Where I grew up in a Mississippi backwater, a cricket was a chirping bug you impaled on a fishhook in hopes of snagging a succulent catfish to grace the dinner table. Now here I am sitting in a restaurant named Typhoon at the Santa Monica Municipal Airport with a small airplane parked on the tarmac just under the room-encompassing plate-glass window. I'm told celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Geena Davis, Bill Cosby and Goldie Hawn often land here, often at the controls themselves.

More intimidating is the plate before me.

A mess of crickets.

"Taiwanese stir-fried style with raw garlic, chili peppers and Asian basil," the menu said.

(In case your taste doesn't run to crickets, the Typhoon menu also includes scorpions on shrimp toast, waterbugs stuffed with chicken, Manchurian ants sprinkled on potato strings, and Thai-style fried white sea worms.)

Crickets and other creepy-crawlies aside, I was to learn, Santa Monica has evolved into a favorite getaway for foodies, thanks to such kings of the kitchen as Wolfgang Puck, Michael McCarty and others who toil at Santa Monica's 400 or more restaurants and helped invent "California Cuisine."

This is not what I expected in the land of "Baywatch." The pulchritudinous series was filmed here for years before its hiatus to Hawaii, where it eventually drowned. The beach here, 3.5 miles of honey-colored sand, was also the home of the original Muscle Beach, before neighboring Venice absconded with the franchise.

So I had expected to dine mainly on hamburgers and beer at the famed Santa Monica Pier - the oldest "pleasure pier" on the West Coast - while keeping an eye out for the likes of Pam Anderson or Sly Stallone, stacked starlets showing off their thongs

and bronzed studs preening in the sun.

I could also imagine encountering the ghosts of Hollywood legends and other illuminaries who once frolicked in party palaces just up the beach along Palisades Beach Road, including the homes of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Mae West, Norma Shearer, Darryl Zanuck, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Harold Lloyd.

The Sand & Sea Club, which was used as the focal point for the hit TV series "Beverly Hills 90210," is on the site where newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built a 118-room, 55-bath mansion for his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Peter Lawford once owned the house at 625 Beach Road where it is said his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, dallied with Marilyn Monroe and others.

Santa Monica today remains ripe for partying and celebrity-spotting, in places like the Third Street Promenade, three blocks of car-free shopping, dining and imbibing, where dancing in the streets is a frequent happening. On a recent afternoon, one impromptu group was jitterbugging to DJ-driven Big Band tunes while just a block down the street the tempo was Argentine tango. In a nearby bar, a salsa instructor was helping lithe Latin lovelies perfect their moves.

But I digress.

Here I am contemplating an unappetizing-looking cricket concoction and wondering why. At a nearby table a 30ish couple is carving chunks out of the carcass of a whole deep-fried catfish the size of a loaf of bread. I wondered if that catfish had been suckered by a skewered cricket.

So why was I chowing down on crickets instead of catfish? I was egged on by my tablemate, Brian Vidor, the proprietor of the Typhoon and its sister restaurant just above, the Hump. At first I suspected Vidor of being an ex-CIA agent because he talked about how he had lived all over Asia. He put together a menu that's a compendium, he says, of the best of China, Korea, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Taiwan and the Philippines.

(But Vidor is no CIA spook. He's a Pepperdine-schooled guitarist who spent 12 years touring with rock bands, his own and others.)

Truth be told, I can't tell you what a cricket tastes like. The chili peppers and other spices were overpowering and the crispy noodles that were tossed in mercifully disguised the crunch.

Nonetheless, I had some memorable meals in Santa Monica.

Fine restaurants in Santa Monica are too numerous to name, but one near the top of everyone's short list is five-star Michael's, known not only for its food, but the decor - art-filled walls inside, a patio with trickling water and greenery outside. Owner Michael McCarty is credited with being one of the founders of "California Cuisine."


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