Santa Monica Beach Guide: Insider Tips, Where to Go and What to Avoid

Santa Monica Beach Guide -Austin Hargrave-H 2016
Photographed By Austin Hargrave

The 3.5-mile stretch of deep sand — a tony, family-friendly haven for the likes of Brian Grazer, Dennis Quaid and Jamie Lee Curtis — features the Santa Monica Pier's ferris wheel, "the best place to watch the sunset," says Jennifer Meyer.

When former Elektra A&R head Jay Philbin (who repped Bruce Springsteen) moved to the beach in Santa Monica as an infant during the late 1940s, the city "was the home of the newly wed and the nearly dead," says the lifelong resident. The 3.5-mile stretch of deep sand has been a tony, family-friendly haven for Brian Grazer and Dennis Quaid. Says jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer (wife of Tobey Maguire and daughter of NBCUniversal's Ron Meyer), "Santa Monica has it all: mountains, ocean, palm trees, amazing restaurants and adorable shops. I've been frequenting these spots since I was a child, and they embody everything I love about Los Angeles." Adds director Samuel Bayer: "I'm raising a family, and I dig it. Everyone needs a refuge, and that's what I've found in Santa Monica." Price per square foot is up to nearly $3,000 for an Ocean Avenue condo, but a teardown, like a house on an 11,000-square-foot lot previously owned by Samuel Goldwyn, was listed recently for $14 million, with a per-square-foot cost of $2,778.

HISTORY In 1929, William Randolph Hearst began building a sandside getaway for his mistress Marion Davies on the Gold Coast, as Palisades Beach Road is still known. (It was also once referred to as Rolls-Royce Row for the chauffeured luxury cars that lined the street on Sunday mornings.) Neighbors included Cary Grant, Irving Thalberg, J. Paul Getty and Mae West. "It was a playground for young Hollywood," says Philbin. Davies' 118-room estate subsequently fell into disrepair for decades, but thanks to a pledge by Wallis Annenberg, a guesthouse and the pool were transformed in 2009 into the Annenberg Community Beach House, a popular public destination (locals advise arriving just before it opens; 415 Pacific Coast Highway).

Down the street, Peter Lawford (after Louis B. Mayer) owned the "Kennedy Western White House," in front of which the president landed his helicopter on the beach ("It was like God showing up," says Philbin) to hang with Frank Sinatra and, reportedly, Marilyn Monroe. "There's a really great Bert Stern photo session of Marilyn down by the water, right in front of Lawford's house," says Philbin. It's also where the last known photograph of John Lennon and Paul McCartney was taken, during the late musician's "Lost Weekend" in '74 when he rented the house, leaving Yoko Ono in New York.

The strip's private establishments include the Jonathan Beach Club, which only began allowing women, Jews and African-Americans as members during the late '80s after the California Coastal Commission demanded it change policy to expand onto state land. Recent drama over a fence Carson Daly purportedly built on his former Ocean Way property before selling it to ex-Snapchat COO Emily White has led to both being sued by Santa Monica Petroleum, which claims the barrier is on its land.

INSIDER TIPS For sunset drinks, go to Casa del Mar (1910 Ocean Way) and neighboring Shutters on the Beach's One Pico (1 Pico Blvd.). Its 12-seat beachfront balcony is a favorite of screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (Nerve debuted July 27), who valets her car and spends a whole day: "I'll often write in the lobby — you see people in town for awards shows or an audition." Meanwhile, Oceana Beach Club Hotel encourages the active lifestyle that's signature to the area by offering guests beach cruisers, free weekend surf lessons, complimentary daily beach yoga classes and guided hikes of Temescal Canyon, a favorite of Kate Beckinsale's and Ericka Danko's, director Bayer's wife, a former music video producer. Locals order online at Bay Cities Italian Deli and pick up at the back counter (try the Godmother sandwich; 1517 Lincoln Blvd.). For lighter fare, nearby Sweetfin offers free totes for taking poké bowls to the sand (Kate Hudson orders the yuzu salmon on kelp noodles; 829 Broadway). For a deep flashback to the past, sidle up to the bar at Rat Pack favorite Chez Jay, where Lee Marvin was known to drink even after winning the Academy Award for Cat Ballou (1657 Ocean Ave.). Malibu Beach Inn's Day stands by their "great quality steaks and seafood." Ivy at the Shore (1535 Ocean Ave.), the seaside outpost of Robertson Boulevard's stalwart spot, also has been a hang for Donald Sutherland and Laura Dern.

While Bayer's kids love when he picks up food at Giorgio Baldi (114 W. Channel Rd.) or The Hungry Cat (100 W. Channel Rd.), "Sam's by the Beach is our favorite little place," he says (108 W. Channel Road). For a perfect "three-hour beach jaunt" with her kids, Sharzer walks out from Ocean Park Boulevard where there's a "pirate playground" and a Perry's Cafe. "They have a kids' menu and yummy, fresh salads — there's a quinoa salad that's really good." (Perry's also rents out bikes, umbrellas and coolers; Santa Monica State Beach, 2400 Ocean Front Walk.) Meyer, who recommends avoiding beach traffic by biking (try the city's new Breeze bike share, or jump on the just-expanded Expo Line), takes her kids hiking in Will Rogers Park: "You pass gorgeous polo fields, and the trail loops around to the Santa Monica Mountains." The Santa Monica Pier may seem like a tourist trap, but real Angelenos do go. Meyer calls it a "must, not to mention the ferris wheel is the best place to watch the sunset — you can't beat the view!" Her kids get funnel cakes, and she gets a margarita at Mariasol (401 Santa Monica Pier).

AVOID On average, cleanliness grades for Santa Monica's beach water are fair. But with straight F's, one never should swim near the Pier. Another place to steer clear of is the Santa Ynez drain at Sunset Boulevard in Will Rogers State Beach; it earns poor grades year-round, but "when we have rain, the water quality plummets," says Heal the Bay's Leslie Griffin. Santa Monica has 10 drains, which swimmers should stay a football field away from when flowing (with sewage). Bayer admits he takes his family to Malibu: "To be fair, there's a good amount of trash and a transient problem."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.