There are several exits off the 101 freeway that will lead me closest to my destination, but I insist on taking Cabrillo Boulevard. It offers a unique sense of grandeur upon entering the city along with a preview of what the coming days will hold. I follow the road toward the coast, passing a bird sanctuary on my right as I make my way toward the iconic, palm tree-lined boulevard. The cool, salty air at East Beach draws my gaze out to the sea, as volleyball players dive in the sand and visitors ride surreys along the sidewalk—working much harder than they’d imagined to keep that four-man bicycle rolling. There are sprawling resorts with red-tile roofs, white stucco walls, and towering archways reminding me of the city’s history reaching back to the Spanish colonial era. At Stearns Wharf I hang a right and cruise up renowned State Street with windows rolled down and the radio turned up. My state of mind shifts all the more as I scan the shops and eateries brimming with people enjoying themselves and meandering about.
I’ve finally arrived.
Even if only for a weekend, I’m officially in vacation mode.
The French Press
528 Anacapa Street
Every good trip includes great coffee, so start with Dune Coffee Roasters’ The French Press. Is it because it’s the best coffee shop in town? Quite possibly. But it may also be that the space is so airy and bright, the baristas so kind and inviting, and every cappuccino so flawlessly consistent that the first cup of the day feels like a warm “Welcome to Santa Barbara.” It also helps that they have an in-house bakery, since their kouign-amann, a cream cheese filled maple-cinnamon puff pastry, makes for a delicious morning snack.
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11 W. Victoria Street #10
Grab the coveted table beside the trickling fountain in Scarlett Begonia’s ivy-covered brick courtyard and enjoy the daintiest serving of house-made granola and cranberries with a dollop of thick, creamy Greek yogurt. A breakfast place that serves an amuse-bouche is sure to be a winner. While some menu items look familiar, each has its own flare depending on the season. And despite my addiction to all things sweet, I come here especially for their out-of-this-world shrimp and grits. They’re spicy and savory and want for nothing—especially when complemented by a maple bacon biscuit slathered in strawberry compote.
324 State Street
“Go for their hashes,” I was told. So I did. And Dawn Patrol did not disappoint. I’m not normally a build-your-own anything type of person––I want the professionals to make those decisions for me. But I must say that when it comes to hashes, the freedom to engineer the best combination of ingredients for your own palate is pretty amazing. Sweet potato, avocado, mushroom, spinach, tomato, poached eggs, hollandaise… need I say more?
Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar
38 W. Victoria Street #109
Empty Bowl is located at the center of the Santa Barbara Public Market. A casual eatery that has so won me, I can no longer pass through the city without stopping by. The menu consists mostly of Thai cuisine as well as Taiwanese, serving everything from pancit noodles and papaya salad to roasted duck buns. My go-to is their Northern Thai dish, khoa soi—a coconut curry made with flat egg noodles and chicken, topped with pickled mustard greens, cilantro, house-made chili oil and crispy egg noodles that curl up out of the bowl like the perfect wave.
Rori’s Artisanal Creamery
38 W. Victoria Street #103
As you head toward the front of the market you can’t help but see Rori’s Creamery in bright orange lettering—I’m pretty sure owner Rori Trovato put the art in artisanal. Her ice cream is set to impress every time with its thick, creamy texture just one degree below freezing and novel flavors such as lemon curd, matcha and wild berry chocolate crisp. Try the vegan horchata ice cream, whether you’re dairy-free or not; it’s coconut milk-based and absolutely delicious. If you only have room for a little something sweet, grab an itty bitty cone. Otherwise, go for the ice cream sandwich—though not for the faint of heart.
La Super-Rica Taqueria
622 N. Milpas Street
La Super-Rica has been a Santa Barbara staple for over thirty-seven years serving up the tastiest tacos and tamales. The owner, Isidoro Gonzalez, is still taking orders through the small window at the counter, greeting many of the customers by name as they rattle of their order by memory. The secret to their menu is this: family style tacos. Order several different items and put them all together to build each perfectly balanced taco to your liking. And an order should always include rajas, roasted pasilla chiles and onions loaded with melted queso.
Handlebar Coffee Roasters
128 E. Canon Perdido Street
Warm, golden light fills the interior of Handlebar every afternoon, making it a beautiful space for a little respite and pick-me-up. The owners, Aaron Olson and Kim Anderson, are former professional cyclists with years of experience connecting with friends in cafés throughout Europe. They bring that same communal experience to Santa Barbara, along with the highest quality coffee roasted thrice weekly. Every drink is a delight to the tastebuds but in the afternoon I’m usually craving their shake, a blend of McConnell’s vanilla ice cream, espresso, and flecks of ground coffee beans.
37 E Victoria Street
Ca’ Dario holds a special place in my heart as it was my first introduction into what I once called “fancy food.” An intimate Italian restaurant with foreign servers, white tablecloths and awe-inspiring dishes, every bite is an exploration of simple ingredients with complex flavors. The spinach and ricotta ravioli is served swimming in a brown butter and sage sauce with a splash of marinara. The whole Branzino, flown in daily from the Mediterranean Sea, is stuffed with herbs and drenched in white wine. These two dishes in particular are not easily forgotten.
The Good Lion
1212 State Street
Located on busy State Street beside the historic Granada Theatre is The Good Lion, a craft cocktail bar with a playful space and a well-stocked, alluring bar. Each familiar cocktail is created with a unique twist and a strong conviction, as all the herbs, spices, and produce come locally from the Central Coast. So go ahead and pick your poison from the seasonal menu—I suggest letting the handsome bartender make you the Impeached, or his refreshing spin on a mojito.
Finch & Fork
31 W. Carrillo Street
James Siao is the executive chef of the restaurant Finch & Fork, creating modern American dishes with a focus on local ingredients. Though beloved for his soulful offerings such as deviled eggs, baby back ribs, and the signature fried chicken sandwich, I’ve become quite partial to the fresh sea scallops. They’re set upon a bed of golden beet relish alongside refreshing grapefruit, creamy avocado, and a chorizo vinaigrette—a consummately balanced explosion of flavors and textures.
Third Window Brewing Co.
406 E. Haley Street #3
While the Funk Zone certainly has a lot to offer in the way of wine, it’s worth venturing several blocks outside the area to hit up Third Window Brewing. The rustic mill is a fitting space for a brewery that focuses on traditional Belgian style beers. With a passion for the craft and experimenting with new flavor compounds, they successfully expand and delight their patrons’ palates with every new release. Start with a flight to discover what you like or go straight for their Walkabout Stout made with locally foraged oranges, Twenty-Four Blackbirds cacao nibs, and Madagascar vanilla beans. Sit back and relax as you take in the beauty of Santa Barbara.
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