We were being led through a sea of bodies surrounding one of three bars at Santa Monica’s Élephante Beach House, to the restaurant’s outdoor deck, where palm trees in staggered heights fill the near horizon and the ocean extends forever just beyond.
Then the staffer piloting the way froze. A couple were already seated at the table she had earmarked for us. “Hang out here for a minute, please,” she said. “Sorry about this.”
I couldn’t overhear the conversation but the exchange was clear from across the room: The pair had moved from another table without asking and weren’t budging from their plum perch. It wasn’t the only time I witnessed hosts and servers briefly flummoxed by unexpected table-hopping, which says as much about the entitled clientele as it does about Élephante’s Southern California daydream of a view.
Élephante is a scene, the full Los Angeles stereotype. I wouldn’t characterize it as a celebrity hangout, though luminaries do occasionally light up the rooms. But it is a place to observe plenty of examples of humanity at peak physical perfection, toting this season’s $3,000 bags and sporting $9,000 watches.
Beauty attracts beauty: Owner-designer Nick Mathers knows how to pull together the travel-fantasy porn. As inspiration for Élephante’s coastal glamour he drew on a trip to Pantelleria, an Italian island about 20 miles from Sicily and 40 from Tunisia.
The rooftop restaurant sits on the third floor of a building two blocks from Santa Monica State Beach; ascend in an elevator, check in with the second round of hosts (the first crew guards the ground-floor entrance) and take it all in. Stone and terracotta tiles accent the bars, cactus gardens fill corners, hanging Buhera baskets line the walls; your feet glide along on speckled terrazzo until you reach the stripy tigerwood that lines the deck. Gaze at the vistas from the Midcentury Modern lounge chairs that are back in style.
Mathers and his Wish You Were Here group specialize in these bastions of eye candy and wealth. Élephante opened in June 2018; his Greek-themed Kassi opened in Beverly Grove this summer.
So why bother circling back to review Élephante now? To put it succinctly: The food, particularly a year into its existence, is surprisingly good for a restaurant that, like so many beachside restaurants, could rely solely on its setting to fill the seats. Enough dishes on the California-Italian menu — many of them carb-centric, a delicious irony for the stunning crowd this place attracts — stand out above the splendor of the location.
The most eye-catching bit of edible decor whizzes through the room in servers’ hands about every 90 seconds: whipped eggplant, arriving in a wooden bowl and often set on handsome stools placed near two-top tables as extra serving space. Nearly as light as whipped cream, the dip has enough astringency that you realize its vegetable origin: I’m thankful the restaurant didn’t try to brand it “eggplant hummus.” But everyone is really ordering the dish for the puccia — a variation on a round, puffed Pugliese flatbread often used for sandwiches that here recalls the fresh-from-the-oven pita from Israeli restaurants like Bavel. Hot bread, cool dip, sudden raging hunger, empty plates. By all means, order seconds.
That is the must-order dish at the restaurant, but chefs Thomas Lim and Phil Rubino deliver plenty of familiar, feel-good pleasures in the Californian-Italian lexicon. Follow the eggplant with bronzed arancini, their centers a near-liquid mix of mascarpone and Prosecco, or a season-less chicory salad with orange segments, provolone and hazelnut vinaigrette. Grilled octopus, the decade’s most ubiquitous seafood, smartly takes an ensemble role — thinly sliced but still making its smoky presence known — alongside hearts of palm with olives, onions and capers.
Gently chewy gemelli, a spiral pasta stained dark-cloud gray from squid ink, contrasts satisfyingly against lacy treads of Dungeness crab in a tomato butter sauce revved with enough garlic and chile to make every bite as compelling as the next. The other standout pasta, among a half-dozen options, is tagliatelle sharp with pecorino and showered with black truffle; no whiff of noxious truffle oil. At $50 this is a splurge, but it is a more worthy extravagance than the $40 lobster spaghetti with saffron and basil, which glows all sorts of sun-soaked colors but yields precious little flavor.
Pizzas at Élephante are fine enough. Among the usual Margheritas and blancas with mushrooms, there are imitations of the cacio e pepe at Pizzana and the Bee Sting (honey, chile and soppressata) at Roberta’s. The originals are better, but you’re here for the views. My favorite is the breakfast pizza served at weekend brunch, a balance of beaten egg, Parmesan, provolone and crisp curls of guanciale. But mostly the pies made me long for more puccia.
Is the crowd making you feel self-conscious about eating bread? Here are the power moves, then, for proteins and low-carb vegetables: shrimp grilled quickly in their butterflied shells to wisely avoid mealiness, dressed with salsa verde, followed by straightforward grilled chicken slathered with a vinegary Calabrian chile sauce. Meats are served à la carte; order sides of broccolini in cashew pesto and a sautéed jumble of spinach, kale and rainbow chard.
Entrees impress the least, especially a greasy, leaden veal chop Milanese with a $65 price tag.
And while the cooking can sometimes falter, the staff delivers gracious hospitality. They have been trained in the art of equanimity. Servers and food runners wear big smiles and seem to watch one another’s back, even when customers take seating into their own hands. A caveat: Make reservations. With a booking, a seamless experience usually awaits; without one, there can be hassles and negotiations, and you probably won’t snag an oceanside seat.
Speaking of which: After a few visits I decided the al fresco deck isn’t actually the primo table grab; one’s gaze inevitably drops to the scruffy parking lot right below. The best roosts are just indoors, under the slanting roof, shaded but still catching occasional cooling gusts, and positioned so the Pacific lands right in the sightline. This is dining room as infinity pool, and sometimes in Los Angeles this kind of unreal escape feels like exactly the place to be.
Location: 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (424) 320-2384, elephantela.com
Prices: Starters and salads $7-$22, pastas $16-$50, pizzas $18-$22, mains $28-$95, desserts $8-$12
Details: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet and lot parking. Wheelchair accessible with elevator.
Recommended dishes: Whipped eggplant with puccia, arancini, gemelli with Dungeness crab.