All photos courtesy of The Galley

Resy SpotlightLos Angeles

How The Galley, Age 90, Became Santa Monica’s Most Beloved Nautical Dive


The mermaid seated comfortably in a canoe that levitates above the entrance is the first thing that tells you this is a different kind of place. Written on the side of the canoe are the words “Captain Ron,” a nod to the proprietor, who came to Los Angeles in the 1970s dreaming of becoming a stand-up comedian but settling instead on restaurateur — to him, not much of a detour.

Ron Schur is the affable, fedora-wearing owner of The Galley, which bills itself as the oldest restaurant in Santa Monica. Judging by the vintage fishing nets, aging life preservers, and World War II memorabilia on the walls (and the semi-functional pay phone by the bathrooms), doubt this at your own risk.

To The Galley’s many regulars — myself included — the restaurant is a second home, that place where you text a friend to meet you and the friend responds, “duh” — which is exactly what its owner is going for.  

“I love hearing people say to me, ‘I don’t feel like going out to dinner tonight, so we decided to come to The Galley,’” Schur says. We’re sitting mid-afternoon at a booth, where he has just ordered me a shrimp cocktail. I’m washing it down with a Bacardi and Diet Coke, while the captain, whose giddy energy makes him seem much younger than his 76 years, is nursing a white wine spritzer and noshing on the restaurant’s limitless hot bread.

It is hard to overstay your welcome here — though I do frequently try.

After interviewing Schur, I move seamlessly to another booth, to dinnertime, at which point my wife and two friends arrive. We order a 44-ounce tomahawk steak to share, along with dinner salads, sautéed mushrooms, baked potatoes, onion rings, and by now, our fifth serving of bread. We end the night six hours after I first arrived, with Manhattans and skyscraper-sized slices of carrot cake and key lime pie. 

We end the night six hours after I first arrived, with Manhattans and skyscraper-sized slices of carrot cake and key lime pie. 

Schur is squeezed into the booth with us for much of the evening, though he gets up frequently to kibitz with the other tables. The owner says he likes making people laugh. “When you see people happy, it gives you a purpose in life,” he says.

I ask Schur how he would describe The Galley’s menu. 

Drumroll, please: “It’s much better than airplane food.” 

To be clear, the food is quite good. I’d venture to say excellent if you appreciate a classic, old-school steak and seafood house. My intense love for such places has elicited questions like “are you an old man?” from my wife and friends, but I get the last laugh every time.

The Galley leans into protein, offering everything from shrimp scampi to Australian lobster tail, filet mignon to chicken Parmesan. The Seafood Diablo is killer, as is the grilled calamari steak. For non-meat lovers, there’s a more-than-admirable pasta marinara and a slew of à la carte vegetables that could serve as a respectable meal. (As a carnivore, I’ve more than once ordered multiple servings of the mushrooms.)

When you see people happy, it gives you a purpose in life. — Ron Schur, Owner of The Galley

And then there is the salad, which, like so many things here, has a story. 

The Galley first opened in 1934 on the Santa Monica pier and, Schur says, was a frequent hangout for hard-working fishermen — hence, the well-maintained nautical theme. The restaurant moved to Main Street in 1946, and Schur arrived on the scene as a regular in the early ‘80s. He recalls typical activities like drinking, smoking cigars, and playing bumper pool with his buddies, but steered clear of dinner. “At the time, the place was so filthy that I’d never order any hot food — just the salad,” he says. Said salad was a relatively basic affair, but one thing stood out: the dressing. 

The Galley circa 1934.
The Galley circa 1934.

“So I said to the waitress, Millie, the salad dressing is great. Where do you buy it? She was a really gruff and salty woman. She says, ‘We don’t buy it. I make it myself.’ And I said, How do you make it? She says, ‘I’m not telling you,’ and walks away.”

Schur was undeterred. Some months later, he was back, with Millie again as his server.

“As she’s picking up all the plates, I say, ‘Come on, Millie, you know, tell me what’s in the salad dressing.’ She took all the plates in her arms and threw them on the table. My friends are looking at me like, ‘What did you say to this woman?’ I’m self-conscious. I’m sitting there perspiring.”

Then — in a moment so foundational to The Galley’s history that it’s recounted in a frame hanging beside the urinal in the bathroom — Millie looked at Ron and said, “If you want to know what’s in the salad dressing so badly, you should just buy the $%&@-ing place!” 

Which he did, in 1989.

By this time, Schur had given up on his comedy career — due to, as he puts it, “a lack of courage and talent.” He was, however, courageous enough to dabble in the restaurant business, opening a three-location fast food business called “Snacks Fifth Avenue” that became famous for its tuna-avocado sandwich, despite Schur having no particular expertise with either primary ingredient.

“I’m from New York, and never heard of an avocado,” he says. “I think I asked my sister — she’s a vegan — and she said why don’t you use avocado. I put it with tuna fish.”

As Snacks Fifth Avenue was running its course, Schur noticed The Galley falling into (even greater) disrepair. He had to act. “It was so run down,” he says. “It definitely would have gone out of business.”

So he bought it and took the helm. 

Captain Ron making the rounds.
Captain Ron making the rounds.

As “captain” — a title a customer bequeathed upon him one night — Schur has pulled off a difficult task. He changed, well, everything: overhauling the kitchen, remodeling the dining space, updating the payment system to accept credit cards. He also added whimsical, nautical-forward touches to keep what he calls the “integrity” of a joint remembered by the faithful as ramshackle and scrappy — you know, a worn-out dive you might have found on a fishing pier in 1934.

“Not one stick of wood is the same except the actual bar,” the captain says. “People come in all the time and say thank God you haven’t changed a thing — and I don’t argue with them.”

For example, what seems like close to eight million colorful Christmas lights adorn every square inch of the room, a feature that existed when Schur arrived but which he says he has further “enhanced” — “From the glow of the lights, we all look 10 years younger,” he says, an effect I can indeed confirm. 

The Galley — and Schur — have become something of a legend in Los Angeles, often drawing Hollywood luminaries. (On a recent visit, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas casually wandered in behind me and found a booth.) But Schur says he’s most satisfied when he sees a couple come in that, he imagines, has found a rare escape from their busy lives raising kids or working long hours. 

Perhaps they’ll be seated in the small front booth to the right when you walk inside. There, Schur has framed a poem his father wrote to his mom while serving in World War II. “I’ll never forget our days together, the happiest of my life. Some day I’ll return, my dear, and make you my Darling Wife.”

Captain Ron Schur.
Captain Ron Schur.

In the same booth is a framed photo of Schur’s ex-wife — who is still a good friend and the restaurant’s accountant. Rounding out the family affair, Schur’s 18-year-old son, Jackson, has been hosting at The Galley as he finishes high school. Jackson has begged his dad never to sell the place — which makes Schur think Jackson may want to take over some day, an ambition the humble captain has so far discouraged. As he puts it, “he’s too smart for this job.” 

Truth be told, nothing sums up the story of this place quite like the salad dressing. Like the restaurant itself, it’s hard to put into words what makes it special. My wife, Rose Previte, has a seasoned palate and penchant for honesty. And she says from a purely culinary standpoint, the famous Galley dressing … is just a better-than-mediocre spin on Thousand Island.

Maybe so. But Rose is a restaurateur herself who believes that the spirit and soul and story of a place are just as important as the food itself. So like me — like Schur — she bows to the magic in that dressing (even if she orders the Galley’s other option, lemon vinaigrette, instead).

Maybe the magic of this place — the no-BS, take-it-or-leave-it style that greets you at first, before you’re drawn into a love affair you never quite expected — is best embodied in Schur’s relationship with Millie.

He won her over, finally. A year into owning The Galley, Schur was sitting at the bar, and Millie dropped off a note as she walked by. On it, she had written “You’re not a bad guy.” This was huge. “If you know Millie, she threw around compliments like manhole covers. I mean, she never said anything nice about anybody, ANY … BODY,” Schur recalls. 

“She always had a cigarette dangling out of her mouth, even when she went up to tables,” Schur says. “And she never sat down. I said, Millie, you can sit down — because she was like 70 years old, you know? I can still quote her: ‘I never sat down 30 years, not sitting down now.’ And then one night, about 28 years ago, she called me from her house and she said, ‘Ronnie, I don’t feel good.’ That was very out of character. So I went to her house and she was having a heart attack right in front of me. I had about two seconds to make up my mind. Do I call 911 or do I take her to the hospital?” He chose the latter. 

Doctors revived Millie, and she lived a few more years before succumbing to cancer. At that point, Schur realized why Millie had been so protective of the restaurant he owns today. “She had a parrot and very few friends. Her whole life was at The Galley.”

Today, you can still feel Schur’s commitment to maintaining a place that Millie would be proud of — and that’s good news for all of us, whether you like the damn dressing or not.

David Greene, the former host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” now hosts the weekly politics show, “Left, Right and Center” from KCRW in Santa Monica. He also hosts “Reign of Error,” a Smartless show about New York Knicks owner James Dolan that likely has him banned from Madison Square Garden. David is not, contrary to popular belief, an old man. Follow him @fearless_greene; follow us too: @Resy