Once upon a time, Californians eager to eat by the beach had to content themselves with simple grilled fish, tacos or burgers. Happily, those days are long gone. I've been doing some serious coastal dining for the past several weeks and have found that restaurants near the water now come in all sizes, shapes and ethnic varieties.
Here are 20 Southland dining places that are either on or in full view of the ocean, from south to north. Don't forget your sunscreen.
This dramatically designed restaurant hangs directly over the pounding surf. It's located on the ground floor of the artsy Surf and Sand Hotel, where the ambience is best described as beachfront gallery meets designer furniture store. The cuisine is Tuscany a la South Coast. Try three-cheese polenta with a wild mushroom saute, or the delicious rib eye with horseradish, arugula and Tuscan bread salad. The hotel's excellent, if pricey, wine list has won numerous awards.
1515 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 497-4477. Expensive.
This very Mediterranean cafe overlooks Laguna Beach, so we can, perhaps, overlook its sophomoric take on California cooking. The tables are clustered under canvas umbrellas on a flower-filled patio. The food runs from pepperoni pizza topped with romaine in Caesar dressing to vegetable roll-ups and other casual nibbles. The bar menu features a slew of drinks like Pain Killer--Pusser's rum with a mixture of exotic fruits--to further soothe those frayed nerves,
At Hotel Laguna, 425 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 494-1151. Moderate.
21 Ocean Front
Opposite the Newport Pier, from which there is a splendid view of Catalina Island, you'll find this bastion of Continental cuisine. The dining room is taken up by black leather booths, lurid crimson walls and a long mahogany bar. This is the best place I know of for pan-fried abalone, which the kitchen lightly breads with crushed Waverly wafers at an outrageously high price. Come for the good broiled steaks and the well-endowed list of California wines.
2106 W. Ocean Front, Newport Beach. (714) 675-2566. Very Expensive.
Ruby's (Huntington Pier)
Ruby's, a chain of '50s-style diners, has dozens of locations, but none more strategically placed than the one at the far end of the recently reopened Huntington Pier. The chain has built a rep for good hamburgers and tasty side dishes, but I like to come here for the fountain treats, especially the textbook malts and the best Oreo cookie shake around.
1 Main St., Huntington Beach. (714) 969-RUBY. Inexpensive.
The name refers to the San Gabriel River, which empties into the Seal Beach Channel west of Pacific Coast Highway. Only breakfast and lunch are served at this brick stand, and Mexican dishes are exemplary. The best breakfast item is chilaquiles, a soft casserole of corn tortillas, eggs, mozzarella and a delicate tomatillo salsa. The lunches are basic and generous, but you'll return for the Baja-style fish tacos, stuffed with crisply battered halibut.
15 1st St., Seal Beach. (562) 431-5558. Inexpensive.
If you're looking for nostalgia and Art Deco elegance, the Sky Room is the ticket. The restaurant is on the 14th floor of the Breakers, a '20s hotel, and a doorman clad in a top hat and tails escorts you to the restaurant in a private elevator. When you settle in at this mini-Rainbow Room, you'll gaze upon both the nearby Queen Mary and hazy downtown L.A., while a seven-piece dance band provides music. Mai^tre d' Michael Zadeh has worked with Alex Perino and other local restaurant legends, so the food is ultra-retro, with lots of tableside specialties like steak Diane and a terrific Caesar.
40 S. Locust Ave., Long Beach. (562) 983-2703. Very expensive.
The Titanic has done wonders for business at the Queen Mary, so if you're planning to visit her, you may wish to stop by the Reef. This combination beach shack and quaint country house, a roughhewn building with a facade that resembles many coastal restaurants, has frilly furniture and a real wood-burning fireplace. The food is solidly American and surprisingly good. Dependable dishes include crab cakes Maryland, prime steaks and tasty beer-battered shrimp.
880 Harbor Scenic Drive., Long Beach. (562) 435-8013. Expensive.
Does anyone remember the English movie "Bhaji at the Beach"? Most Californians do not expect naan bread and tandoori chicken at their Sunday beach outing, but anything is possible around here. Delhi Palace is located directly on the Redondo Beach Pier and looks out onto more typical (and invariably more crowded) beachside restaurants. Its best dishes are tandoori meats and breads baked in the clay oven. The vegetable dishes and curries are eminently forgettable.
125 W. Torrance Blvd., Redondo Beach. (310) 376-9447. Moderate.
This is a white-tablecloth restaurant full of tropical plants and soft colors, facing the marina at bustling King Harbor. Paris-trained chef Serge Burckel cooks what he calls EuroCal Asian cuisine, about as intelligent a mix as fusion gets at present. Starters such as spicy fried prawns on fresh tuna paste and the foie gras ravioli are spectacular. The main dishes, from fried lobster with porcini to spice-roasted Chinese duck with date puree, are always interesting.
350 N. Harbor Drive, Redondo Beach. (310) 798-5348. Expensive.
Surprise--an interesting Italian restaurant on the Hermosa Beach Pier! Il Boccaccio is a dark, intimate place with an inviting antipasto table by the front door. Among chef Carlo Matra-Venezia's specialties are fork-tender braised lamb with creamy polenta and homey pastas such as tagliatelle with duck and pappardelle with stewed lamb. Have the panna cotta for dessert, and take note when making reservations that the patio faces noisy Pier Avenue.
39 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. (310) 376-0211. Moderate.
Cafe Del Rey
The hottest Marina restaurant is the hugely popular, ever-crowded Cafe Del Rey, where the drawing cards include the panoramic windows, the boat slips just outside and a terrific wine list. People rave about Katsuo Nagasawa's fusion cooking, but it can be over the top. The curried lobster chowder is terrific, but the kung pao shellfish sausage with matchstick potatoes, roasted peanuts and garlic is bland and unremarkable, and the blackened swordfish with grilled banana, saffron couscous, papaya relish and chipotle pepper sauce is downright wacky.
4451 Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey. (310) 823-6395. Expensive.
Only in Santa Monica can you dine a la Provencal in full view of a glittery Ferris wheel. That would be at the lovely new Lavande, a spiffy pastel-splashed room furnished with green wicker chairs. Alain Giraud makes a wonderful vegetable terrine, a very correct soupe de poisson and a veal daube laced with black and green olives. From the short, sweet house selection of wines, try (what else?) a Bandol from Provence.
At Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 576-3108. Expensive.
This Cape Cod room is best at Sunday brunch, when the ambient light and wraparound windows make you feel as if you've landed somewhere on the Atlantic Coast. The food is simple, straightforward and generally satisfying. Rock shrimp frittata and turkey hash with poached eggs are both delicious, and there is a nice chopped grilled vegetable salad for lighter appetites. Everybody loves the warm chocolate pudding cake.
At Shutters on the Beach, 1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 458-0030. Expensive.
Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi
You can't quite see the ocean from Giorgio Baldi's small Italian restaurant, but his Tuscan-style cooking is so good that we're counting this place in. On balmy nights, sit outside on the tiny front terrace and indulge in wonderfully rustic Italian dishes: warm seafood salad (squid, clams, mussels and shrimp), the ruddy Mediterranean fish soup cacciucco and arguably the best gnocchi in Los Angeles--light-as-a-cloud puffs accentuated by a subtle Gorgonzola sauce.
114 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica. (310) 573-1660. Expensive.
No restaurant on the coast has a more romantic setting than Geoffrey's, where the tables, surrounded by flowered gardens, are placed at the edge of the sea. The food was cutting-edge stuff at one time, but the kitchen has become much more conventional in recent years. Young American chef Sean Davis calls his style California cuisine with an international flair. You can have good pecan-crusted Alaskan halibut and competent grilled Colorado lamb chops, but the setting upstages everything else here.
27400 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 457-1519. Very expensive.
Almost everyone who drives the Coast Highway from Malibu to Ventura (or vice versa) seems to stop at Neptune's Net, an always-crowded, affordable bastion of fresh seafood with an unsinkable rep among locals. You essentially choose live shellfish from a cement tank and then tell someone on the staff how you'd like it prepared--grilled, steamed, or fried. A few simple side dishes are prepared in the back kitchen, which is just opposite the tank rooms.
42505 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 457-3095. Inexpensive.
Native New Englanders clamoring for authentic clam chowder and fried Ipswich clams, bellies and all, should head for Ventura's Tucks Point, named for a quaint Massachusetts village. Sit on the breezy deck and enjoy the rich, creamy Boston clam chowder (properly made without flour), the lightly battered clams and even grilled lobster rolls, served on real hot dog buns from New England's Sunbeam bakery. It may not be Cape Ann, but it will do.
1567 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura. (805) 644-2644. Moderate.
Eric Ericsson's on the Pier
Apart from one of Ventura County's more irresistible views, right on Ventura Pier, this restaurant has one snazzy-looking room. The huge, airy space features a slate-gray tile floor, salmon-colored walls, zinc-topped dining tables and a giant, skeletal fish mobile. The food isn't gourmet quality, but it's acceptable. Shellfish appetizers include littlenecks, Pacific oysters, Manila clams and peel-and-eat shrimp. The fresh fish (particularly good are the ono, snapper, thresher shark and swordfish) are flame-broiled.
668 Harbor Blvd., Ventura. (805) 643-4873. Moderate.
Four Seasons Biltmore
Imagine having a proper high tea and a beach view at the same time. The Santa Barbara Biltmore serves afternoon tea in the stunning La Sala lounge, just below the main lobby. This is a magnificently rustic haven, constructed of azulejo tiles and wooden beams. You'll sip your choice of teas at tables covered in bright pink cloth, while sinking down into luxurious tapestry chairs. The service, which includes scones, finger sandwiches, pastries and chocolate-dipped strawberries, is impeccable. The tea comes from the well-known Twinings firm, and it is hot.
1260 Channel Drive, Santa Barbara. (805) 969-2261. Moderate.
Who can explain the popularity of this Santa Barbara institution, a restaurant with a no-reservations policy that is packed every night of the summer? Brophy Bros. has a wonderful deck and New England roots, but the fresh catch list reads more like Honolulu than Boston. A decent mahi mahi comes dusted in undetectable Cajun spices. Local halibut, grilled and glazed with a brandy, crab and basil cream sauce, would be better left alone. Real New England clam chowder, the creamy one, comes with entrees.
119 Harbor Way. Santa Barbara. (805) 966-4418. Moderate.