Heading south on Main Street in Santa Monica, Calif., where the yuppie city bleeds into Venice Beach — Santa Monica’s free-spirited younger sibling — the area takes on a different shape. The stores are smaller and less commercial, while the atmosphere suddenly switches to relaxed and care-free.
Back in the late 1960’s, this stretch of shops and cafes belonged to Los Angeles’s flower children. The corner of Main and Bicknell streets was the epicenter, where a red-brick fire station housed the cafe Le Boulangerie, the ultimate meeting place for the paisley-clad hipsters.
Forty years later, there’s a new kid on the block, housed in that very same firehouse, albeit a cool gray instead of brick-red. Though the people have changed since then, that casual yet slightly quirky attitude is still the same.
La Grande Orange, which opened in Santa Monica only several weeks ago, is the third restaurant installment by owner and creator Bob Lynn, who opened the inaugural La Grande Orange in Phoenix, Ariz. with a second location in Pasadena, Calif. following shortly thereafter.
Like the exterior, La Grande Orange’s interior bears only a few remnants left over from the firehouse of the past — high ceilings, arched walls and dark brick paneling. These old-school touches are infused with modern updates, including slate-hued couches lined against the brick wall, tea lights dotting the wood tables and a semi-circular bar enclosing the corner of the room. A plasma-screen television hangs just to the left of the bar, tuned in to various sports games (although our waitress claimed they were showing black and white films the other day).
An expansive white canvas hanging on the brick wall reads one simple word in — what else? — orange lettering, “yes.” After a heated discussion over the meaning of this simple decor, our waitress gave us her interpretation of the art work: “Why say no? Just say yes.”
Thus begins your meal, which is hardly limited to an entree and a replenishing glass of water, at La Grande Orange. Everything on the menu is so intriguingly eclectic — your standard American, Asian and Mexican dishes with an unexpected twist — that you find yourself saying “yes” to just about everything your dining guest or server suggests.
For the first round of drinks, we’re told the house favorite is the Shakin’ Lemonade, which includes a splash of Grey Goose vodka and an $8 price-tag. True to its name, the drink is prepared fresh at the table, shaken by the server in a stout glass jar. After the first sip, it is clear why this sweet-yet-refreshing drink is popular among customers. The draft beer, which is just a dash bitter, is equally satisfying at $5 a glass.
Fitting tastefully with the draft beer and alcoholic lemonade are the heavy-duty appetizers, or “Things We Put on Chips.” Though a slim selection, the plentiful plates are hard to pass up. Seafood lovers will find themselves drawn to the shrimp cerviche or tuna tartare, while non- seafood lovers are left with a single option: the chicken nachitos. Thin, crisp, perfectly shaped triangles topped with melted cheese, guacamole and shredded chicken, piled slightly lopsided in a gigantic ceramic bowl — more than enough to make you forget that it’s costing you a pretty $13.95.
In a getting-to-know-the-neighborhood way, La Grande Orange is showcasing local farmers from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market by offering several vegetable dishes as bonus appetizers. The tray of endives sprinkled with dates and cheese proves to be the best choice for your buck, the flavors complementing each other so unexpectedly.
Beef lovers get their fix with the exotic hamburger dishes that stray from the standard, all-American cheeseburger (though for wary eaters, La Grande Orange has that, too) with the green chili burger, topped with roasted poblano chilies and grated cheddar cheese, and the ahi tuna burger, served with avocado, lettuce, tomato and fresh-grated ginger. All burgers are served on a fluffy bun that is anything but stale. Just be sure to take it down a notch when ordering; my medium- well burger was brought to the table painfully charred.
Even the Mexican dishes flirt with the sea, the swordfish soft tacos platter easily reigning supreme over the chicken and steak platters. At $16.95, the price is somewhat steep; yet as you wonder if the waitress even got your order correct (in a “I can’t believe swordfish tastes this good” way) it’s worth it.
When you’re about to relapse into a food coma, the dessert menu arrives. Chocolate fanatics will have a hey-day with the creamy chocolate pudding or the fluffy “magic brownie,” served with a swirl of whipped cream and a sizable scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Also notable, and non-chocolate, is the raspberry crisp, which mixes just the perfect amount of gooey and crispy textures to form a sweet deliciousness on your palate. And as always, the raspberries are straight from the farmer’s market only a few miles away. Top off dessert with one of La Grande Orange’s red or white sangrias — the waitress ensures us there is no better pairing.
If you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, La Grande Orange also has a take-out section at the front of the establishment, offering an extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu.
Keeping to the flavor of the neighborhood with its vibrant dishes, one can only hope that La Grande Orange doesn’t become a franchise but stays a best-kept secret in Phoenix, Pasadena and its newfound home in Santa Monica.