There’s a quality about Santa Monica that enchants almost anyone who visits, a seemingly-secret something that makes the community special. Three restaurants–The Galley, est. 1934; OP Cafe, est. 1996; Dolcenero Gelato, est. 2015–promote that community locale as they recount their histories.
Boasting that they are the oldest restaurant and bar in Santa Monica, The Galley has 84 years of success. While originally located at the Santa Monica Pier, it’s been at its current location of 2442 Main St for 72 of its 84 years, explained current proprietor Ron Schur, who has owned it since 1988. The nautical theme has existed since the beginning, and Schur wasn’t going to touch it, “Over the years I remodeled it–there’s not a stick of wood that was there when I bought the place. But people come in and say, ‘Thank God you didn’t change it.’ So I kept the feel but I did [change] it very subtly” He explains with a laugh.
He says, “I thought it [having history] made a big difference, but I don’t think it makes that much of a difference–you’re only as good as your last meal, as good as your last service.”
Within a discussion about why The Galley is still successful, Schur mentions the importance of service again, which seems to be a focus point to maintaining his restaurant. Ron says, “You have to have service. It’s nice when an owner is around and talks to people… I try and spend as much time as possible… I tell everyone I’m not in the restaurant business, I tell ‘em I’m in the be-back business. It’s the goal of every server to get customers to come back and that’s what I try to do myself. I get a lot of people who come in and say, ‘My wife and I didn’t feel like eating out tonight so we came to The Galley.’ [To the customer] It’s like home.”
Schur only has a few complaints. He said, “A lot of retail businesses have gone out of business because of the internet and a lot more restaurants have opened. So the competition has really grown but we’ve managed to hold our own.”
About working with the city, he said, “They’re pretty tough if you want to expand or something; you have to go through a lot of meetings and put in a variance and stuff like that. So sometimes it can be sort of difficult, but I like the city–love Santa Monica, it’s a very unusual city.”
The experiences and ideas behind The Galley seem to continue in the same vein at OP Cafe. Owner, Mark Verge, explains how he took over the restaurant. Like Schur, Verge bought an already existing restaurant; but unlike Schur, he started the concept from scratch. It’s in a tiny building at 3117 Ocean Park Blvd, and as you step inside, you’re transported back to a different era. There’s history on every wall, and touches of the community throughout.
When prompted for the start of OP Cafe, Mark mentions a friend who urged him on the right path, “He said ‘Please no, you gotta make it [about the] neighborhood. I love waitresses and waiters asking what you want. They learn your name, and it just feels so personal.’ And then my mom, Margo, kept begging for the counter to stay. So we still have the counter, and we have waitresses and waiters,” he says, as opposed to ordering and seating yourself.
Like the vibe of the restaurant, the appreciation of history was also inspired by those close to Mark. He said, “My brother, Patrick, has always known everyone in the community, and always kind of thought it was special that we grew up here. He really went after the history… My brother was a lifeguard and he had these great [vintage] lifeguard pictures, and talked about he always wanted to do the book on the History of Lifeguards, and so we went with it.”
With the same appreciative tone, Verge says, “I think we’ve been blessed; the city really works with us.” About tourism, he continued, “Everyone wants to be here and everyone knows that. You have a built in crowd. Rents are out of control, some things are hard to overcome, but it’s nice that people are dying to get here.”
The newest of these restaurants, Dolcenero (at 2400 Main St), has some of the same appreciation, but different struggles with the city. Simone Acciai, a native of Italy, had some unique struggles that came with starting his business from scratch. “It took us nine months to open after we rented that space (and we were paying the rent). Before it was a clothing store, so we had to get a ‘Change of Use’ permit with the city and have our project approved by the Department of Building and Safety. That was a nightmare. They just read the rules without using the brain,” he explained over an email, with an exasperated tone throughout the text.
Acciai started his own restaurant instead of taking one over, English isn’t his first language, and he hasn’t been in Santa Monica long. Despite all these differences between him and the other owners, he still maintains that desire to help the community around him. “We try to ‘Buy Local’” he says, “When we hire we give priority to Santa Monica residents. We buy as many local ingredients as possible. We don’t print our brochures or business cards at Staples; we use a family-owned business on Wilshire Blvd.”
He also mentions that, for a place that specializes in desserts, there are more factors that come with being busy than just weekends. He says, “The weather [is the biggest factor], so it changes through the year. On a rainy day we sell 70% less gelatos!” Yet Acciai is aware those unique Santa Monica features–his close proximity to the beach and walkability from the Ocean Park neighborhood–are what aid in his success.
All three restaurants have become essential parts of the community, in part because of how much they give back. That seems to be the biggest thread with these restaurants in Santa Monica.
Acciai is on the Board of the Main Street Improvement Association, and Dolcenero was voted the Most Loved Business on Main Street as testament to the impact it’s made in the community in its short history here.
Ron Schur at The Galley, says, “I do donate to the local schools and the Santa Monica Choir and stuff like that. I’m also involved for over twenty years with an organization for hearing-impaired children, and I put on a charity softball event every year and invite everyone back to The Galley. Y’know, it’s a way to give back to all the customers who have supported us throughout the years.”
Mark Verge at OP Cafe had the most to say. With community as the underlying theme and driving force of Mark’s restaurants (he and family also own Art’s Table and Margo’s on Montana, and Ashland-Hill on Main Street), you would expect him to be an active participant, and he doesn’t disappoint. “We don’t ever refuse a charity. We do Grant [Elementary School], John Adams [Middle School], Boys and Girls Club, Saint Monica’s, everyone. We never say no, ‘specially local charities, that’s our key.” Here, an employee who overheard the conversation jumps in, “His company has the biggest heart.” Mark laughs and talks to her for a second before continuing, “We’re trying. I think that’s the only way we can compete, truly, y’know. We’re never gonna beat Starbucks. The best we can do is out-nice and out-neighborhood them.” He continued, “[Community feel in the restaurants] is all I’m going after. I’m only trying to ‘do neighborhood.’ There are all these chances to buy franchises… that just doesn’t appeal to me. You don’t get to know the people, it’s so rigid. Y’know, I love going to Bay Cities and all these cool spots you can only go to here.”
At the end of the interviews, each restaurant was asked to sum up their identity in a few words.
Dolcenero focused on unity, “We try to bring together the history and heritage of Italy with the beachy, fun, So-Cal vibes of Santa Monica.”
At the Galley, Schur said, “I would describe it as the restaurant with a heart.”
OP Cafe was short and sweet. Verge said it throughout the interview, and repeated it one last time as his final answer, “It’s neighborhood.”
These three very different restaurants might have described what sums up the “something special” that makes Santa Monica what it is.