The Best Restaurants in Santa Barbara Right Now
When honing their first restaurant concept, Jesse Gaddy and chef Julian Martinez knew they wanted to go local and farm-to-table. But they wanted to go beyond those all-too-familiar buzzwords. They wanted a restaurant that truly spoke of Santa Barbara and its history. They wanted to get granular. So, they planted avocado trees on the property — exactly where R.B. Ord originally grew the city’s first avocado crop in 1871. They named their restaurant Barbareno, after the area’s lost Chumash Native American dialect. And they developed dishes that told a story. Like the Eggamuffins with seascape mousse, speck ham, and a cured egg yolk served on a cormeal blini. It’s their version of the famed McDonald’s breakfast specialty, which was conceived at the Milpas Street location of the fast-food chain in 1971. If you really want to taste Santa Barbara, Barbareno is the best place to start.
Culinary power duo, chef Jessi Singh (Babu Ji in New York) and superstar sommelier Rajat Parr, opened this highly-anticipated contemporary Indian concept in early 2018, with results far exceeding its lofty expectations. The perspectives of both are seamlessly integrated throughout the Bibi Ji menu, with Singh’s “clean Indian food”— fresh Santa Barbara seafood and produce that’s light on grease and ghee — heightened by Parr’s focus on acid-driven natural wines. Imagine white tablecloth service and cuisine, without the high-dollar stuffiness. Bollywood movies are projected on the brick walls, music is thumping, and partner/manager Alejandro Medina bounces around the room gifting amuse bouches and splashes of obscure bubbles. Yes, you’ll be blown away by the chef’s tasting of curries and Singh’s already famous uni biryani, but what you really come for is the sheer amount of fun you’ll have consuming food and wine that’s on the level of high-art.
When it comes to the modern, finger-on-the-pulse ethos of the new Santa Barbara wine and food scene, Satellite owner Drew Cuddy is like the satellite hub of all that is cool and Instagram-worthy. The charismatic proprietor is the wine-peddling equivalent of High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon (sans the snark), introducing patrons to progressive, small-label producers (Lo-Fi, Amplify, Roark Wine Co., etc.) like they were Joy Division b-sides. And what to pair with all those unfiltered, native yeast-fermented, Loire Valley varietals? Stunning farmer’s market creations like his jack fruit carnitas tacos and the “peasant bruschetta” scattered with zucchini, strawberries, and French fromage fort.
Broad Street Oyster Bar
Never underestimate the allure of an expertly composed lobster roll … particularly after a flight of fantastic wine. Christopher Tompkins’s version begins with freshly flown-in Maine lobsters (“it’s not a lobster roll without sweet claw and knuckle meat,” the chef says), diced chives, lemon juice, and a light dressing of mayo, all stuffed into a toasted brioche split-top bun. The Los Angeles-based pop-up, which sets up shop every weekend at Municipal Winemakers in the Funk Zone, then tempts you even further with platters of locally harvested oysters and lobes of custardy Santa Barbara sea urchin. It’s like the best possible neighborhood raw bar, mere feet from a chilly glass of Riesling and Municipal’s trove of board games.
Helena Avenue Bakery
The genius behind Sherry Villanueva’s Acme Hospitality group (Les Marchands, The Lark) is anticipating, then overdelivering on, the needs of the Santa Barbara foodscape. And what was desperately needed in the Funk Zone — an urban wine trail only two blocks from East Beach —was a deserving kickoff to a day of tasting. Enter Helena Avenue Bakery, Acme’s two-year-old café that shares space with the Santa Barbara Wine Collective. Under the direction of chef Adam Shoebridge, they’ve created a breakfast spot worth leaving your beach umbrella for with exemplary sweet (apricot-thyme croissants, stone fruit galettes) and savory (green eggs & ham biscuit with jack cheese and green harissa) options to pair with the locally roasted Dart coffee.
The Spanish arm of Sherry Villanueva’s growing Funk Zone empire, Loquita is one of the liveliest dining rooms in town. Fittingly, the name itself is Spanish for “a crazy, young, beautiful girl,” and that’s the carefree ambience that Villanueva and her Acme Hospitality partners have created in their raucous 120-seat space, right across from the State Street train station. Sizzling platters of paella (prepared four ways) are constantly being marched from the kitchen, while chef Peter Lee’s masterful tapas are passed around the fireplace out back. Step up to the walnut-wood bar (perhaps the most coveted real estate inside) to choose from an expansive list of gin and tonics, sherry, and the can’t-miss spread of churros served with an array of dipping sauces.
Per Se alums Daisy and Greg Ryan brought their highly accomplished resumes to the Central Coast this year (illustrious stops also include Gramercy Tavern, Aureole, and Jeffrey’s in Austin, TX) to bring a little taste of Burgundy to Santa Barbara wine country. Consider it a passing of the guard, as the couple transformed the revered Bell Street Farm delicatessen and market (which put Los Alamos on the culinary map) into the type of workingman’s-style bistro seen in France’s famed pinot region. Well worth the 45-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara, the Ryans’ dining destination includes comforting fare like moules frites made with Hope Ranch mussels simmered in a mustard-saffron white wine broth, and a Venstresca tuna (belly meat considered the “foie gras of tuna fish”) tartine with nicoise olives, parsley mayo, and a house-made sweet chili oil. The couple might humbly call it “bistro food,” but in their hands, and with the quality of ingredients in each dish, it’s anything but simple.
Rachel Greenspan and bread savant Brendan Smith (who honed his baking skills at Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn) opened this Neapolitan-style pizzeria in the Moneticito Country Market in the fall of 2018. Following the success of their mobile catering company, Autostrada, the duo expanded their naturally-leavened pizza concept, offering slow-fermented, wood-fired pies topped with house-made mozzarella, locally grown produce (think spring Torpedo onions and sherry-marinated maitakes), as well as eclectic flourishes like Ojai honey and spreadable nduja. A battery of botanically-infused spritzes and small-batch vermouths help complement each perfectly charred slice—not to mention the laid-back neighborhood vibe so aptly instilled by Greenspan and Smith.
With the beachy sights and smells near the Santa Barbara Harbor, it’s easy to forget that just beyond the Santa Ynez Mountain range, the city is surrounded by some of the country’s best farmland. That perpetual bounty is on display at Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee’s newest restaurant, one of four concepts opening inside the Montecito Inn. A tableside caprese features creamy mozz and bright heirloom tomatoes shingled over plates shaped by local Santa Barbara potters. A whole, honey-lacquered duck from Watkin’s Ranch in Ojai is roasted over a California almond-wood fire. Even the tables and beams supporting the infrastructure have been forged by area craftsmen. It seems like such a simple formula, but by paying tribute to the best yielded from the Central Coast, The Monarch has tapped into what initially positioned Santa Barbara as the “American Riviera.”