Long known for its gated estates, high-life hotels, “The Endless Summer” surf scene, and vine-covered hills, Santa Barbara quietly and confidently is adding another notch to its belt: Cultural curators, style-savvy experts who are taking the best of the seaside town and personifying it, California-style.
It’s not that the American Riviera (as some call it) is losing its dolce vita. It’s just that a swell of creativity and cool has washed ashore, leaving a new wave of restaurants marrying local fare with international trends, hotels cultivating a new take on hospitality, and wineries eager to cross from terroir to tasting room to share their grapes.
I first noticed this trend at Santa Barbara Public Market, a circa-2012, blinding-white building budding with local-hero shops and an urban sensibility. Stacked between long-established restaurants and historic buildings, the space is as if a farmers’ market coupled up with a modern loft.
Brimming with handcrafted goods and pantry essentials, the Market is as much a grab-and-go locale as it is a sit-down-and-eat space sporting an edited collection of kitchens and bar-style stools. While my palate started doing a triple salchow in excitement over local purveyors such as Rori’s Artisanal Creamery and Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar, I started with brew from Green Star Coffee, and a chocolate-dipped sandwich cookie from Enjoy Cupcakes.
(Note to self: Move to Santa Barbara, eat at the Market daily, and surf a lot to keep my calorie count in check.)
Another assault on my caloric intake was the crush of wineries dotting Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail. Hanging between surf shops and the shoreline—how Californian—the tasting rooms collectively are as much an ode to the surrounding hills’ famed chardonnay and pinot noir as they are a gorgeous collection of gathering spaces.
For a well-rounded sip of Santa Barbara’s 22,000 acres of vineyards, hit
AVA Santa Barbara (as of June 1, it was renamed The Valley Project), which showcases the region’s viticultural areas through a literal tasting tutorial mapped on the wall (see photo above), as well as wines served on-tap and from the bottle.
After sampling a wee section of all that is fine and good in the region’s South Country, I headed back to The Goodland, my SoCal stay, and a new concept property by Kimpton Hotels.
Featuring a classic Woodie surf wagon and an Airstream named “Rita” out front, the space screams ‘60s surf cabin-chic. And even though it’s in the hills, the hotel has a thriving beach vibe thanks to exposed wood, marine rope adorning just about everything, and original art capturing scenes from the nearby shoreline.
Here, I desperately wanted to join the nightly social hour hawking spiked agua fresca(!), but I had a reservation at Outpost, the hotel’s destination restaurant helmed by a well-traveled chef who skateboards in his free time.
“I’m drawn to Santa Barbara because of all the in-season food”, Derek Simcik told me as we discussed my pan-seared local halibut with Israeli couscous. Having lived all over the world from Japan to Tunisia to Austria to Greece to Chicago, Simcik said he feels at home in the coastal community known for its 365-day summer because he gets to live his version of la dolce vita: Experiment with the local bounty, skate, and motorbike.
Culture vultures such as Simcik are the people taking Santa Barbara’s finest assets—from seashore to mountaintop—and infusing them with fresh flavors and far-flung ideas. Let me tell you; the result is swell.
What’s your ideal day in Southern California?