Surface recognition of biosystems is a critical component in the development of novel biosensors and delivery vehicles, and for the therapeutic regulation of biological processes. Monolayer-protected nanoparticles present a highly versatile scaffold for selective interaction with bio-macromolecules and cells. Through the engineering of the monolayer surface, nanoparticles can be tailored for surface recognition of biomolecules and cells. This review highlights recent progress in nanoparticle–bio-macromolecule/cellular interactions, emphasizing the effect of the surface monolayer structure on the interactions with proteins, DNA, and cell surfaces. The extension of these tailored interactions to hybrid nanomaterials, biosensing platforms, and delivery vehicles is also discussed.