Preparing for a full day of wine tasting and dining in Santa Barbara, I stopped at the front desk of the Santa Barbara Inn to get quarters in case some parking meters didn’t take credit cards. As the desk clerk doled out change, he seemed perplexed.
It didn’t take long to understand his reaction, as there’s not a parking meter to be found and the municipal garages are free for the first 75 minutes, with reasonable rates thereafter.
In other wine regions, visitors drive considerable distances to taste the offerings. In Santa Barbara, more than 30 tasting rooms are clustered within walking distance of one another, interspersed with excellent restaurants, markets, and bakeries. Once you park your car, you’re set for the day.
This is only one of the anomalies that make Santa Barbara one of the fastest-growing and most exciting wine destinations in the United States. A manicured town of about 90,000, the city looks like it was lifted from a fairy tale, offering a mellow environment for celebrated winemaker-restaurateurs like Rajat Parr. Formerly the wine director of the San Francisco–based Mina Group, Parr has coauthored a book on sommeliers and a field guide to European wines and co-owns three wineries: Evening Land Vineyards in Oregon and Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte in Santa Barbara.
He says his reasons for planting roots in Santa Barbara are obvious: “It’s more dynamic than anything else in California right now. It’s like what Sonoma was 20 years ago and Napa 40 years ago. The soil and weather are more interesting, and the land is about one-third the price.”
Tourism has more than doubled in the past five years, but it still lags behind that in other wine-producing regions in the state. Last year, more than 900,000 visitors came to Santa Barbara wine country, a region that boasts, by a 2015 count, 220 wineries. By comparison, Napa Valley is home to over 600 wineries and attracts more than 3.5 million tourists a year.
Free parking aside, Santa Barbara also distinguishes itself through its wine, food, geography, and architecture. Most buildings have white stucco veneers and red tile roofs, the result of strict design standards imposed by an architectural review board, after the city’s 1925 earthquake, to honor the area’s Spanish colonial past.
Santa Barbara resembles an amphitheater, with a curve of mountains surrounding the city and ending at the ocean. The feathery tops of palm trees pierce the sunny blue skies, making this Central Coast destination feel like an extension of Southern California. Los Angeles is only about 95 miles away, and Santa Barbara has long been a playground of sorts for its denizens.
Few cities offer the benefits of beach on one side and mountains on the other, and this is the only Pacific coast wine region where the mountains run east to west. “I honestly believe this is the best place in the country for pinot noir and chardonnay,” says Parr.
Until Sideways came out in 2004, Santa Barbara County was flyover country, but the hit movie elevated the area to cult status. Since that time, momentum has continued to build, and over the past five years the food and wine scene has ballooned with the opening of at least 28 new wineries, according to the Santa Barbara Vintners association. That doesn’t count the scores of small winemakers who are experimenting and haven’t publicly released their first vintages.
COLD SPRINGS TAVERN
While much has changed since Sideways, the Santa Barbara area retains its rustic, relaxed charm, on display at such places as Cold Spring Tavern, about a mile off Highway 154, which runs between Santa Barbara and Los Olivos. It was originally a stagecoach stop, with structures dating back to 1868. On weekends, the restaurant hosts live bands and features the famous Santa Maria tri-tip barbecue sandwich, cooked outdoors on open grills.
One of the most pleasurable stops for lunch or dinner is Bell’s in Los Alamos, on a street that evokes the Old West. The restaurant, in a former Bank of Italy building, makes the most of exposed brick walls and linoleum floors scraped to reveal hardened black tar, partly covered by Oriental rugs. There’s also an open kitchen guarded by an overhead rack of tarnished copper pans that look like they’ve been hanging for decades.
You’d have to go to France to find a better gruyère soufflé than the one at Bell’s, which rises browned and magnificent above its white porcelain ramekin. The menu of bistro classics also includes onion soup; Burgundy snails in garlic-parsley butter accompanied by bread from Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, just down the street; and a modern take on coq au vin: rotisserie chicken in red-wine sauce with lardons, peewee potatoes, and baby carrots. Everything is made in-house, including an elaborate layer cake flavored with rose, wild honey, and grapefruit curd.
Husband-and-wife team Gregory and Daisy Ryan met at the three-Michelin-starred Per Se in New York, where they worked for several years before heading off to Los Angeles and then Austin. When they decided to have children, they moved to the Santa Ynez Valley to be close to Daisy’s family. In March 2018, they opened Bell’s with Daisy in the kitchen and Gregory in the dining room.
“In the last decade, the area’s become more recognized, and we felt this was a good opportunity to be part of the community,” Gregory says. “Because it’s a more remote area, chefs have more freedom.”
As Daisy drives to work, she often stops by the Finley Farms stand to buy vegetables for the nightly menu, which on my visit included a mountain of greens covered in a snowfall of grated goat cheese. The salad was scattered with sunflower seeds, threads of lemon rind, and pickled red onions and dressed in a vinaigrette that coaxed a complex sweetness out of the greens.
Since it opened three years ago, Convivo, at the Santa Barbara Inn, has moved to the top of the must-visit list. The chef is Peter McNee, who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 16 years and headed the kitchen at Poggio in Sausalito for 8. He left the restaurant with the idea of opening a place in San Francisco, but after looking for more than two years, he began considering other options. Then Poggio owner Larry Mindel offered McNee a partnership at Convivo.
The food conjures thoughts of Italy—bucatini pasta coated in chunky, chile-spiced tomato sauce with pancetta; thin-crusted pizza; and lamb meatballs on garbanzo purée studded with pickled rhubarb. However, sitting on the veranda overlooking the beach, you realize you couldn’t be anywhere but California.
A salad accented with green and red butter salanova leaves no bigger than a thumb tasted like McNee had shaken off the morning dew shortly before combining the greens with shaved carrots, radishes, and a piquant vinaigrette. The highlight, though, was vermilion caught by a local fisherman just off nearby San Miguel Island. McNee roasts the fish in a wood-fired pizza oven and plates it with olives and wedges of fennel.
Another example of Santa Barbara’s influx of talent is Rachel Greenspan and Brendan Smith, who in October opened Bettina. Anyone who loves pizza probably knows of Roberta’s in Brooklyn. Smith was the head baker, and his talent is on full display at Bettina. The high-style interior, featuring white tile and domed lights hanging from a trussed ceiling, presents a sharp contrast to the rustic pizza made with slow-fermented dough, its puffy, slightly chewy crust kissed with smoke from the oven.
The couple takes advantage of the local produce not only in the toppings but in the surrounding courses, such as a salad filled with leafy greens lightly coated in sherry vinaigrette.
At the Lark, a prodigious use of fresh ingredients is also on display in the Garden of Little Gems “Wedge,” dressed with smoked gorgonzola, watermelon radishes, and spiced pecans. The restaurant opened in 2013 and helped define the personality of its emerging warehouse neighborhood, known as the Funk Zone, now filled with tasting rooms, cafés, and restaurants. The 130-seat spot, named after the Southern Pacific railway’s luxury Pullman car that ran between Los Angeles and San Francisco from 1941 to 1968, is strategically situated in what was once the Santa Barbara Fish Market. It’s just around the corner from the Helena Avenue Bakery, known for its breakfasts and lunches, including toast thickly slathered with avocado and topped with a seven-minute egg and Aleppo salt. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to resist taking home a loaf of olive bâtarde.
While the Lark’s interior has a historic bent, it also hits modern notes with an exposed-wood-truss ceiling, cement floors checkered with Oriental rugs, a lively bar, and a kitchen visible behind paned glass. The spidery chandeliers recall the impressive fixtures at San Francisco’s Town Hall, where Lark chef Jason Paluska worked with chefs Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal. In fact, the interior of the Lark was designed by Doug Washington, who gave up co-ownership of Town Hall to pursue design full-time.
Paluska’s menu features something for everyone. One favorite is chicken-fried oysters with green-peppercorn gastrique, Meyer lemon aioli, and a lacy topping of pickled sea beans. Roast chicken hides under a clump of frisée and whole baby carrots, potatoes, and chunks of apple, all thickly coated in ras el hanout.
While most new restaurants around town offer variations on California cuisine, the scene has become more diverse in the past year with such places as Bibi Ji, serving Indian, and Tyger Tyger, which specializes in Southeast Asian street food.
Tyger Tyger chef Daniel Palaima is from the area and returned home from Chicago after working in such high-profile kitchens as Next and Duck Duck Goat. His menu includes a larb whose minced pork carries hits of acid and jolts of chile. It’s piled in a bowl over noodles and greens. He showcases shrimp in gossamer summer rolls plumped with pickled carrots, daikons, and herbs. The pork belly banh mi is constructed with layers of pâté, pickled carrots, cucumbers, and herbs on a French roll, which brought back memories of chowing down at a market stand in Hanoi.
The restaurant follows a casual theme that speaks to the escalating labor costs and staffing shortages facing California restaurants. Diners order at the counter, take a number to the table, and wait for their food under dozens of pink lanterns that transform what was formerly a fish-netting warehouse.
Bibi Ji, owned in part by Parr, brings a creative Indian note to the dining scene, as well as an impressive, ever-changing wine list. The restaurant was started in early 2018 by Parr and Jessi Singh, a Johnny Appleseed of restaurateurs, who came to Santa Barbara after opening the same concept in New York and San Francisco and has since returned home to Australia to relaunch his Melbourne restaurant, Horn Please. The menu offers a $50 tasting experience and a $30 wine pairing. À la carte options highlight such signature dishes as Mr. Tso’s cauliflower, lacquered in a spicy Indo-Chinese glaze. Local mussels are bathed in tomato, ginger, and cumin, and in addition to the expected tandoori chicken there’s less-expected tandoori quail, enlivened with Thai chiles.
The menu also features eight “unauthentic curries,” including lamb bathed in a sauce spiced with black cardamom, cinnamon, and peppercorns. Those who can’t make up their minds can order the thali platter for $35 and sample all the curries along with rice, raita, pappadum, naan, and cucumber salad.
For a pure taste of seasonal produce, the best place is Oliver’s, a vegan restaurant that opened in 2017 with a beautifully realized interior and an expansive patio whose canopy of trees is hung with lights. The clever take on crab cakes is made with minced artichokes propped on a salad of hearts of palm, arugula, corn, and cherry tomatoes. I’m not generally into raw cuisine, but the heirloom zucchini and tomato tower is good enough to turn tides. Slices of zucchini and tomato are layered with macadamia nut ricotta and flavored with sun-dried tomato marinara and pistachio pesto.
If there’s an overriding commonality to all these restaurants, it’s produce that’s even fresher than what you’ll find in San Francisco or Los Angeles. In Santa Barbara County, there’s a farmers market every day except Mondays. On Saturdays, it’s in Santa Barbara’s Old Town neighborhood, and it’s worth visiting.
In mid-January, the market was as lively as a summer market in most other places. We saw blue Hubbard squash, with its pale blue exterior and interior as bright as the nearby satsuma oranges. There were bins brimming with cherimoya, cases of dark Tuscan kale, and more variety of sprouts than I’d ever seen in one place.
A booth selling bright orange vermilion caught my eye, so we chatted with the owner of Wild Local Seafood, Ben Hyman, who, it turned out, had supplied the fish we’d enjoyed the day before at Convivo. He’s been a fisherman for 22 years and started his company in 2013.
“People don’t know that even though we’re less than a mile from the ocean, 90 percent of the seafood is imported,” he said. He calls his business approach “boat-to-table” and said that most of his customers are in L.A., which has been quick to embrace seasonal seafood.
The Santa Barbara scene continues to evolve and grow, much like wine maturing with age. After visiting several tasting rooms, we stopped by Satellite, an airy wine bar that specializes in natural wines. We sat at an open window overlooking tree-lined State Street and enjoyed a mason jar of smoked mushrooms followed by tacos with jackfruit carnitas, pepitas, greens, marigold petals, and a spicy green sauce.
The cool breezes, the bold vegetarian food, and the excellent wine only reinforced the fact that there’s no place like Santa Barbara.
Michael Bauer has been writing about food for nearly four decades. He reviewed Angler in Alta, Spring 2019.
IF YOU GO
• Bell’s: 406 Bell St., Los Alamos (no phone)
• Bettina: 1014 Coast Village Rd., Santa Barbara, 805-770-2383
• Bibi Ji: 734 State St., Santa Barbara, 805-560-6845
• Bob’s Well Bread Bakery: 550 Bell St., Los Alamos, 805-344-3000
• Cold Spring Tavern: 5995 Stagecoach Rd., Santa Barbara, 805-967-0066
• Convivo: 901 E. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, 805-845-6789
• Helena Avenue Bakery: 131 Anacapa St., Ste. C, Santa Barbara, 805-880-3383
• The Lark: 131 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, 805-284-0370
• Oliver’s: 1198 Coast Village Rd., Santa Barbara, 805-969-0834
• Satellite: 1117 State St., Santa Barbara, 805-364-3043
• Tyger Tyger: 121 E. Yanonali St., Santa Barbara, 805-880-4227