BY NIKI CHOPRA RICHARDSON
SANTA BARBARA HAS LONG BEEN THE PLAYGROUND OF JETSETTERS AND BUDGET TRAVELERS. CALLED THE AMERICAN RIVIERA, AND AN EASY DAY JAUNT UP THE 101 FREEWAY FROM LOS ANGELES, IT IS HOME TO RESTAURANTS AND BARS FOR EVERY PALATE AND POCKETBOOK.
WHEN STAYING IN SANTA BARBARA, consider an overnight stay in one of the many boutique hotels that can put you within walking distance of State Street, the heart of the city’s entertainment, retail and food. Since the pandemic, this main promenade has seen a rise in patio dining options for nearly every restaurant in the three blocks of lower State. This can be called a silver lining.
Where to Stay
Newly opened and inspired in concept by their sister property in San Jose Del Cabo, Drift Santa Barbara is more than just a modern hotel with a catchy name. Their commitment to minimizing their carbon footprint is evident in their low-waste strategy throughout the hotel: from the custom-made pour- over-funnel and container for your morning coffee sourced from local company Anacapa Ceramics to the box cartons of water in each room; from the full-sized refillable pump containers for lotion, wash, shampoo and conditioner to the room furnishings and fixtures. The rooms are minimalist in style yet, extremely comfortable. As general manager Nick Gillio said, “you feel less like you’re in a hotel, and more like you’re in a friend’s elegant spare bedroom.”
This boutique hotel on lower State Street at the corner of Haley and State is built on the foundation of the original 120-year-old Hotel Barbara and still features a lot of its original raw materials. Some rooms showcase the original windows and balconies all retrofitted to current safety standards. The third-floor skylights are from the original hotel and the headboards in all 45 rooms are made from the original Douglas Fir framing studs that were uncovered during construction. The sense is that the original hotel very much inspired the modern design; a refreshing acknowledgment of the old, without compromising the original vision of the new. In the spirit of “buy local,” Drift sources a lot of its ingredients for their coffee, cocktails and foods from local vendors in Santa Barbara and Ventura. In the spirit of collaboration, they have partnered with local businesses to support your fitness needs, and Drift can provide yoga equipment, surf boards or bikes for use.
What to Drink
While there’s no shortage of beer and wine tastings in the nearby Funk Zone, and indeed on State Street itself with both the Cruisery and Institution Ale Company on opposite corners of Haley and State Street, Drift’s Dawn (coffee) and Dusk (cocktails) concept is a must- do experience at least once. Dawn (open from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.) features a delectable selection of well-crafted coffee drinks. Consider asking the barista to surprise you with something new as a venture from your usual morning coffee. You might find yourself drinking an Espresso Tonic with house-made tonic syrup featuring lemongrass, lavender, orange and cinchona bark. For non-coffee drinkers, try “Fade to Green,” which is simply matcha, water and house-made vanilla syrup shaken well and poured into an old-fashioned champagne glass. For a hot drink, you might get their orange cardamom oat milk cappuccino. Just bringing this drink up to your nose before the first sip is enough to take in the intoxicating flavors of orange marmalade and cardamom — which work unexpectedly well together.
After 3 p.m., head back to Dusk (same space, different vibe), for Drift’s mezcal, agave, tequila and Baja-inspired raw bar. Food and beverage director John Hardin, a Palm Springs transplant, brings with him an adventurous spirit and a passion for mixology extending beyond the drinks and into the food menu. The bar top features an assortment of colored bottles with house-made labels featuring John’s recipes for infusions, tinctures and syrups, all of which are used in Dusk’s signature cocktails and coffees. Indulge in a mezcal tasting or tequila tasting or give their cocktails a whirl. Happy Hour drinks change, but if you’re lucky and it’s on the menu definitely check out the Oaxacan Old Fashioned, made with mezcal, agave and bitters. Or try the house margarita that is so perfectly balanced, it will take your breath away with its simplicity and complexity. If you’re in the mood for color, consider the beautifully pink Picante Amante (pink peppercorn tequila blanco, mezcal, prickly pear, lime and habanero tincture with a pink peppercorn salt) — with just the perfect hint of smoke from the mezcal, the pink peppercorn salt adds a zing to the lips, the habanero adds flavor, but not uncomfortable heat. If you favor something a little sweeter, and perhaps something blue, consider Into the Sky: kaffir lime tequila blanco, pistachio orgeat, blue curacao, lime and an instagrammable moment with the final touch of a cloud of smoke.
What to Eat
No visit to Santa Barbara is complete without a breakfast or brunch visit to D’Angelos Bakery —a 30-year staple of the town. All their breads and pastries are made onsite. There’s nothing better than their fresh baked baguette, whipped butter and house made raspberry preserves. Be sure to try their tri-berry scone with your latte. If need something more substantial, give their Smoked Salmon Benedict a try: a house-made French toasted baguette layered withlocally smoked Scottish salmon, flawlessly cooked poached eggs and a house-made hollandaise sauce. The smoked salmon had a subtle smokiness that perfectly complements the mild hollandaise sauce. For a slightly lighter fare, try the Egg “Rose” — poached eggs on kalamata olive toast topped with housemade Mediterranean artichoke spread. The salty creaminess of the artichoke spread is a perfect foil to the cooked-to- perfection poached eggs.
Need to nosh with your cocktail? Try Dusk’s version of bar nuts that they call Quicos — roasted corn nuts flavored with sea salt and Tajin lime. They take their Baja roots seriously with their bluefin tuna tostada with chili adobo, lime and cilantro mayo over a house-made tostada, or their daily ceviche with cucumber, lime, chile and red onion. The tart from the lime, combined with the crunch of the cucumber and red onion makes a perfect foil to the fresh cooked-in-lime healthy chunks of fresh fish. For a departure from the traditional, the fresh catch of oysters are served with a Thai chili and fish sauce mignonette that offers up the right amount of tart, kick and umami for a really fantastic mouth feel. They serve these up on a bed of house-made snow liberally sprinkled with chili flakes for a fun visual.
While there is no shortage of international cuisines on State Street, consider making your way toward the ocean to Loquita, known for its tapas, paella and exquisite menu for the evening, know that it takes 40 minutes to prepare, so when you place your drinks order, let your server know. If seafood is your thing, you can’t go wrong with their mariscos paella featuring Hope Ranch mussels, wild jumbo gulf prawns, grilled squid served with dollops of saffron aoli. The knowledgeable wait staff can help you decide how much food is too much, but for a party of two, a bocadito (one bite) followed by a tapa will leave you enough room to do justice to the paella and perchance leave room for dessert (try their churros with three types of dipping sauces) or perhaps a snifter of brandy to close out the meal.
Beach bum or sophisticated theatre-goer, painter or performer, outdoor-lover or museum-goer, street foods or fine dining, Santa Barbara has something for everyone. There’s a unique vibe to this sleepy beach town that will take your breath away with its beauty and steal your heart with its soul.