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Santa Monica & the New Getty

It’s not without a past, yet when pressed about the town’s history, Santa Monicans might cite such mileposts as the birth of inline roller hockey, the original location of Muscle Beach (it’s now in Venice), or the fact that Route 66 ends at the clifftop.

Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica lined with palm trees, image
Photo caption
Palm trees line Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, Calif.

It’s easy to get the idea that principal local occupations are eating in restaurants, shopping, and enjoying the beach. Although appearances are important in Southern California, the idea can’t be accurate. All those BMWs piloted by people with cell phones to their heads don’t just happen.

If the sun, sand and surf become to much for you,consider a visit to The New Getty

For all its classy mobility, Santa Monica is geographically small—just eight and a fraction square miles, including the jumbo beach. To express that in locally significant terms, there are 48 restaurants per square mile.

Santa Monica is among the melange of cities that blend together into the single expanse known collectively to outsiders as Los Angeles. It’s a beach town; its share of a 26-mile stretch of oceanside perfection is three broad miles of groomed white sand.

A paved bicycle path runs for 22 miles along the beach, with numerous places to rent bikes and skates. Palm trees stick out of the sand, framing views of heedless sunbathers and lifeguard shacks with yellow pickup trucks familiar to the billion people worldwide who form their opinion of America through the locally filmed "Baywatch."

Beach drama among the buff and highly toned is not in daily evidence, but there’s always activity at Santa Monica Pier. This pleasure pier has had its ups and downs over the past 90 years, but it’s on a roll these days, after a $45 million renovation that created Pacific Park.

Opened two years ago, SM Pier’s amusement section, Pacific Park, is old-fashioned in concept, with a jumbo Ferris wheel (takes you up nine stories) and a scream-inducing roller coaster among its attractions. Next door, there’s a classic carousel. The pier also offers quieter amusements, such as strolling, fishing, and dining. Admission to the pier and Pacific Park is free; you pay for rides individually.

Not long ago, interest in town centered not on the pier, but a couple of blocks east—on the O.J. Simpson civil trial. The show was at the courthouse on Main Street—near the statue of a mushroom cloud constructed of welded chain links with a cutesy witticism of a title: Chain Reaction.

Fame is fleeting, but shopping is forever and a little farther south on Main you’ll find one of the town’s three distinct shopping districts. It stretches from about Bicknell all the way to Venice. Although Main Street is described as "funky," and once was, these days it is, at best, upscale funky with vestigial real funkiness in the odd corner and faux-funkiness occasionally apparent.

On the other hand, Main Street is different and fun—not to mention diverse. Among the enterprises: Hot Skins body wear, Zuni Pueblo (tribal-owned gallery), a remarkably prosperous-looking psychic reading establishment, several cigar stores (the trendy, not traditional, kind), natural foods, Irish pub. Don’t miss Star Wares. It’s full of clothes used in movies: a Julia Roberts dress from Pretty Woman($8,500), a green suit worn by Sonny Bono (size 38S), a Pam Grier Jackie Brown costume.

Every few steps there’s a restaurant. At Schwarzenegger’s Schatzi on Main, "Arnold’s omelette" and Wiener schnitzel are on the menu. Mexican shark looms large at the cantina-esque Lula Cocina, which specializes in relatively light Mexican fare. If dining in what may be modern art appeals, try Röckenwagner, in architect Frank O. Gehry’s angular, vaguely industrial, and difficult-to-ignore Edgemar mini-complex. Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main offers trendy Chinese food to the well-heeled.

For a contrastingly quiet and cutting-edge-free look into the domestic Southland of not so long ago, visit the California Heritage Museum. It’s the 19th-century home incongruously on Main; the current exhibition is a nice array of arts-and-crafts (the Stickley type) furniture and decorative items.

The other two shopping districts are Third Street Promenade and Montana Avenue. The Promenade is between Wilshire and Broadway, but shopping spills over into surrounding blocks. Topiary dinosaurs spouting water mark the spot, as do 75 restaurants, 17 movie screens (in four theaters), and over 100 shops. The mix ranges from standard to odd; prices tend to be rational.

The most upscale shopping district is along Montana Avenue, roughly from Lincoln to 20th. Having a platinum card is a decent precaution in some of the stores. Designer clothes, good restaurants, artsy antique shops mingle with Noah’s and Starbucks. This, word has it, is where the elite shop—and "B list" celebs, according to a habituée. A "B list" celebrity is "Someone who’s not your Tom Hanks, you know. Like—Kate Winslet."

Although galleries proliferate in Santa Monica, the envelope-pushing stuff tends to be at Bergamot Station. It’s an enclave of art galleries in a series of old, industrial, corrugated-steel type buildings. Pulp Fiction Cover Art. Compton Gallery of Functional Art (such as imaginatively constructed furniture for homes of aggressively eclectic decor). The Richard Heller Gallery, which was offering lifesize soap-on-a-rope nudes likely to add interest to shower time. If you like MOCA, you’ll like Bergamot Station.

Especially good for strolling, and largely shopping-free, Ocean Avenue is the last street in town before the Pacific. For half its length, it parallels a cliff—the Palisades. Palisades Park, a long, narrow strip of green between Ocean Avenue and a considerable drop-off, invites strollers and joggers for the clifftop ambience, which is especially impressive at sunset.

Some of the nicest hotels in town are opposite Palisades Park: the bright blue Georgian, its palm-frond Deco façade suggesting the recently renovated hotel’s jazz-age origin (its dining room was a speakeasy); the streamline moderne Shangri-La (Poirot would feel at home); the elegant Miramar Sheraton, which offers bungalows in addition to rooms and frequently hosts President Clinton.

Route 66 ends on Ocean Ave. near these hotels. The image "America’s Main Street" conjures up—mom-and-pop roadside businesses, quaint gas stations, weeds growing in the cracks—doesn’t apply; you’ll find no "Eat here and get gas" establishment in tony Santa Monica. Route 66 ends between Crocodile Café and Rice Man World Fusion Cuisine Restaurant. Any farther and you drive over the cliff, landing near what used to be Mae West’s backyard.

The cliffs peter out near the pier, and Ocean Avenue descends to the beach. Beach-level hotels tend to be just as upscale as clifftop: Shutters on the Beach looks like a 1910 resort (although it opened in 1993). Its Pedals Café is perhaps the nicest spot to have lunch on the beach. Shutters’ neighbor, the recently refurbished Loew’s Santa Monica Beach Hotel, boasts a new and very upscale restaurant, Lavande. Chef Alain Giraud, fresh from what one presumes is triumph at Le Grand Vefour in Paris, aims to present "Provence with a California accent" on the beach. Like, totally, c’est si bon.

Photography courtesy of Lars0001/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in July 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.