The Insider: LA legends Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger chat all things Socalo

Photo credit: Shilah Montiel
The Los Angeles chefs and restaurateurs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger standing in front of their restaurant Socalo

Los Angeles chefs and culinary legends Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have partnered on countless Mexican-inspired restaurants in LA and beyond over the past four decades, but when it comes to Socalo—their bright, airy Santa Monica restaurant—the secret sauce might just be its neighborhood appeal.

“When we opened about four months before Covid, our whole intention was to be a casual neighborhood restaurant, and I feel like it is,” Feniger says. “We always get compliments about the warmth of the staff.”

With a bustling taco Tuesday, a focus on sustainability, and a vibrant menu that showcases both Mexico and California, Socalo has become a fixture for diners looking for well-crafted food and excellent cocktails. 

In this latest installment of the Insider, Feniger and Milliken tell us how Socalo became a neighborhood favorite, the dish you need to order on your next visit, and more. Read on for the full scoop. 

What do you think Socalo’s X factor is?

Susan Feniger: We wanted to make it a warm, friendly, comfortable place that’s easy for people to drop in for lunch, happy hour, or dinner.

Mary Sue Milliken: For me, it’s the food. It’s delicious and irresistible, and you want to eat it more than once a week. It’s Mexican food but with a lot of California influences—more so than our Border Grill concept.

What’s the one dish you’ll never remove from the menu?

Ceviches are among the stars on the menu at Socalo. Photo credit: Socalo

Milliken: For me, it’s the ceviche. Every time I come here that’s what I order, and I love to change it up, although our standard Baja ceviche is delicious.

Feniger: I love the vampiro steak and shrimp tacos with griddled cheese. We’ll never take that off. Same with the guacamole.

How often do you travel to Mexico for research?

Milliken: We used to go more often but we take some team members at least once a year. The country is changing so fast. It’s so different from the first trip we took in 1984, when we rented a VW Bug and drove from Mexico City to Veracruz, Puebla, and Merida. The changes, especially in Mexico City, are so fast.

Feniger: When we go, we basically eat all day and all night long on the street. That’s how you learn. We’re still very motivated by what you can find on the street and how that inspires what we do here.

What are some of the hidden gems on your beverage menu?

Socalo has an enviable Mexican beer and wine selection, but diners can’t get enough of the cocktails. Photo credit: Socalo

Feniger: Our beer selection is really special. It’s almost all small producers from Mexico, and we do a beer sampler so that people can try a few.

Milliken: That was our goal, to highlight Mexican artisanal producers. Our wine list is also entirely from Mexico.

Feniger: We thought the beer would be really popular, but people have been really into the cocktails. The Oaxacan old fashioned, which is made with mezcal, has been a hit.

Milliken: I think more people should try our Micheladas. They’re so delicious, especially at brunchtime.

What’s the best seat in the house?

Socalo’s private dining room features work by local artist Oswald Clark. Photo credit: Socalo

Feniger: I love the hightops at the back of the restaurant and the communal table. I like being on a hightop because you get to see out on the entire restaurant and what everybody is ordering.

Milliken: At the row of cozy two-tops against the window, you’re kind of in your own little bubble. 

Feniger: Our private dining room is also really cool, if you’re throwing a party. It’s decorated with giant pieces of artwork from local artist Clark Oswald.

What’s something people may not know about Socalo?

The exterior of the Los Angeles restaurant Socalo with tables and chairs set up along the pavement
When it’s warm, Socalo’s patio is a nice spot to grab brunch. Photo credit: Luke Gibson

Feniger: We do brunch on Saturdays. I think Mexican breakfast is just the perfect thing. In summertime we’ve got that great patio, and in the wintertime we have all that warm stuff like chilaquiles and huevos rancheros.

Milliken: We also have a Dogtown breakfast with eggs, spinach, roasted tomatoes, and smashed potatoes. I love going on bike rides and ending up here around 10 or 11 to have a hearty breakfast.

When is the best time to find a reservation? 

Milliken: It’s funny, post-pandemic, people like to eat earlier. 7 pm is a good time to book. We get some of the nice sunset light on the patio. At night in the dining room, we bring the shades down, so it becomes cozier. Happy hour is also a great time to come.

What else are you excited about right now?

Milliken: I’m inspired by women chefs and operators and how wise they are. This industry will be so much stronger when women make 50% of the decisions. I’m one of the founders and the chair of the board for RE:Her. The way that women collaborate and make decisions, it’s really something to celebrate and encourage. I’m really excited about the turning point we’re at in the industry. I’m building a coalition of corporations and partners to help solve these problems with RE:Her.

Feniger: The whole concept of our new restaurant in Palm Springs, Alice B., is exciting. [The restaurant is inspired by writer Alice B. Toklas and her partner Gertrude Stein.] We weren’t necessarily dying to do a restaurant in Palm Springs, but it felt like it was so needed in the LGBTQ community. It’s really an experiment to see how we can better support and serve the community.

What’s your favorite award you’ve won, given that you’ve won quite a few?

Los Angeles chefs and owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger sitting on a ledge at their Los Angeles restaurant Socalo
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger are among the most acclaimed chefs in LA, and their favorite recognition is the Julia Child Award. Photo credit: Socalo

Feniger: Oh, there’s no question.

Milliken: It’s when we won the Julia Child Award from the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.

Feniger: It was the most amazing thing. They sent two curators to go through all of our stuff from the last 40-plus years to keep in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian. The display is still there, right next to Julia’s kitchen.

Milliken: Julia was always a huge champion for us. She was also a friend who wanted to hear about the other person and what was new with you. So that award was special on so many levels.

Karen Palmer is a pizza- and pasta-obsessed food writer based in Los Angeles. She is the former editorial director of Tasting Table, and her work has appeared in Eater, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and many other publications. Follow her on Instagram at @karenlpalmer

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