Santa Monica Dining Scene Keeps Tempo With Trends

Santa Monica, Calif., is 8.3 square miles of prime real estate, with three miles stretching along the sandy beaches of the blue Pacific. The area is dotted with art galleries, bookstores, and movie houses.

Add 400 restaurants, cafes, coffeehouses, takeouts, and pastry shops, and you have one eating place for every 217 residents.

In Santa Monica, the taste and cuisine are eclectic. Trends begin here, so there's not a ho-hum menu even in the most traditional-looking cafe.

The city has become a favorite of some of the culinary world's foremost chefs.

Twelve years ago, Wolfgang Puck opened a world-class eatery, Chinois on Main, which features an unusual blend of Chinese with French, Japanese, Italian, and California influences.

In the past two years, when restaurants in other parts of the city were closing faster than a New York minute, Mr. Puck opened two more cafes in Santa Monica. One of the most popular menu items: Puck's famous meatloaf made from his Austrian mother's recipe with a mixture of ground lamb, veal, or pork. Chopped eggplant keeps it moist.

MICHAEL McCARTY opened the upscale Michaels 16 years ago, when he was in his late 20s. He became the youngest owner of a world-class restaurant in the city.

"In those days," Mr. McCarty says, "I used my cordon bleu training and each plate was a picture," he says. "But times have changed. Today, Santa Monica is a neighborhood [of Los Angeles]. No longer do customers come from the Eastside."

McCarty has certain menu items that could never be removed. One is the grilled chicken with goat cheese slipped into a "pocket" on the breast. It is served with jalapeno-cilantro-lime salsa.

The dish is so well-known that when Tom Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, were planning a small dinner party at Michaels, they pre-ordered the grilled chicken and goat cheese.

Santa Monicans have watched McCarty and his young family. They cried with him when his Mailbu home burned and when the 1992 earthquake wrecked his restaurant. But he didn't give up. He lowered his prices, refurbished Michaels, and has a new home under construction.

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