The Spanish architecture and seaside charm of Santa Barbara are well-known in contributing to this coastal southern California city’s reputation as The American Riviera. What many don’t know is the well-cultivated culinary scene here – everything from the Spanish influences to American favorites and more – are fair game as you discover not just the seafood, which, of course, is an attraction given the location, but also the abundance of other locally sourced ingredients and the wineries around. With all this, it is easy to see why the city’s most famous resident, Oprah Winfrey, calls it home.
Here are a few restaurants that make Santa Barbara a culinary destination worth the visit, be it a weekend or longer.
Located inside the Kimpton Canary Hotel, Finch & Fork offers a taste of downtown Santa Barbara with menu highlights such as deviled eggs (some of the prettiest this writer has seen) and their daily specials, including a slow-roasted prime rib, braised lamb shank and buttermilk fried chicken. Their cocktails are notoriously addictive and the chef leaves no spice unturned in presenting his best creations. The dishes here are the chef’s personal take on California cooking, deftly combining classical and modern on each plate. Simple extravagance, if you will. The dark interiors and plantation windows immediately provide a sense of sanctuary removed from the hustle and bustle on the streets.
Talk about taking Indian cuisine to another level. The folks at Bibi Ji have attempted just that and done rather well. While the restaurant is pretty unassuming as is the interior décor, the food speaks for itself. The cozy ambiance puts you at ease for an experimental experience of sorts. Though the concepts of most of the dishes are traditional, the treatments in preparation bring in a twist. The ‘thali’ is an affair all its own with multiple courses served in progression and justifies every dollar it costs. The uni biryani is a signature specialty at this spot owned by renowned chef Jessi Singh and sommelier turned winemaker Rajat Par.
For innovative Sicilian fare, look no further than husband-wife team Alberto and Elaine Morello’s Santa Barbara staple, which also includes a pizzeria and crudo bar. With this trifecta, they’ve charmed the city – the three options reside at the same address so you could walk into the venue your taste buds desire. The squid ink calamari is highly recommended as is their veal chops/cutlets and roasted quail. The wine cellar boasts more than 200 varieties so rest assured your palate will find a suitable companion for your meal. You shouldn’t need more convincing – the couple is a recent recipient of the Dynamic Duo of Dining Award by the Santa Barbara Independent.
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Modern Mexican cuisine and mixology are the draw here as is the seafood. Located minutes from the ocean and local wine tasting rooms in the city’s Funk Zone, the patio, cocktails and tacos are in demand at this establishment that honors the traditional cuisine of the owner’s Oaxacan roots. Think ceviche, mole negro, octopus in a special adobo and margarita picante with flavors and styles harmoniously blended to showcase the creativity of the chef. The mezcal and tequila collection at the bar is the talk of the town so pace yourself as you enjoy the bounty of choices, vegetarian and gluten-free options included.
Fresh, locally caught seafood can be savored at this harborside location and one that Santa Barbara is famed for. The menu has a few standard offerings but each one is a winner. You will see many tourists make the beeline here for some of the best views but get some clam chowder to help you combat the crowd and you’ll be just fine. The lively atmosphere is something locals and visitors enjoy, and this is the one spot residents unfailingly recommend for a truly local experience. Family owned and operated for more than 30 years, this Santa Barbara mainstay is known as much for its clams and crab cakes as for its camaraderie and community.
To truly plan a culinary itinerary, schedule your visit for the Santa Barbara Restaurant Week happening Friday, February 22 – Sunday, March 3, 2019. The 10-day event presents $25 two-course lunch and $40 three-course dinner options and some of the restaurants mentioned here as well as several others in the city will be participating. Put your best fork forward!
As you plan to eat your way through the picturesque city, be sure to stop by many of the notable wineries. One being Rideau Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley. Although Iris Rideau (the country’s first Creole winemaker) retired and sold the wine label in 2016, it is said that she still makes cameo appearances at the winery that still carries her name. For a list of additional wineries worth a visit, the article “Best Santa Barbara Wineries to Visit” by Food & Wine captures them perfectly.