Santa Barbara Food Worth Seeking

Mission Santa Barbara

Old Mission Santa Barbara dates to 1796, well before California became a state in 1850.

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Santa Barbara is an idyllic coastal city that resides just 90 miles north of Los Angeles, near one of the world’s great wine and produce growing regions, and is known as the American Riviera. 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 claimed the city for the United States. Learn about 25 must-eat places in Santa Barbara, a destination with increasingly memorable food.

Numbers on the map correspond to listings below and appear in alphabetical order instead of order of preference.

Ice Cream Santa Barbara

Michael Palmer and chef/wife Eva Ein have taken McConnell’s into the modern era.

17. McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams

Winemaker Michael Palmer and his chef/wife Eva Ein purchased McConnell’s in 2012, and while the artisan ice cream maker and dairy already produced some of the best ice cream in the U.S., the couple further elevated the company’s branding and innovation. They also opened a beautiful new flagship on State Street, complete with brick and white tile walls, a mezzanine with skylights and bird’s eye views, and gigantic, decorative milk cans. Still, it’s impossible to improve upon flavors like Sweet Cream, Double Peanut Butter Chip, or Black Coffee made with shattered Guittard chocolate and cold brew from rotating California roasters. Terrific seasonal flavors include Eureka Lemon & Marionberry and Pumpkin Pie. Upgrades include cookie sandwiches. Possibly lemon poppyseed cookies with chocolate covered strawberry ice cream? They also mold waffle cones and bake market-driven muffins, pies, and hand pies.

The new Funk Zone shop yielded a flight of Strawberry, Pumpkin Pie, and Reindeer Tracks with chocolate brownie and peppermint candy

MUST ORDER: Black Coffee Ice Cream, Chocolate Covered Strawberry Ice Cream, Sweet Cream Ice Cream, Double Peanut Butter Chip Ice Cream, Ice Cream Sandwich, Milkshake, Waffle Cone

Italian Food Santa Barbara

Petrini’s has long been a local favorite for Italian comfort food.

18. Petrini’s

Brothers Geno, John and Julio Petrini founded their old school Italian spot in 1958. A green and white striped awning gives way to red and white checked tablecloths, green booths, and both cream and wood paneled walls featuring faded photos of Italy. Hearty sandwiches, pizza, pasta dishes and plates predominate. Flaky whitefish piccata comes blanketed with white wine, lemon, and caper sauce I’d also recommend citrus-brined pork chops with serious sears, topped with balsamic reduction. People also swear by the capocollo sandwich.

MUST ORDER: Petrini’s Pork Chops, Whitefish Piccata

Indonesian Food Santa Barbara

Sama Sama Kitchen serves Indonesian classics like mie goreng.

19. Sama Sama Kitchen

This modern, seasonal Indonesian restaurant with a progressive cocktail program combines the talents of Ryan Simorankir and Tyler Peek. Sama Sama, slang for “You’re welcome,” underwent a revamp. During my visit, I found a glass front framed by red wood, decorative sticks wrapped with twine, booths and L-shaped bar, and a blackboard menu promoting This Week’s Farms. That could mean Norma’s Sprouts, Milliken Farm, or SB Organics. Sama Sama resides right on State Street, but they don’t play it safe with spice. They even spike their desserts, including a rum soaked tres leches and whiskey focused milkshake.

MUST ORDER: Jidori Chicken Wings, Mie Goreng

Farmers Market Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Farmers Market is always full of surprises like flor de agave.

20. Santa Barbara Farmers Market

Tuesday evenings, the city closes State Street for a farmers market that’s popular with chefs and locals. However, the market that draws more people occupies the corner of Santa Barbara & Cota Streets on Saturdays from 8:30 AM – 1 PM and touts some of the best farmers in California. Highlights include Harry’s Berries, McGrath Farm, Pudwill Berry Farm, and Drake’s Family Farm (goat cheese). There’s also the occasional rarity like Rancho Santa Cecilia’s agave flowers, which have a texture that falls between asparagus and okra. De La Cruz Farm, located in Morro Bay, grows delectable produce like whole-pod fava beans. San Marcos Farms sells honey from sage blossoms. Mud Creek Farms grows unique citrus, Tutti Frutti Farms sells heirloom tomatoes, and Herfamy Farms sells sugar cane and brassicas. Creekside Apple Ranch in Arroyo Grande is notable for Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Mutsu apples and is also home to Solvang Pie Company. Friend’s Ranches in Ojai sells bags of sweet W. Murcotts citrus and more exotic fruits like Mexican guava and small, bitter pineapple guava (feijoa). Piedrasassi bread sells out fast, so show up early if you want sesame durum, rye, or deluxe rosemary olive oil sea salt focaccia. Stepladder Creamery in Cambria is a recent favorite, selling cheeses like Rioly Run, a cow’s milk cheese washed in Libertine saison from SLO. Fat Uncle Farms from Wasco specializes in nuts and nut butters like flavorful, nutrient rich sprouted almond butter.

MUST ORDER: Creekside Apple Ranch apples, De La Cruz Farm fava beans, Drake’s Family Farm goat cheese, Fat Uncle Farms Sprouted Almond Butter, Friend’s Ranches W. Murcotts, Harry’s Berries strawberries, anything from McGrath Farm, Piedrasassi Bread, San Marcos Farms sage blossom honey, Stepladder Creamery Cheese, Tutti Frutti Farms heirloom tomatoes

Seafood Santa Barbara

Seafood gets no fresher than at harborside Santa Barbara Fish Market.

21. Santa Barbara Fish Market

Since 2000, this shop has dispensed fresh catch at the harbor. Owner Brian Colgate sources globally, which explains options like marinated white anchovies, but you’ll always find local fish like black cod, mako shark and skate in the display case, and if you’re lucky, delicacies like white bass and spot prawns. Santa Barbara sea urchin is creamy, sweet, and some of the planet’s best, and SBFM sells 40-gram boxes. In season, they’ll also crack stone crab claws, which you can enjoy on outdoor benches with a complimentary sea breeze.

MUST ORDER: Sea Urchin, Spot Prawns, Stone Crab Claws

Crab Santa Barbara

Eating box crab on the pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean is beyond pleasant.

22. Santa Barbara Shellfish Company

Rachel Greenspan from Bettina Pizzeria recommended this bustling seafood shack at the end of Stearns Wharf, aka the pier. Santa Barbara Shellfish Company dates to 1980, when Tom White started selling bounty from local waters, and son Adam White now runs the oceanic show. The small, charming seafood restaurant features a wraparound counter, open kitchen, and four booths overlooking the water. For people who can’t stand waits, Santa Barbara Shellfish Company also houses a takeout window that feeds diners at first come, first take picnic tables shaded with red umbrellas, which my family shared with a fleet of cyclists. Crab varietals vary by season, and I scored a sweet, spiky box crab served with drawn butter and crispy onion rings. Cooks are also skilled with a deep-fryer, as my calamari, oyster, shrimp, and scallop platter proved.

MUST ORDER: Box Crab, Fried Calamari, Oysters, Shrimp and Scallops

Sandwich Santa Barbara

The Shop promoted the Colonel for their General Sanders fried chicken sandwich.

23. The Shop

The Shop debuted in 2012 next to a tire shop. Order at the window and proceed to a sun-soaked patio with picnic tables or dining room with painted whisks, skillets, ladles and silverware. Chris Vigilante, his wife Amy, Dudley Michael and Scott Manser have turned this grass roots cafe into a neighborhood favorite. A versatile menu includes breakfast items, sandwiches, salads and “shopmade” pastries, aka tantalizing impulse buys when you reach the window. Nobody’s from the South, but Southern influences seep into dishes like the General Sanders fried chicken sandwich, served on a house-made waffle batter bun. Apparently the Colonel got a promotion. Salads and the signature Shop Burger, an 80/20 beef blend from Santa Barbara’s Shalhoob Meat Company, are also popular.

MUST ORDER: Cecilia, General Sanders, Shop Burger

Mexican Food Santa Barbara

Taqueria Cuernavaca specializes in alambres co-starring house-made tortillas.

24. Taqueria Cuernavaca

Taqueria Cuernavaca started in Ventura and expanded to Santa Barbara in 2012. Joaquin Solorzano named his taqueria and tortilleria for the largest city in the central Mexican state of Morelos. Wall murals depict Mexican icons sitting at tables flanking a scenic “window,” including revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and art legend Frida Kahlo. The restaurant’s best known for alambres, griddled meats melded with molten cheese, bell peppers and onions. My souped up El Fortachon combined with thin-sliced steak, marinated pork, chorizo, ham, cheese, onions, and bell pepper, plated with a creamy avocado fan and soft house-made corn tortillas. Build your own tacos, but first, swing by the salsa bar for flavorful slurries like hot, tangy habanero-tomatillo and spicy habanero-tomato.

MUST ORDER: El Fortachon

Japanese Food Santa Barbara

Yoichi’s stars reasonably priced kaiseki with flair to spare.

25. Yoichi’s

Yoichi’s is a traditional kaiseki-style restaurant from chef Yoichi Kawabata and wife-partner Mogi Kawabata. Kawabata’s resume includes stints at Kenchō-ji temple in Kamamura, a ryokan near Yokohama, and Nobu Tokyo. The couple debuted Yoichi’s in 2015 in a stone-fronted space with 10 tables and a peaked roof on a Santa Barbara side street. Weekend dinner costs $100 per person and involves seven courses, some of which include multiple elements. The menu changes seasonally and 90% of their seafood comes from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, which arrives within 24 hours. Choose your own adventure, with options at nearly every turn. Highlights included baby ice fish with ginger, green onion, plum, and ponzu; grilled Northern California lobster with red miso, dressed with yuzu and young ginger pickled in rice wine vinegar; and grilled sazae no tsuboyaki (top shell) minced with vegetables and mushrooms, sake and soy, served with plump, squiggly liver. Their Mokouzuke (sashimi) course alone is destination worthy, presented in a blue glass bowl on a black ceramic pedestal in a bamboo basket. The night’s impressive haul included silky salmon (fatty belly up front, back in back), striped jack (belly and back), and scored, sliced, snow-white sumi ika (Hokkaido squid). Chef’s sushi selection might consist of Hokkado scallop, Santa Barbara uni, and Hokkaido sweet shrimp. Kanmi (dessert) involves a choice of pudding. I’d recommend creamy green tea or nutty black sesame, both topped with yamamomo (mountain peach).

MUST ORDER: Kaiseki

Thank you to The Goodland in Goleta and The Biltmore Four Seasons Santa Barbara for assistance with lodging during research trips to Santa Barbara.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

This is a list Im going to follow to try these amazing eateries!

Love the new look! These spots look amazing. Love the photos and descriptions. Great information.

Thanks! This redesign has been in the works since April. I’m proud of the results. Much larger images and better functionality.

Love how you guys presented these amazing finds. Between the map, the pictures, and the descriptions we feel like we have a mini foodie road trip all laid out for us. Thanks for sharing! Can’t wait to hit up these spots.

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