Los Angeles, CA: Santa Monica Seafood and Café

Let's Eat by Kitty Kaufman

When you get to Santa Monica Seafood, front or back door, first thing is take a number. If you stand around checking the fish, the produce, the tables, trying to figure what to buy, you're toast. Don't say we didn't tell you: Take a number. Pace around, see what everyone's going for. Check the blackboard and above all, don't dawdle. Best, go with a regular, someone who's there often. They not only know what to buy and but how it all works.

Then you can think but not for long. Today, there are eight fishmongers taking precise orders: "That one, no that one." "No skin." "A fatty piece." "No, not that, the other one." It is Santa Monica, it is Wilshire Blvd and at a pound, be picky. I'm not sure how picky but surely not before dinner. Hesitate and they move on. Today, first we eat, then we shop.

crabby Grumpy crab shrimp












tuna Tuna salmon














shrimp salad There's a fish market in La Jolla where you serve yourself informal meals in paper and plastic. There I saw most people eat. This is not that. Here I see everyone shop, which they've been doing since 1939. There's an oyster bar, which is my usual, but we opt instead for a window table. (We don't need a number to get seated for lunch.) Eve orders grilled shrimp panzanella () with greens, capers, avocado, crostini and tomatoes with white balsamic. It's exactly what she knows, and I expect, in an LA lunch: healthy, wealthy and wise; Crisp, fresh, and chilled with an engaging dressing worth copying. We're at the height of tomato harvest and you can tell. They're everywhere along with avocados.

The purist, whose quest for perfect calamari knows no boundary, gets a taste of West Coast haul, calamari fritti () with two sauces: very spicy tomato and salty lemon aioli. As it happens, this preparation needs neither, it's perfect. It can be an appetizer () for some or full-sized. We want leftovers. Which there are. Calamari is always a hard meal to photograph since the plate is bare. Once in Boston, I brought parsley from home to spiff it up. (The server was not amused.) I ask for a lemon. It's like good East Coast calamari, easy on the coating, crispy and very hot. Though it would work with a spoonful of greens, anything at all, I don't think anyone, east or west, is paying attention.

calamari west coast style That's all we have. You, however, will find their full café menu with tuna tartare, cracked crab, ceviche, mussels, clams, crabcakes, halibut, pasta, swordfish, cioppino, fish and chips, trout, and a dish that sounds splendid: mushroom ravioli with red shrimp and scallops (). Salads come with crab, salmon and a calamari Caesar. It looks like you can add a lobster tail to anything but I only see that now. Yes, there are kid meals and dessert along with wine and beer that leans West Coast. As it happens they do have a happy hour that runs from 2-5 pm with appetizers and wine for five bucks. For a late lunch, why not? And what do people do who get out of work at 6 say?

Between high ceilings and the market, it gets loud when it's crowded. In addition to seating for 40, there's produce, not a lot, cheese, flowers, wine and canned goods. They prepare meals to go. It can be one stop shopping in a hurry and that works. To eat, arrive early, there are no reservations. Fun LA casual is all done by 9 pm.

I'm not usually that lucky to get stories on first visits but today there are two. The first story starts with the leftovers. Our server packs them. I ask for a rubber band to keep it closed but there are none. It's 80 degrees. They sell pounds of fish so there are ice packs. At the register, I ask for an ice pack. This is what I'm told: "It's cooked, you don't need ice and it's ten cents for the bag." This from a woman at the register who, in the end, grudgingly plops an ice pack on the counter. Eve and I just look at each other. I slide my dime. (I still have the ice pack. I used it on the plane for tuna. And as souvenirs go, though it's not imprinted, it's a reminder.)

The second: When we're on the way out, Eve tells me: "That was the owner." I am stunned. And apparently she knows who Eve is. For years she waited on Eve and Eve's husband, who did the shopping or maybe the paying. Now Eve is doing the shopping. One day, as she was paying, the woman says to Eve: "Regards to your husband." Not today.

Santa Monica Seafood and Café
1000 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
213. 393. 5244
© October 13, 2016 Eve lives and works in Los Angeles. She knows food and wine and she can cook, especially fish. Kitty lives and works in Boston. See more of their food adventures at Corporate Edge and follow Kitty on Twitter
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