By David Hochman
Photography by Marshall Williams
This sun-splashed town that has long drawn billionaires, movie stars, surfers, and vacationing presidents is lately playing up its excellent taste. A booming urban wine trail and gourmet food district
, menus indebted to local growers and ranchers, and enticing hotels make it more inviting than ever (maybe a little too inviting) to settle in.
Anyone who still thinks of Santa Barbara as a sort of fusty old aunt to Los Angeles (95 miles to the south) hasn’t strolled Anacapa or Yanonali streets recently. A decade ago, someone hatched the winning idea of gathering top wine purveyors from the surrounding countryside and clustering tasting rooms in an industrial no-man’s-land between downtown and the beach. Today, the pocket of cool known as The Funk Zone is home to art walks, organic grocers, and 17 wineries, and it buzzes with the kind of chatter usually reserved for hipper corners of Oakland or Brooklyn. Simply start with a pinot noir at Santa Barbara Winery, the city’s oldest (established in 1962), and sip your way from there.
This past summer on Anacapa, local marketer and developer Sherry Villanueva opened The Lark restaurant
, Lucky Penny pizzeria and bakery
, and Les Marchands wine bar
in a historic warehouse with all the requisite touches of today’s food scene: a communal table milled from a felled tree, mustachioed waiters straight out of daguerreotypes, mason jars full of pickled “artisan-made” everything.
Lucky Penny’s facade is wallpapered with thousands of real pennies. Fortunately, the style comes with substance, as evidenced by packed tables every night.
At The Lark, chefs Jason Paluska and Nick Flores, who worked together at Michael Mina’s RN74 in San Francisco, serve Hope Ranch mussels in a bouillabaisse of baby artichokes and navel oranges—a plated version of the local scenery.
At Les Marchands, dapper sommeliers Eric Railsback and Brian McClintic sniff out the best small-batch vintages from nearby hills and valleys—Tatomer riesling from a windblown maritime vineyard in Los Alamos, a 2011 Qupé syrah limited to 150 cases, a grenache from Municipal Winemakers that yielded just 50 cases. As McClintic says, “We specialize in wines you can only get by pulling up to a winery and begging.”
It only takes a few days in Santa Barbara before you’ll begin contemplating what it requires to live here full-time. The California that lured people west appears in surplus: crystal-blue skies, fragrant eucalyptus, restorative seas, and hilltop views life-affirming enough even for a local named Oprah.
For the rest of us, there’s Julienne, a sweet gem of a restaurant run by a husband-wife team who met as students at San Francisco’s Le Cordon Bleu College and part of an emerging area some dub the “Gourmet Ghetto.”
While chain stores and Starbucks clog lower State Street, the lesser-traveled blocks near the historic El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park (home to the state’s second-oldest adobe structure) call more to connoisseurs.
On Santa Barbara Street, family-run C’est Cheese just quadrupled its size to meet the demand for its specialty cheeses, salumi, pâtés, picnic boxes, and cooking classes.
Next door at Handlebar Coffee, a professional cycling couple roast the best coffee in town.
Slightly off the circuit is Chocolate Maya, where a Swiss-born chocolatier crafts high-quality bonbons and stocks a collection of hard-to-find chocolate bars and confections inspired by her world travels.
Santa Barbara’s vineyards and farms may owe their bounty to the aforementioned transverse valley effect, but another trick of geography takes credit for the town’s sunny vibe. Unlike California’s other coastal coves, Santa Barbara faces south on the largest such stretch on the West Coast.
The 20-mile crescent from Carpinteria to Goleta enjoys unusually bright, temperate conditions year-round.
Hands down, the finest strip of sand is Butterfly Beach, a secluded crest near the Four Seasons Resort in the enclave of Montecito.
For the local way to dip in, and with a drink in hand, head to Stearns Wharf. Residents prefer a late-afternoon kayak or stand-up paddle—Santa Barbara Sailing Center rents both by the hour—followed by oysters and cocktails at the downstairs bar at Brophy Bros. Most evenings, a seal or sea lion frolics under golden skies as sailboats slip into mooring for the night.
No question, it’s a rarefied place to call home, even if only for a few days. From Brophy’s deck, the sun sets not into the Pacific, as it does almost everywhere else along the West Coast, but behind the mountains, as if to the north. Technically speaking, it’s a little disorienting. Then again, why not just order another round and drink it all in?
Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life magazine, November 2013.
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