Santa Barbara is an idyllic coastal city just 90 miles north of Los Angeles. The “American Riviera” resides near one of the world’s great wine and produce growing regions. The city has roots with Native Americans called the Chumash. Spanish Missionaries arrived in the 1780s, Mexicans grabbed the reins in 1826, and 20 years later, Colonel John Fremont colonized the city for the United States. Learn about 25 must-eat places in this destination with increasingly memorable food.
Additions: Bossie’s Kitchen, Cafe Ana, Santa Barbara Shellfish Company
Bonus: Santa Barbara Drinks Worth Seeking
Establishments appear in alphabetical order instead of order of preference.
Barbareño, a rustic gem from Bay Area-seasoned chef Julian Martinez and GM/partner Jesse Gaddy specializes in wood-grilled cuisine. A small covered patio gives way to a dining room and bar with wood-dominant decor beneath a Spanish tile roof. My meal started with house-made sourdough and green garlic butter. Share-friendly plates include Eggamuffins, an homage to Egg McMuffin’s 1971 invention at a McDonald’s on State Street, but featuring corncakes, cured egg, seascape and speck. Starters change with the seasons. During my dinner, highlights included carrot flan with roasted carrots, shaved carrots, vadouvan, buttermilk emulsion, caraway crackers; and oak tagliatelle with acorn flour, tossed with oak-smoked vegetables like Brussels sprouts and wild herbs. The house specialty is a deluxe take on Santa Maria BBQ, tri-tip that’s cold smoked, pressure cooked, finished on a red oak grill, and plated with pureed pico de gallo, cherry tomatoes, and pinquito beans. Pan-seared, skin-on ling cod, listed as “market fish” on the menu, was also strong, plated with coconut oolong rice, Meyer lemon and blood orange juice, and avocado quenelles. Finish with cookie butter-filled beignets served with strawberry nectar, 24 Blackbirds chocolate sauce and cocoa nibs.
MUST ORDER: Eggamuffins, Carrots & Ranch, Oak Tagliatelle, Santa Maria BBQ, Market Fish, Beignets
Brendan Smith and Rachel Greenspan opened Bettina in Montecito Country Mart to end 2018, filling their airy space with white and green color scheme, exposed rafters, round bar, and bird-in-tree wallpaper. The couple features naturally leavened dough and a wood-fired cooking, with red oak impacting their oven and grill. Pizza is the main attraction, featuring supple discs with crispy pockmarks and inspired toppings. I enjoyed the version with crumbled sausage, Provolone picante, crushed tomato, winter greens, and pitted olives. A return visit yielded seasonal white pizzas topped with silky prosciutto, mozzarella, ricotta, shaved fennel, nutty pea tendrils, and lemon; and a spring pesto pie co-starring spinach, punchy kumquats and Calabrian chiles, and three cheeses: mozzarella, raclette, and feta. It’s also hard to argue with tomato pies topped with maitake mushrooms or pepperoni with local Hollister Ranch honey. Bettina also displays flair with produce. Their baby gem lettuce salad arrives tossed with ranch dressing, pickled onions, and nutty Piave cheese shavings. They plate colorful roasted heirloom carrots with crushed pistachios and a tangy one-two punch from lebneh and sumac. Culinary excitement extends to share plates like savory cacio e pepe arancini served with Calabrian chile sauce; and wild shrimp tossed with earthy heirloom beans, butter and even more Calabrian chiles. Every meal should conclude with decadent chocolate hazelnut layer cake crafted with Nutella buttercream and hazelnut praline.
MUST ORDER: Baby Gems, Cacio e Pepe Arancini, Pepperoni Pizza, Roasted Carrots, Sausage Pizza, Spring Pesto Pizza, Wild Shrimp, Chocolate Hazelnut Layer Cake
The Perez family made an immediate impact on the Santa Barbara dining scene after relocating from Sacramento in 2010. Chef Robert Perez and wife Marianna took over seafood-focused Seagrass, with son Richard handling wine service. In May, 2014, son Ruben Perez opened The Black Sheep next door, featuring a glass front, rotating art enlivening olive and red walls, and Zero 7 on the sound system. The beyond seasonal, highly shareable menu draws ingredients from one of California’s produce epicenters and keeps things interesting with a wide array of proteins from the land, sea and air. The Black Sheep also offers a family style tasting menu, “tailor made” by Ruben Perez for $45 per person.
MUST ORDER: Spicy Roasted Marcona Almonds, Roasted Chartreuse Carrots, Spicy Sautéed Snap Peas, Sautéed Free-Range Chicken Livers, Wild Boar Spare Ribs
4. The Blue Owl
The Blue Owl has clearly captured the imagination of USCB students and twentysomething “townies.” Cindy Black’s “Asian American eating house” sprouted from a late night pop-up at a nearby Thai restaurant called Zen Yai. Porducken, a play on turducken featuring pork, duck and chicken adobo, is The Blue Owl’s most popular dish, though they’re also known for grass fed-beef burgers folded with green curry or topped with peanut butter and tamarind sauce. Though owls are nocturnal, Black has installed a distinct daytime menu with dishes like the Duck Croissant and Wake N Bacon, since people can’t survive on porducken alone.
MUST ORDER: Spicy Black Bean Pork, Thai Basil Burger
Chef Lauren Herman and pastry chef Christina Olufson met while working for The Lucques Group in Los Angeles. The partners originally decamped to Santa Barbara to open Somerset downtown before refocusing efforts on more casual Bossie’s Kitchen. A corner building with an iconic cow statue on the roof features a big planter-lined patio, two-tone white and aqua walls, and an enticing pastry counter. Seemingly straightforward Cal-Med plates shine at Bossie’s, whether that involves chicken pot pie with minimal filler and flaky crust or rosy grilled salmon plated with Beluga lentils, herbaceous pesto, and roasted seasonal vegetables. Blackboard specials also yield satisfying results, particularly coarse, pleasantly chewy lamb meatballs joined by bouncy couscous beads, vivid beet hummus, tangy yogurt and puffy pita. For dessert, I enjoyed two different square donuts, both raised and pliable – cardamom pistachio kumquat and blueberry lemon thyme – plus a slice of decadent chocolate cake.
MUST ORDER: Blueberry Lemon Thyme Donut, Cardamom Pistachio Kumquat Donut, Chicken Pot Pie, Grilled Salmon, Lamb Meatballs
Nelly Mousseau and Pierre-Yves Henry are France natives who debuted charming Bree’osh bakery in ritzy Montecito Village in September 2015. Their tiny cafe features photo-lined yellow walls, white tile floors decorated with black flowers, and umbrella-shaded patio seating. Locally roasted Handlebar coffee fuels a La Marzocco espresso machine. Still, people flock to Bree’osh for brioche pastries and sandwiches. Praline brioche is an almond studded specialty. Favor savory? Consider Kalamata olive & basil buns, or a silky smoked salmon sandwich with pesto and baby spinach. They also introduced brioche croissants, pain de chocolat, and limited-edition brioche cinnamon rolls: flaky, caramelized spirals with supple, buttery cores.
MUST ORDER: Smoked Salmon, Kalamata Olive & Basil Brioche, Brioche Cinnamon Roll, Brioche Chocolate Croissant
7. Cafe Ana
Fast-casual, all-day cafes have proliferated in Southern California to meet the needs of modern diners, and Cafe Ana serves Santa Barbara well. Lifelong local Julian Sanders, wife Katherine Guzman Sanders, and father Richard Sanders joined forces on this airy restaurant, which features a warm white and wood color scheme and marble counters across from historic Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Chef Ryan Whyte-Buck incorporates market-driven elements into Cafe Ana’s menu, including fluffy blueberry pancakes and a standout breakfast sandwich crafted with ham, soft scrambled egg, arugula, American cheese and pepper aioli on toast. Their mezze plate is minimalist, but tasty, teaming creamy hummus with smoky baba ghanoush, soft egg, cucumber, tomato, tangy labneh, and dukkah. They also assembled a solid coffee program featuring a two-group La Marzocco espresso machine and LAMILL beans.
MUST ORDER: Coffee, Ham, Egg & Cheese Sandwich, Mezze Plate
For an old stagecoach stop that’s been serving food since 1865, this tavern in the mountains off Route 154 remains relevant. The restaurant has become famous for wild game preparations and weekend tri-tip, which draws grizzled bikers and wine country acolytes. Order your sandwich from a vintage cash register in the restaurant, or from the bar, and hand a white ticket to an attendant manning the tented table fronting a pair of grills. Retreat to a picnic table, surrounded by wagon wheels and horseshoes, to enjoy the oak-grilled spoils, which sports a peppery crust and rosy center and fills buttery grilled bread. Salsa, BBQ sauce and/or apple horseradish mustard sauce all provide welcome punch to meaty proceedings.
MUST ORDER: Famous Cold Spring Chili, Tri-Tip Sandwich