I first fell for Santa Barbara on a road trip from L.A. to Seattle—the city is actually the reason I eventually moved to California (though San Francisco, where I landed, and Santa Barbara are two very different beasts). I loved the foggy mornings that dissolve into warm, sunny afternoons; The incredible campgrounds and the freedom to play outdoors year-round. But what I ate during that first trip doesn’t register one iota, and I’ve never traveled back just for a restaurant the way I’ve made pilgrimages to L.A. or Portland. So during a wedding scouting trip, I was surprised—and honestly, a little relieved—by the good eats we discovered. Here’s how it went down.
Dinner #1: Booths made from former train cars. Farro risotto with dandelion greens. A patio accented by a reclaimed-glass fence and twinkly lights. Are we really in Santa Barbara? I wondered while sipping my summer jam cocktail (whiskey muddled with mulberry jam) at newcomer the Lark. Warning: For those accustomed to the ubiquitous tiny plates, portions here enormous (the platters would be right at home on a Game of Thrones buffet).
Breakfast #1, Lunch #2 and #3: Lucky Penny is the down-home sister restaurant to the Lark, and the one you’ll want to visit again and again for brunch, lunch, and snacks in between. Picnic tables and choose-your-own tableware are as unfussy as the baked eggs and hearty seasonal salads (I’m still dreaming about the strawberry, cashew, and goat cheese combo). Plus, it’s right in the heart of Santa Barbara’s rising Funk Zone, so you can walk from tasting room to tasting room, then soak up the wine with a cheesy, wood-fired pizza.
Dinner #2: Small, self-contained Julienne attracts an older, calmer crowd than the beachfront restaurants. Dishes are eclectic (ricotta ravioli with charred strawberries; shaved corn with jalapeño and Tapatio hot sauce) and the servers’ wine pairings are spot on.
Breakfast #2: Finch & Fork is carefully designed, locally sourced restaurant housed in Kimpton’s Canary Hotel—and it’s perfect for a light, hangover-reducing brunch where you just want to gaze at Spanish tile from a wicker bench while eating sweet potato hash and freshly baked granola.
Daily coffee: Local favorite Handlebar does make great coffee, but we preferred The French Press for its super-friendly staff, addictive baked goods (ohmygod that sticky bun), and one of smoothest coffees (a gibraltar) I’ve had in ages.
Sunset cocktails: The food is so-so at the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach, but the cocktails are serious and the surf just an ice cube toss away. Snag a table on the patio at sunset, savor a Pisco Kick (a Pisco Punch with cayenne…get it?), then stroll along the beach as twilight descends.
Play time: Santa Barbara has beautiful beaches in spades—and beautiful people love to frolic on them. Lots of people. But head a little further up the coast and the crowds thin while the views spike. A short stroll leads to the Goleta Butterfly Grove and a network of trails can lead you to a long, quiet beach or to one of the many sunset overlooks. A few miles beyond, El Capitan State Beach is a refreshing swimming spot and popular campground (book a year in advance).
Planning a California coastal road trip? This is your guide.