Larval settlement in wave-dominated, nearshore environments is the most critical life stage for a vast array of marine invertebrates, yet it is poorly understood and virtually impossible to observe in situ. Using a custom-built flume tank that mimics the oscillatory fluid flow over a shallow coral reef, we show that millimeter-scale benthic topography increases the settlement of slow-swimming coral larvae by an order of magnitude relative to flat substrates. Particle tracking velocimetry of flow fields revealed that millimeter-scale ridges introduced regions of flow recirculation that redirected larvae toward the substrate surface and decreased the local fluid speed, effectively increasing the window of time for larvae to settle. In agreement with experiments, computational fluid dynamics modeling and agent-based larval simulations also showed significantly higher settlement on ridged substrates. These findings highlight how physics-based substrate design can create new opportunities to increase larval recruitment for ecosystem restoration.