But that density is what makes the Yard (not to be confused with Yard House, the beer-themed restaurant chain) possible. Downtown Santa Monica doesn't have many dives these days. Chez Jay on Ocean Avenue is one of the last holdouts, someplace where you can slip onto a barstool and join in the camaraderie over a beer and a steak. But it just isn't the same since owner Jay Fiondella passed away two years ago.
The Yard fills that need for an everyday hangout not far from the beach. The prices are moderate (nothing more than $20) and the menu flexible, the crowd a spicy mix drawn from regulars and people who just wandered in for a bite. Sometimes, with couples and small groups of friends standing around the bar or the tall communal table waiting for a seat, it can have the vibe of a good party. Other nights it's quieter and just a little forlorn until a group of late-night revelers sweeps in the door (the Yard stays open until 1 a.m. on the weekends with a late-night menu).
Admittedly, from the outside, the place doesn't look promising. Owned by Sean Norris and Jeff Decker, the Yard has been around only since 2008 but looks much older. And the décor, if you can call it that, is minimal — a chalkboard for the specials, some slapdash paintings of sunsets and palms, a banquette under the windows and outside, a handful of wobbly tables set out behind a fenced-off area on the sidewalk. A sandwich board out front lists examples from the menu — a burger, fish tacos, calamari and so on, and maybe a couple of specials. That's it. Seemingly, there's not all that much to recommend it.
And yet the Yard is something of a find. The food is good, the place is low-key and comfortable, and waiters fuss over customers in a nice way.
As at most restaurants where plates are meant to be shared, the best strategy is to order in flights. You might start with tender baby calamari streaked with smoky paprika and served with a fresh-tasting marinara sauce, or crispy rice balls with a molten cheese center to dip in that same sauce. I liked a special grilled octopus salad with wedges of yellow plums, wispy greens and piquillo peppers. It was underdressed the night I tried it, but that's better than the reverse.
Fried pigs' ears are on the menu too, cut like thick fries, crunchy and curiously sticky at the same time, their richness cut by a scarlet harissa aioli. A few bites are interesting, but they're so rich I wouldn't want to eat an entire order by myself. The idea is to share — unless you want to hog that lilting salad of Jaime Farms beets with grilled avocado, sliced radishes and perky lettuces garnished with Garrotxa (a Spanish goat cheese) and toasted hazelnuts.
'Top Chef' alum
Food comes out fairly fast, sometimes delivered by the chef himself, Chris "CJ" Jacobson, a tall beanpole who has worked as a private chef and made it almost to the end in "Top Chef's" third season, something the waiter is apt to point out with pride. Jacobson himself doesn't seem to make much of it. He's just cooking back there, coming up with a handful of specials most nights. His style is simple and direct, and you don't need anybody to tell you that his produce mostly comes from the farmers market. You can taste the freshness and the spunk.
Crispy duck confit turns up shredded into a salad with juicy grilled nectarines, long skinny beans and toasted hazelnuts. A duck taco special features blood oranges and pretty, pickled root vegetables along with the shredded duck, two to an order.
The Yard is funky but undemanding, just the thing for a night when you want something simple to eat. The scene isn't at all trendy, just regular people enjoying a draft beer with some supper. A taste of three draft beers will run you $6, not bad if you want to improve your craft brew knowledge. The wine list is limited to just over a dozen labels, starting at $30 for a Provencal rosé and ending at $89 for a bottle of Sea Smoke "Southing" Pinot Noir. Cocktails are $11, a good price for this part of town.
Jacobson turns out an excellent classic burger made from house-ground beef, a combination of chuck, short rib and skirt steak. Formed into a chubby, loosely structured patty, it's topped with grilled onions, Grafton cheddar, a thick slice of heirloom tomato and Thousand Island dressing. And the Röckenwagner bun soaks up the juices. Skirt steak has a twist, coming with grilled grapes glazed with balsamic vinegar and some mild-mannered horseradish crème fraîche.
The chef has the pork thing going too, not only with those fried pigs' ears but with mini pulled-pork sliders (perfect for happy hour) or the more substantial Carolina-style ribs with house BBQ sauce. Both are decent, but probably won't elicit raves. I gave that instead to the refreshing house slaw of cabbage, radish, coriander and mint. Collard greens cooked with bacon are better than the fried chicken it accompanies, which is merely a breast, no dark meat, and not all that crisp.
The half-dozen cheeses all come from Andrew's Cheese Shop on Montana Avenue. And if you want dessert, get the coconut tapioca brûlée with pineapple coulis. But I couldn't resist a special one night: Jameson ice cream with an ale poured over to make a beer sundae.
The Yard may not be a destination restaurant — it's more a bar with food. But it's just the kind of place most neighborhoods need — friendly and unpretentious, with honest cooking and fair prices.
Rating: one-and-a-half stars
Location: 119 Broadway (at Ocean), Santa Monica; (310) 395-6037; http://www.theyardsm.com.
Prices: Plates, $10 to $19; cheeses, $10 to $14; sides, $5 to $6; desserts, $8 to $9. Corkage fee, $15.
Details: Open 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily. Happy hour, 5 to 7 p.m., except on Mondays when it's happy hour all night. Late-night weekend menu starting at 10 p.m. Street or public lot parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.