less room for the smaller plates.

                I love the stir-fried lamb in the radicchio cups.

        2. re: jessejames

          Gilbets's el Indio, however, is a dump.

          1. re: bringiton

            just hope the dump happens after you leave

          2. re: jessejames

            Hmmm, just checked out Chinois and that is starting to look like a contender, as well. Thanks!

            1. re: cobpdx

              The food is good, but just know, it has a really outdated interior. And as most places with all hard surfaces, gets loud.

                1. re: wienermobile

                  Oh definitely, I just can't take the interior any more....it was interesting and cool....about 20+ years ago.....

                1. re: Thor123

                  Whole Sizzling Catfish* with ginger and ponzu sauce

            2. From you list of "venture out a bit further" restaurants, go to n/naka, with Red Medicine second. A distant second.

              1. Water Grill definitely a 2nd place to Catch. But the menu does look good. I found it to be hugely disappointing.

                Of your last list - n/naka by a country mile. Nobu is big and impressive-looking. A lot of drama. Food is good, but n/naka will knock your socks off, make your toes curl, and other foot-related metaphors. Bazaar is more interesting (and the decor is big, big fun),

                1 Reply
                1. re: foodiemahoodie

                  <Water Grill definitely a 2nd place to Catch>

                  I was taken to lunch recently at Water Grill…
                  Having been a fan of DT's Water Grill I was anxious to give the new location a try.
                  The Burrata dish was excellent…but I've never had a bad one anywhere.
                  My Sea Bass tasted 'off'…I love this fish but theirs tasted like a combination of gas and charcoal.
                  I doubt I'll return.

                2. You can stay close to your Santa Monica base of operations and thoroughly and inexpensively scratch your seafood itch by taking lunch at Tacos Punta Cabras. See one of the many LA board threads about it here http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8905... and peruse the Yelp photos here http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/tacos-...

                  Try it. You won't be sorry.

                  1. For Valentine's casual easy going out experience, walk over to Bar Pintxo for tapas, or walk over to Hillstone

                    1. Since you're in Santa Monica, check out Josie.
                      http://www.josierestaurant.com/

                      1. Fig is Santa Monica is also very good farm to table cuisine.
                        http://figsantamonica.com
                        they are doing a special Valentines Day menu too.

                        1. 20 minutes from Santa Monica in Century City is Tom Colicchio's wonderful Craft.

                          1. I like Hungry Cat in the Santa Monica canyon for seafood

                            1. Melisse is really the only high end, fine dining here in Santa Monica. The others on your list are nice, but not really fine dining. The order I would rank them would be Capo, Tasting Kitchen, Tar & Roses, Rustic Canyon. All except Melisse & Capo are very trendy, crowded & get loud.

                              There is also no competition with your second list. n/naka is tops. Nothing else comes close.

                              Valentines day is a special kind of hell.... I would stay close to your hotel for that one.... Or pick a dive bar to eat at, as they won't be as crowded as just about anywhere else. Chez Jay and the Galley come to mind, tho the food at either is just okay to marginal. The only bar I know of on the Westside with incredible food is Freddy Smalls. That too, will likely be very crowded. Good luck, enjoy our city!

                              1. For your incoming dinner why not inexpensive, tasty Mexican? My recommendation would be Tacos Por Favor, on the S/E corner of Olympic and 14th. Order at counter, ample seating, a really good basic salsa bar with excellent salsa rona and good pico de gallo. Tacos, etc. are slightly more expensive but also bigger than most SoCal taquerias. Or, if hungry coming from LAX, you can take Centinela north and between Culver and Washington on the west side of the street is Taqueria Sanchez. Another order at counter place with cheaper, smaller tacos -- be sure to get the shrimp.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: nosh

                                  Just know that TPF closes relatively early, I think by 8 pm.

                                2. Traffic in LA is even worse on Valentine's Day than it is on a normal day (and Friday is normally very, VERY bad to begin w/). Whichever restaurant you decide upon for that night, call ahead to make sure they're not doing some set menu that's like 2-3x the cost of what their normal menu is. And be prepared for some very, VERY bad traffic (esp in the Santa Monica area).

                                  I only mention this b/c my partner's b-day is on Valentine's Day.... We tried to go out recently on that day to celebrate. And after facing horrifying traffic, we vowed never to go out on that day again.

                                  Agree w/ posters that said an informal dinner nearby for 02/14 is a good idea.

                                  I do think Tar and Roses has a bar (The Offalo wrote a review of it a few months ago). Not sure how nice it is, though....

                                  Been to Melisse twice and loved it each time. IMHO, you can't go wrong w/ it (esp for your anniversary).

                                  The Bazaar is VERY pricey, and I think the food (molecular gastronomy) is either love it/hate it. I went there once many yrs back. The air cheesesteaks were delicious, but, after the novelty wears off, I don't think the food is all that interesting. Probably worth a visit if you're into that kind of stuff, though.

                                  I liked Lucques the one time I went there yrs ago. Thought it had a very civilized atmosphere and tasty food. I think some posters here find it stale and boring. Might want to consider Tavern (or AOC), which is by the same chef/owner (I think) but closer (Tavern is closer, not AOC).

                                  Love Jitlada, but it's been > 1 yr since I've been there, and there was a report a few months back (maybe 1 yr ago already???) that the prices had skyrocketed. You'll also have to be ready for indifferent (boring on bad) service. Food's fantastic, though.

                                  The menu changed at Rustic Canyon recently, so not sure if older reviews that you might've read are applicable.... I've never been myself.

                                  If you do try Bay Cities, you might want to order ahead online. There is a considerable line to get into/out of the place.

                                  35 Replies
                                  1. re: ilysla

                                    Been to bay cities a few times now and I keep asking myself why I bother going back. I just don't get it.

                                    1. re: ns1

                                      I went there once for the sandwich (many, many yrs ago) and then more recently to get some wine for my tiramisu recipe. I thought the Godmother was good but not amazing. The actual market, though, seems quite lovely. The number of olive oils and balsamic vinegars was mind-boggling!

                                      1. re: ilysla

                                        It's all about the bread. Homemade, hot, & crusty.

                                        1. re: wienermobile

                                          Yes, it's is hard to find bread like that in LA.

                                          1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                                            I find the bread to be delicious when it's fresh and warm - and I can't help but pick off chunks in the car on the way home.

                                            However, once it's cooled off - not really all that special.

                                        2. re: ilysla

                                          And the meatballs are definitely well above average relative to other store-bought or restaurant made versions.

                                          1. re: Wayno

                                            Maybe I should stop trying to love the godmother and start trying the meatballs.

                                                1. re: ns1

                                                  I've read a few times (maybe even on this board) that several people prefer the "hot" side of the deli....

                                                  1. re: ilysla

                                                    Yes I prefer the hot side and they usually offer a daily special too. Really good mac and cheese.

                                                    1. re: wienermobile

                                                      I love the hot side. No long wait there. An entree with two sides and a smaller roll is $7.98. I love the pot roast. The chicken park (served with spaghetti) is good. Meatballs in sauce are excellent -- you can buy several rolls (very inexpensive) and make your own sandwiches later -- less messy and the bread doesn't get sogged. (Note, if you buy six large meatballs there is a significant discount over fewer, or at least used to be.) Note there is a plain pedestrian mac'n'cheese sold as a side and a much richer, better version sold by itself. Lasagna -- meat or veggie -- and eggplant parm both very good.

                                                      The hot side (just to the right of the entrance at the front window) has it all over the cold sandwiches at Bay Cities. (Closed Mondays.)

                                                      1. re: nosh

                                                        and the eggplant parm sandwich is great too.

                                                        1. re: nosh

                                                          Do they do a good meatball parm?

                                                          1. re: ns1

                                                            Very good. Order it with extra cheese and sweet peppers.

                                                          2. re: nosh

                                                            How odd that they have 2 diff versions of mac 'n cheese. Thanks for the tip!

                                                            1. re: ilysla

                                                              One's basically the really saucy "stove-top" kind, and one's more like the baked casserole kind with the buttery bread crumbs on top. Definitely prefer the latter, but I almost never get to have it because I don't usually get there until after 5 PM and they're almost always sold out of that kind.

                                                              1. re: TheOffalo

                                                                I must revisit this hot side. I love the bread crumbs kind of mac and cheese while the fiance loves the saucey stove-top kind.

                                                                get a meatball parm while I'm at it ^_^

                                                                1. re: ns1

                                                                  Can't emphasize enough -- If not eating there or very quickly, buy the meatballs in sauce separately, some of their rolls (called ficelles), and construct the sandwiches yourself at home. Less expense and the bread won't sog. Easier to eat if you slice the meatballs in at least half -- they are big, so in the sandwich whole they tend to squish out when you bite.

                                                                  1. re: nosh

                                                                    Just get the meatball app and garlic cheese bread at Dan tanas instead.

                                              1. re: ilysla

                                                Tar & Roses does have a bar, but it's tiny..... No reservations, and crowded & noisy. But delicious food.

                                                1. re: ilysla

                                                  Thanks. If we had it to do over again, we might have tried to steer away from mid-Feb for hooking up...and for those of you out there not yet partnered up, heed this warning. It may seen romantic to hook up around valentine's day but it will screw up your dining plans later, so pick another time frame! ;-)

                                                  It would be worse to have a Bday on 2/14.

                                                  We are flying in at 5:30 pm - how long can we expect it to take from LAX to SM?

                                                  1. re: cobpdx

                                                    I'd plan on a solid hour from LAX to SM on a Friday night, (especially considering it's VD). It could be less, but probably not much and a little more is possible too. You just never know.

                                                    1. re: Servorg

                                                      Thanks, I was starting to envision 2 hours, at which point I was going to start soliciting recommendations for romantic Valentine's Day dining options at LAX!

                                                      1. re: cobpdx

                                                        One option, if you want to dine fairly early after landing at LAX and avoid the heart of the traffic would be to head just a tad south of the airport to Manhattan Beach (very easy/short drive) and, if you can get a reservation, dine at either MB Post or its sibling, Fishing With Dynamite. Both very good.

                                                        1. re: cobpdx

                                                          <I was starting to envision 2 hours>

                                                          It could. Don't check bags and be completely organized with your travel to SM…
                                                          Nobody can ever predict the 405 so the side streets are usually used when it becomes clogged or stopped and then that brings its own of frustration. I'd plan on checking your GPS for alternate routes.

                                                          <'Romantic Valentine's Day dining options at LAX'>

                                                          Now *that's* a great question.

                                                      2. re: cobpdx

                                                        I would avoid the 405 at all costs. Since you are staying in Santa Monica, there's no reason to even go that far east. A better way to drive would be to take Lincoln Boulevard north until you reach Marina del Rey. At that point, you will turn left onto Mindinao Way and then an immediate right onto Admiralty Way. When you hit Washington, make a right, then left, and go up to Pacific Avenue, making a right. This take you by Venice beach, the boardwalk and into Santa Monica as it turns into Ocean Avenue. I find that route much easier traffic-wise than the freeway. Then again, if you have GPS in the rental and can check current traffic conditions, you can gauge whether the 405 & 10 are too busy or not. Westbound 10 on a Friday night usually isn't as bad as eastbound, but again, being a holiday that many feel obligated to go out on, one never knows.

                                                        1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                                                          I think the surface streets might also be horrifically clogged that night, but I agree that it's the better way to go. If the OP + partner encounter horrible traffic on the street, they can always stop to walk around once they hit MDR and anyplace further north.

                                                          The OP could even see if Waterloo and City has a table available that night (new American, small plates, moderately expensive but tasty and a nice environment that's upscale casual).

                                                          And who knows? Traffic might (randomly) be great. But I think it's better to prepare for it to be horrible and then maybe be pleasantly surprised.

                                                            1. re: wienermobile

                                                              Coming in at 5:30. If you have bags then you're on the street at 6:00. Takes about 30 minutes to get to S.M. Maybe a few more if you cab driver isn't proficient with the intricacies of west side shortcuts.

                                                              1. re: foodiemahoodie

                                                                This is when having the Uber App is useful. When the wheels touch the ground I touch the app and the car is waiting for me when I exit the terminal. Flat rate from LAX.

                                                                1. re: J.L.

                                                                  Like totally, Dude :)

                                                                  Where's my Chardonnay.....?

                                                          1. Thanks for the recs. We will try to aim for n/naka as our "away" dinner, as well as maybe hitting some other memorable spots while out and about (i.e. Langers).

                                                            I am warming to the idea of a casual spot for Friday night dinner (maybe even in the room), then maybe trying to get a drink at Copa d'Oro, which looks to have the best cocktail list. The "Because You Can List" is amusing.

                                                            Do either Melisse or Capo have separate bar areas to sit in while waiting for a table?

                                                            8 Replies
                                                            1. re: cobpdx

                                                              Both MB Post and Fishing With Dynamite are pretty casual - see my reply to your above post.

                                                              1. re: cobpdx

                                                                Don't know about Capo, but you won't be waiting for your table at Melisse.....

                                                                1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                                                                  I was about to the post the same thing, Dirty.

                                                                  To the OP, you're making a reservation at Melisse, if you plan to go, right? Melisse isn't the kind of place that makes you wait.... (and it probably isn't the kind of place you should go to w/o a reservation?)

                                                                  1. re: ilysla

                                                                    Yes, reservations, of course. Just wondered whether there was a place to stop and have a cocktail (other than at the table) before dinner.

                                                                    As it stands, I have n/naka booked for Sat, Melisse for Tues, Tar & Roses Sun, and The Tasting Kitchen Mon.

                                                                    That leaves Capo out and it really does look good to me, so maybe we will to n/naka Tuesday night and skip Melisse altogether (we have been fortunate to have dined at some nice french tasting menu type places in the past) and the casual-ish atmosphere and wood-fired foods at Capo are really appealing to me right now. We do not have anything like n/naka in PDX.

                                                                    1. re: cobpdx

                                                                      This is a nice list. You won't be disappointed, I think.

                                                                      Cocktails at Tasting Kitchen are really special, but so is there esoteric wine list. Save some space for both.

                                                                      Personally, I would also have a cocktail at Oldfield's before heading over to n/naka. Pretty good stuff and I always think it's nice to have a cocktail before an extravagant meal.

                                                                      I think the traffic on Lincoln Blvd heading north will be pretty manageable, even on Valentine's Day. If you plan for an hour after picking up your bags I have a feeling you'll be very safe and most likely quite under that estimate.

                                                                      1. re: cobpdx

                                                                        Haven't been to Capo or n/naka, but if you've had food like Melisse in the past and don't have anything like n/naka near you, makes sense to go to the latter. n/naka seems to get rave reviews on the board....

                                                                  2. re: cobpdx

                                                                    Melisse does not have a bar area.

                                                                    Capo has a bar/counter. it seats around 10 people and it's often full. (you a weekend you can't really expect fo find an empty seat until around 10:00pm.).

                                                                    1. re: cobpdx

                                                                      I've never waited for a table at Capo.

                                                                      If you have reservations they're always on time and ready.
                                                                      Highly recommend.

                                                                    2. Regarding your second list, agree with all who have said n/naka is by far the best restaurant you've listed.

                                                                      If you are interested in molecular/modernist cuisine, Bazaar gets the nod. However, I'd recommend the "restaurant within a restaurant" experience, Saam at the Bazaar, over the regular dining room. It's a whole different vibe and showcases the range of Jose Andres menu in a logical progression. Tasting menu only and comes with a higher price tag along the lines of Melisse and n/naka.

                                                                      One of the more obvious choices missing on your second list is Providence. It would be my preference over everything else you've listed.

                                                                      Make sure you let Melisse know it is your 20th anniversary before you arrive. They are really good about helping celebrate special occasions.