Santa Monica isn’t notorious for its dining scene. Fringed by the beach and a bustling Promenade, the Westside neighborhood doesn’t seem to garner the same kind of excitement its counterparts in Downtown or Highland Park do. Yet, a twelve-year-old institution has paved the way: Rustic Canyon — the first and eponymous restaurant in the Rustic Canyon Family of Restaurants — pushing for innovation in the most surprising ways, and emerging as a cult favorite.
In the early aughts, Josh Loeb was in dire need of a neighborhood restaurant. The Santa Monica native and future Rustic Canyon founder had just moved back from New York, where he’d become entranced with simple establishments that were cooking farm-fresh ingredients, while rejecting the stuffiness of a fine dining restaurant. “On the Westside at the time, there were a couple restaurants that were cooking from a farmers market, but they were more formal,” Loeb recalls. “I wanted to create a place that felt like the places I loved to go to in the Bay Area or New York.”
Inspired by such eateries — and the monumental Italian feast in Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (his favorite food movie) — Loeb started hosting pop-up dinners for friends, splurging on ingredients at the local farmers market. “It started as a fun evening with close friends, but people would e-mail around, and all of a sudden, every event had six to eight people I didn’t know,” he remembers. “I realized then that I had a desire to do this on a larger scale.”
After working front-of-house at chef-owner Bruce Marder’s famed Broadway Deli, and running the wine program at Santa Monica’s Capo, Loeb opened Rustic Canyon in December 2006, a 72-seat restaurant on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 12th Street. Small and charming, it has a timeless look that, twelve years later, still appeals. But when Loeb and opening chef Samir Mohajer first got started, no one knew what to expect. “I had no history in the business [and] Samir didn’t have a strong following. It wasn’t like there was a huge anticipation for the restaurant,” Loeb explains. Yet when the paper went up and construction began, locals started to get excited. And when Rustic Canyon finally unveiled its dinner service, it struck a chord. “There was obviously a thirst for new restaurants that felt interesting,” Loeb recalls.
The restaurant embraced seasonality from the start, getting its ingredients from local farmers markets — a favorite is the Santa Monica Farmers Market, which is conveniently located next-door. This food philosophy has been zealously adopted by all three primary Rustic Canyon chefs, who’ve each put their stamps on the menu as the restaurant’s evolved. Under Samir Mohajer, the menu took on Mediterranean flavors, with a notable Persian influence. When Evan Funke came in, the food became much more Italian. And since 2013, vegetable whisperer Jeremy Fox has been presiding over the kitchen, following an electric seed-to-stalk ethos that results in wildly creative, yet always humble dishes.
“I always wanted [the menu at] Rustic to be super dynamic and change all the time” Loeb reflects. “If I had a restaurant where I was just eating the same dish all the time, I’d probably stop going there after a while, ‘cause I’d get bored with it.” This change hasn’t bothered patrons either: the restaurant is busier than ever, and devoted regulars of twelve years are still streaming in.
With Fox on board, Rustic Canyon gained critical acclaim, nabbing a spot in Jonathan Gold’s “101 Best Restaurants” three years in a row (after Gold’s passing, the restaurant made the LA Times’ “101 Restaurants We Love” list in 2018). “We don’t try to hide anything,” chef de cuisine Andy Doubrava explains. “The food is incredibly honest. We don’t like to throw things away. It’s really important for us at the restaurant to have a good larder, which is our long-term project — you know, pickles and fermentation and charcuterie.”
It was the kitchen’s constant innovation that enticed Fox and Doubrava to take on Off Menu Week, Resy’s new dining program that lets diners try experimental new concepts and off menu hits at some of the city’s most iconic eateries. “We’ve been trying to push ourselves to do more than just our regular menu,” Doubrava explains. “[Off Menu Week] seemed like another way to find creative output and we wanted to really involve our cooks. We have really dedicated people that are behind the scenes most of the time, they’re the unsung heroes.”
During Off Menu Week, Rustic Canyon will shine a spotlight on dishes created by four of the restaurant’s longest-tenured line cooks. There’ll be Jigu Kim’s vegan take on aguachile, where dehydrated-rehydrated beets take on the flaky texture of fish, Colin Chase’s reimagining of the avocado toast, inflected with Asian notes, and Cecilia Ortiz’s chorizo dish — a plate that calls back to the homey Mexican food her mother would make. But that isn’t to say that they’ll be forgotten by the end of the week.
The Rustic Canyon restaurant group is a family first and foremost, and inspiration comes in the most surprising ways. And at Rustic Canyon, that happens during family meal. “We have things on the menu that started as family meal,” Doubrava explains. “We do a secret fried chicken sandwich that’s based off one of the cooks’ family meals from a couple months ago. It’s always a possibility.”
So will any of these off menu dishes become the next iconic Rustic Canyon must-orders? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, rest assured that this Santa Monica haven is here to delight and surprise without the pomp, as only a true neighborhood restaurant can.