“To eat well is to live well,” Thomas Jefferson once said. Our gourmet founding father valued fine dining as much as democracy. It’s good he never made it to the bustling Santa Monica coast, where egalitarianism reigns, but the food is measly.
A vacation trip to Waikiki this week reminded me of our culinary flaws. I stayed in the relaxed area of Kaimana Beach, which is where the Barefoot Beach Cafe is located. A mix of tourists and locals queues each morning to order from a small menu that speaks of their place and features fresh, local ingredients. The staff conjured up frothy lattes and pineapple smoothies. A couple of granny-looking chefs served macadamia nut pancakes and bulging breakfast burritos littered with spam.
Wooden tables surrounded a huge banyan tree that provided welcome shade. Slack key guitar was blowing in the wind. Right in front, surfers navigated in a break called Publics with flaking left-handers. I devoured the “Surfers Special” – a Sunnyside egg draped over fried rice and Portuguese sausage. Two young British women were chatting nearby, enjoying acai bowls of the brightest tropical fruit imaginable. Nothing on the menu costs more than $ 12.
Whenever I eat like this while traveling, I am a little ashamed of our city. We have few affordable and tasty places to eat on the sand. It seems like other world-class beach towns along their coastlines have created a food culture that appeals to tourists and locals alike. Why can’t we
I still dream of a thatched-roof café on the Greek island of Ios. My wife and I walked up a flight of stairs from the beach and devoured freshly grilled octopus and ice-cold bottles of Mythos beer. In Barcelona, my son and I beat the heat with bubbly Basque wine and canapés of quality Iberian ham and Manchego cheese in one of a dozen seaside tapas bars a few steps from the sand. At a food stall on Montevideo Beach, our family happily devoured chivitos – Uruguay’s version of Bay Cities’ godmother sandwich, filled with ham slices, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, melted mozzarella and a fried egg. Yum.
I am telling these culinary memories so as not to make readers salivate. I list them as a stark contrast to the oceanfront options in our city. Hungry beach goers have little choice here – almost all of them unsavory.
You can climb to the pier, which has food stalls selling hot dogs, funnel cakes, and other County Fair foods in Anywhere USA. These institutions know it is “unique” and outsiders are unlikely to ever return. There’s a reason few residents think, “Hey, let’s go to the pier for dinner tonight.” And that seems a shame in a city like Santa Monica, which justifiably prides itself on being a food magnet.
Starving families can also trudge through the sand to cafes like Perry’s, one of several nondescript outlets that seem to be constantly being refreshed. A kid’s chicken strip combo costs a mom $ 16. Imagine feeding a family of four! It reminds me of the hostage prices you see for mediocre food in baseball stadiums or airports.
Others may be tempted to stroll into the larger beach hotels. The food is a creativity boost, but the cafes are suitable for $ 500 a night, not for sandy locals in flip flops. Shutters is now offering a luxurious sunset picnic for two on the sand. It will only return you $ 400.
To be clear: I’m not beating up the hardworking owners and staff of these beach spots. They provide some kind of service for the hungry crowds. I think the food is just overpriced and totally forgetful. There is no jazz, no soul.
So I don’t come across as a total snob, I have a soft spot for Big Dean’s next to the pier, our happy hour hangout during my time at Heal the Bay. It has changed from the menacing but engaging biker bar vibe of my youth, but is still a good place for a burger and brew. While not actually on the beach, the Cha Cha Chicken Cafe serves up a garlic-like chicken platter with plantains and homemade ginger beer. When you see the OG surfer and local top chef Raphael Lunetta patiently waiting in line with tourists, you know something delicious is being cooked.
There is nothing worse than a writer who complains but offers no solutions. So what’s the answer? Here’s an idea: in summer, reserve a spot in the main parking lots on the beach for a changing crew of food trucks. Trucks that offer a unique, more affordable fare that highlights the diverse demographics and food culture of the greater LA area might be preferred or incentivized. Filipino Adobo … Salvadoran pupusas … Shanghai dumplings.
There are sure to be a dozen reasons why it can’t work – lost parking revenue, protecting restaurant tenants’ interests, health regulations, blah blah. But I remember a truck brigade in the Main Street parking lot last year. And Los Angeles County hosted trucks at their Beach Eats event in Marina del Rey Thursday night. I would love to see our City Pilot run a similar program on beachfront properties during the day. It would be a start.
It is time to live well on our shores.
Matthew King grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica, where his father served as the county lifeguard for 30 years. He sneaks away from his communications and marketing consultancy as often as possible to surf Bay Street and other local breaks.