The Restaurants of Santa Barbara Wine Country
Santa Barbara’s wine country offers an exciting variety of fine restaurants for wine enthusiasts. They include humble establishments such as the famed Super Rica Taquería, comfortable venues for locals such as Flat Bread Full of Life, and fine dining at its very best in comfortable and elegant settings such as The Ballard Inn Restaurant and the Wine Cask. We were fortunate during our visit to Santa Barbara to dine at many of these fine restaurants.
Santa Barbara’s wine country is a relatively new destination for wine and food enthusiasts, and a vibrant restaurant scene has only emerged in the last decade or so. While many of the better restaurants are located in the city of Santa Barbara, there are also excellent restaurants elsewhere, closer to the vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms in the towns of the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys. Most of the restaurants reviewed here are located in those valleys.
Like elsewhere in California the restaurants of Santa Barbara offer food and wine from the region’s farmers and winemakers, virtually all of whom are devoted to organic or sustainable agriculture and viticulture. All the restaurants, with the exception of Super Rica Taquería, also serve Santa Barbara County wines, including superb Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. A few restaurant wine lists also include wines from other parts of California and abroad.
The restaurants we visited are just some of the many fine restaurants in Santa Barbara County. Where we have learned of other noteworthy restaurants from reliable sources, we have listed them as well.
The Wine Cask Located in downtown Santa Barbara, the Wine Cask is the finest restaurant we dined at during our visit. It offers an elegant and comfortable setting with superb food and service. The dishes are all masterfully prepared by Executive Chef, Brandon Hughes and his team. We enjoyed two wonderful appetizers: The Farmer's Market Mixed Green Salad and Kale Salad, and superb entrees of ahi tuna and double roasted pork chops. There are, of course, many other wonderful entrees on the menu. The butterscotch pudding with whipped cream was terrific. The Wine Cask also has an outstanding wine list of local and international selections.
Super Rica Taquería This humble establishment is no ordinary taqueria. It celebrates its 33rd year in May 2013 and serves the finest Mexican food in Santa Barbara. It was a favorite of Julia Childs and attracts patrons far and wide. The tortillas here are made by hand and are served fresh off the grill with their fillings. The food is a pure delight--simple, fresh tasting and rich in flavor. Super Rica is very informal. You can either order food to take out or grab some plastic tableware and look for a place to sit and eat. Don’t be surprised if you encounter lines of people outside waiting to get into Super Rica. For a more in-depth review of Super Rica, click here.
The Harbor Restaurant This much photographed restaurant located on the 150 year old Stearn’s Wharf has a colorful history (it was once owned by James Cagney) and incredible views of the sea, beach, and mountains. It also has very good food, surprisingly so for a tourist destination. We had a casual lunch upstairs in the Longboard’s Grill where tasty Crispy Tacos with Mahi Mahi & Carnitas were accompanied by pico de gallo and guacamole. More serious offerings are offered downstairs in the restaurant proper, including locally grown oysters, Dungeness crab cakes, fresh seared tuna, and many other surf and turf plates. Several good quality Santa Barbara and California wines are offered by the glass and bottle.
Other Restaurant Choices in Santa Barbara: Bouchon is an intimate restaurant offering fresh local ingredients from the surrounding countryside and fine wine. Julienne is also a fine dining establishment serving local cuisine sourced from the finest purveyors. San Ysidro Ranch and the Hungry Cat are also first-rate.
Trattoria Grappolo in a warm and friendly bistro that offers authentic Italian cooking in an intimate setting. It was opened in 1997 by Executive Chef Leonardo Curti of Calabria, Heading the offerings of antipasti is a delicious Rollino Veneto with Tomato-Basil Salad, a plentiful pizza roll of radicchio and melted mozzarella. There is also delectable Calamari alla Positano, calamari stuffed with smoked mozzarella and prosciutto. Pizza served here is made in a traditional stone pizza oven and is heavenly as is the pasta. The Linguini al Crostaci with seafood, white wine and tomato sauce is superb. The seafood, fish and meat courses are also wonderful and the deserts are decadent.
Full of Life Flatbread. This warm and friendly restaurant serves locally grown food in season. It specializes in delectable flatbreads but also offers special starters and entrees. On the Sunday evening of our visit, we enjoyed a delicious First-of–the-Season Shelled Pea Soup, followed by a Flatbread of Wild Boar Sausage with Green Garlic and Aged Pecorino, and Smoky Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs. rich in texture and flavor. The desserts are equally special and we loved the Los Alamos S’More and Awsome Brownie with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream from a local creamery.
The Ballard Inn & Restaurant This cozy inn tucked away in the tiny town of Ballard in the Santa Ynez Valley has one of the finest restaurants in Santa Barbara’s wine country. Executive Chef Budi Kazali prepares magnificent dishes with an Asian flare. His signature appetizers include Hamachi Sashimi and Roasted Kurobuta Pork Belly, both of which are outstanding. Unforgettable entreés are Pan Roasted Black Cod with Coconut Rice and Tamarind Broth, Seared Tuna with Leek Risotto, and Pan Seared Duck Breast. The restaurant’s wine list is eclectic and includes fine selections from outstanding small local producers chosen by Budi to pair with his dishes.
Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café This restaurant and wine shop is located in the center of the small town of Los Olivos. It was established in 1995 by Sam and Shawnda Marmorstein of Los Angeles, who is also a winemaker. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner. The lunch menu consists of salads and entrées of pizza, sandwiches pasta, salmon, chicken and steak. At lunch we enjoyed tasting several of Sam’s own Bernat Estate wines and shared a BBQ Brisket Sandwich and Caesar salad. The Café has an impressive bar and wine shop offering a wide selection of Santa Barbara, California, and international wines.
Other Restaurant Choices in Los Olivos: Sides Hardware and Shoes offers very attractive menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and has an eclectic wine list of local producers.
The Hitching Post II, which opened in 1986, is the second restaurant operated by the Ostini family in Santa Barbara County. The restaurant offers delicious grilled steaks, chops, and fish dishes which are prepared on an iron work grill over coals of the indigenous red oak. The Hitching Post II wine menu features the Harley-Ostini Hitching Post wines, which are produced by Frank Ostini and his good friend and former fisherman Gray Hartley. The restaurant became famous in 2004 when scenes from the movie Sideways, which was about Santa Barbara County wine country, was filmed there.
Other Restaurant Choices: Avant, a casual restaurant where you can enjoy tapas and sandwiches and taste a wide variety of wines made at the adjoining custom crush facility. Ellen’s Danish Pancake House is a comfortable family restaurant offering fresh and tasty breakfast, lunch and dinner; breakfast is served all day long, 7 days a week.
Succulent Café & Trading Company. This is a tiny family restaurant that serves savory comfort food prepared from produce, seafood and game sourced locally and in season by owners Brian Champlin and Cynthia Miranda. We started with charcuterie and cheese followed by a BBQ meat loaf with bacon gravy and spice crusted rack of lamb. The Café’s sides of bacon braised Brussels sprouts and creamy parmesan grits are also delicious as are the desserts of crème brulée and chocolate spoon bread. The wine list offers a good selection of Santa Barbara wines.
Root 246 Owned by the Santa Ynez Chumash Indians, Root 246 offers a wide selection of small dishes combining fresh produce, sea food, chicken and beef with a variety of spicy sauces. We enjoyed oak grilled king crab with tomatillo and shiso MK, pork belly with pickled vegetables, jalapeño, spicy mayo, cilantro and French bread, chicken dumplings with harissa, chimichurri, shallots, bibb lettuce and pickles, and short ribs with carrots, onions, gremolate, mas, and natural jus. The décor at Root 246 is attractive, and the service is excellent.
Santa Maria Valley
The Far Western Tavern Oak grilled steaks and chops, baby back ribs and salmon are the specialties of the Far Western Tavern, a family restaurant located in Old Town Orcutt. They also serve terrific oak grilled scallops and bacon and tasty sides of oak grilled polenta and pinquito beans. The interior of the restaurant is of rich earthen tone hues, dark wood and stone, furnished with hand-tooled cowhide bar stools, a moose head and other memorabilia from the restaurant’s original location in Guadalupe. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner.
Mike Potashnik and Don Winkler