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Casa del Mar: The “palace by the sea” beckons

By Karen Villalpando, 8/14/2014

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The mention of Santa Monica, California immediately conjures up images of a sandy, sunshine-bathed beach, beautiful people skating or jogging down the boardwalk, and the twinkling lights from the iconic Ferris wheel. Pharrels’s song “Happy” plays in your head as you cruise down PCH with the top down, spotting the various luxury hotels and beach clubs that dot the coastline.

Casa del Mar is an enchanting beachfront hotel with European charm and hospitality reminicent of the “Roaring Twenties.” (photo courtesy of Casa del Mar Hotel)

Yet, I implore you to take a left turn and a step back in time. Expand your horizon to the Santa Monica of years past—the Santa Monica of the jazz age. Turning left at the sand where Pico Boulevard meets Ocean Way, you will find yourself in front of a timeless brick building, erected in 1926, as a “palace by the sea” and a picturesque backdrop to the fun and folly of the roaring twenties.

Brothers Jack and Til Harter built a grand club for the well-to-do, the Club Casa del Mar. For many years the club hosted private members who wined and dined among the who’s-who. Fabled stories swirl around the history of the club, like Hollywood starlets skinny-dipping with leading business executives in the heated pool, swinging parties and festive affairs that may have included gambling and illegal booze during Prohibition.

But then came the Great Depression and WWII, and the club succumbed to the times. It became a rehabilitation center during the 1960s and 1970s and then was shuttered again. The Grand Dame went dark.

The property was acquired in 1997 by the Edward Thomas Hospitality Corporation, which invested more than $50 million into Casa del Mar, converting it to a luxury hotel. Most recently, the company completed interior renovations of the 129 guest rooms and the dining rooms. The goal was to bring Casa del Mar back to its glory, with its Spanish tiled grand staircase welcoming guests.

The hotel lobby is handsomely appointed in light colors of blue, yellow and tan, creating a grand living room where guests can relax and unwind. In the evening, the room transforms to a lively club, with live swing music and dancing. The lighting is subdued, but not dark, and patrons dress in party attire, many swing dancing to music by “The Leftover Cuties.”

The tiled, grand staircase at Casa del Mar provides an inviting entrance to the hotel. (photo by Karen Villalpando)

We waltzed through the room on our way to Catch, the seafood restaurant off the lobby. The chef, Jason Bowlin, has created a menu centered on the freshest seafood and produce available. Platters of chilled shellfish, like daily oysters on the half-shell, little neck clams, mussels, shrimp and crab are a marvelous beginning to your dining experience at Catch. Crudo and sushi are specialties, such as the hamachi with pickled chanterelles, crispy garlic and chive salt.

We also selected a few shared plates of grilled octopus and crispy artichokes with black olive dust and mint – a zesty combination.

Fish is the centerpiece of the entrées. Try the mustard marinated black cod with three bean salad and nori salt. The beans (not the 3 bean combo you would find in a deli) and salt pair well with the mustard marinade, helping to even the flavors.  The catch of the day was a whole sea bream from Turkey. The fish was light and delicate and served with vegetables and Romesco sauce. It was impeccably prepared and bursting with fresh and nuanced flavors.

I ordered the whole Maine lobster, which can be ordered as one, two or two-and-a-half pounds, grilled and served with lemon butter and roasted vegetables. I told the chef I had never had a better-prepared lobster, cooked just until tender, super sweet and juicy. I ate every bite of the two-pound beauty, unashamedly.

Chef Bowlin recognizes fish may not be every diner’s choice, so there are several meat dishes on the menu: braised short ribs, rib cap steak, beef filet and a rib eye. A few notable side dishes are the black truffle mac and cheese – yes, as good as it sounds – horseradish mashed potatoes and malt and vinegar French fries.

I’m not always a dessert eater, but when tiramisu in a jar is offered, I have to taste it. Delicious mascarpone mousse layered with sponge cake, coffee and rum – what’s not to like? Vanilla panna cotta, Sicilian pistachio cake (made with pistachios imported from Italy), and a chocolate and espresso tart are among the delights.

From the dining room, you can see the festivities happening in the lobby. With vintage chandeliers and “The Leftover Cuties” setting the mood, you can’t help but conjure up images of guests enjoying the venue back in the 1920s. It was all very Gatsby-esque, and we were anxious to plunge ourselves into the party occurring in the lobby.

Catch restaurant at Casa del Mar specializes in fresh seafood, including a raw bar, sushi and crudo, pictured above. (photo courtesy of Casa del Mar)

Extending the 1920s theme, the cocktail menu offers several bourbon infused selections, like the Bourbon bloom, with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, St. Germain liqueur, lime juice and mint; or the blackberry smash with Woodford reserve, lime juice, blackberries, sage, angostura bitters and Mezcal mist – a potent combination. For something a little lighter, try the Pisco rose with Pisco porton, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, raspberries agave and sparkling wine.

A new café just off the lobby, Terrazza, overlooks the ocean with expansive two-story windows with view of the California coastline.  The décor evokes European seaside luxury, with Italian wood carved tables and Spanish tile. The windows open allowing sea breezes to rush in. (Do you see white opaque draperies billowing?) In the afternoon, it’s the perfect place to sip a glass of wine and soak up the sunshine. Billed as the “first stop, last call and everything in between” – Terrazzo is the spot for a cold draft beer and a pizza for lunch, or a glass of wine and a plate of crudo for an afternoon snack. It is here where the craft cocktails are shaken during the live music in the evening.

Poolside, guests enjoy ocean views while lounging in comfy chaises and attentive cocktail service.

Casa del Mar exudes elegance from the lobby to the guest rooms, which are elegantly furnished in white and blues, with high ceilings and four-poster beds. Opulent baths of Italian marble and whirlpool tubs invite you to soak in luxurious sea salts to unwind after a day at the beach.

Whether you visit Casa del Mar for an afternoon, an evening or a weekend, the palace by the sea once again beckons guests to enjoy its luxurious surroundings. Be sure to bring your dancing shoes – and perhaps a flapper dress – to revel in this Gatsby-esque experience.

Catch is open nightly for dinner 5:30-10 p.m. The lounge is open until midnight Sunday through Thursday, and until 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Terrazza is open for breakfast, brunch, lunch and lounge service. 1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica. (310)581-5533. www.hotelcasadelmar.com.

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