Beach Bites

3 Casual coastal eateries, both old and new, that should top your summer lunch list.

People live in the South Bay for all kinds of reasons, but the common thread for most is a love of the beach. SoCal beach culture has also usually implied cheap beach food. While tasty tacos, pizza and inexpensive beer have their places in the culinary landscape, it’s been great to see a whole new crop of breezy beach bites arrive in the South Bay. You can do casual without sacrificing quality, as many A-list restaurateurs have discovered. Unsurprisingly, the South Bay has become the new “it” destination for understated deliciousness.

Leading the pack in so many ways is the Lemonade “chain-let” of Los Angeles-area restaurants. With Chef Alan Jackson’s signature SoCal comfort food, the emphasis is on fresh, healthy and affordable. Here in the Southland, it’s apparently kale and farro that are comforting, not biscuits and gravy. Jackson must be doing something right, as he’s got seven locations humming along already.

Now located in the Metlox Center, Lemonade is a natural complement to Manhattan Beach residents’ trademark healthy-but-busy lifestyle. The exquisite takeout menu offers tempting seasonal items like orecchiette pasta with market asparagus, perlini mozzarella and sorrel vinaigrette or green tomato salad served with sweet corn and ancho chiles. And don’t forget the eponymous lemonade spiked with summery items like white peach nectar and ginger. It’s impossible not to love Lemonade—it’s just too good.  (13 Street Plaza in Manhattan Beach) OPENING LATE SUMMER 2012.

A bit further south is one of my favorite discoveries for lunch: Gum Tree Café in Hermosa. As someone who’s traveled extensively in Australia, it’s fun to see the authentic touches that owners Will and Lori Ford have so carefully curated in this café-cum-boutique. Lamington cookies immediately took me back to the summer I spent in Melbourne during college—to the laidback café culture of serious but unpretentious food that is simultaneously Australian and Californian. 

Will’s Aussie roots blend beautifully with Lori’s South Bay design aesthetic, so if you haven’t yet popped in for a cup of tea, a Lamington and some killer shopping, you’re missing out. It’s the perfect spot for lunch with friends or for that delicious salad and moment of private peace all for yourself. (238 Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach)

Just around the corner from Gum Tree is proof-positive that food has changed for good and for the good: Umami Burger. Continuing his post-modern assault on mediocre burgers, owner Adam Fleischman’s South Bay outpost challenges everything you think you know about that most American of meals: burger, fries, ketchup, pickles. That “umami”—the Japanese fifth and savory taste, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitterhas been married so successfully to American comfort food is tribute to Fleischman’s genius. 

Come to Umami for a careful selection of composed burgers that will leave your taste buds dazzled and your pocketbook sound. It’s another aspect of the casual-yet-revolutionary movement in better food:  affordability. Dinner at Umami Burger may cost you $10 to $15 more than fast food, and more if you indulge in killer microbrews or a great glass of wine. But the YUM factor is several orders of indescribable magnitude better. (1040 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa Beach)