By Niki Chopra Richardson
Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara conjures up images of stunning beaches, multi-million-dollar ocean front properties, and Oprah sightings. It is all those things, and ultimately it is a beach town with exceptional palate-pleasing restaurants.
A straight shot up the 101 freeway from Los Angeles, it could take you anywhere from 2-3 hours to get to Santa Barbara depending on time of day or traffic. It does have its own airport with nonstop flights from many major cities. Another alternative is the Amtrak Surfliner which drops you right in the midst of the Funk Zone, a wine tasting zone complete with excellent restaurants and unique retail stores.
If you’re driving, exit left (94C) off the 101 freeway and turn left onto Cabrillo boulevard and before too long you’ll find yourself driving along the gorgeous blue Pacific Ocean. The well-appointed yet easy-to-do-in-half-a-day Santa Barbara Zoo is within minutes of your exit off Cabrillo. It’s the perfect activity to do with kids of any age.
As you drive along Cabrillo, you’ll find any number of hotel and motel options between East and West beaches.
What to Do
If you are in town for a gastronomic weekend, might we suggest you leave your car parked at the hotel and walk everywhere in between meals.
Moxi, an extraordinary museum dedicated to exploration and innovation is ideal for kids of all ages; it will be sure to bring out your inner child.
Walk onto Stearns Wharf and spend a few hours exploring the unique specialty shops or spend an hour at The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center interacting with the marine life native to the nearby Channel Islands.
Or take a Water Taxi that plys between the Wharf and the Harbor and check out the Maritime Museum.
If you want an armchair tour of Santa Barbara including the Mission, consider The Land Shark a 90 minute guided tour of Santa Barbara in an amphibious vehicle.
Where to Eat
Santa Barbara is home to some of the finest restaurants around; most of them source local produce and have a commitment to culinary excellence underscored by a casual and comforting dining experience. Zaytoon’s for casual ambiance in their beautiful garden and exceptional Middle Eastern Food, Scarlett Begonia for dog-friendly decadent dessert-like breakfasts, Handlebar Coffee Roasters for some of the best in-house roasted coffee you’ll ever have.
For lunch, make a beeline to Broad Street Oyster Company (only available from 12:30 – 7pm on Saturdays) and get yourself a Lobster Roll, some fresh Uni or fresh shucked Oysters. Pair these with a bottle of wine either from DV8 or Municipal Winemakers or any of the local wineries in the Funk Zone and you are in for a gourmet explosion of flavors and textures. The warm, buttery toasty crunch as you bite into the buttered creamy yet chewy chunks of lobster followed by a sip of White or Rosé wines might very well be up there as a gastronomic experience you will never forget.
For an authentic Cajun-Creole dining experience, consider making early reservations at The Palace Grill. Delectable cocktails, divine cuisine and desserts to die for. Start your meal with a Gumbo Ya Ya; an old-fashioned Louisiana Soup served with rice. For the main course try the House Specialty Stuffed Filet Mignon where each bite is a masterful combination of surf and turf thanks to the Cajun seasoned crawfish stuffing. If you’re jonesing for a jambalaya, then give the Jambalaya Sauce Piquante a try; it will not disappoint.
With a medley of spices, the shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage served on a bed of dirty rice will transport you to New Orleans with each delectable bite. For dessert, consider the Louisiana Bread Pudding Soufflé (place the order for this when you first sit down to eat, as it requires extra cooking time). Perfectly textured bread pudding laced with Grand Marnier and raisins and finished with a piping hot whiskey cream sauce is a party in your mouth with every bite.
No weekend visit to Santa Barbara can be complete without a meal at Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach. Parking can be a challenge, so plan accordingly or be prepared to wait. You can’t go wrong with any meal here. Try their Chilaquiles with slow roasted pulled pork, over easy eggs over crispy corn tortillas chips; topped with guacamole, salsa and queso fresco this is comfort food at its best.
Where to Walk
Walk off some of the bloat by sauntering along the gorgeous pup-friendly Arroyo Burro Beach. If you’re lucky you might get to check out some surfers making waves along that part of the coast.
If you’re committed to a walking visit in Santa Barbara, and driving to eat isn’t your jam, check out local favorite hidden gem Helena Avenue Bakery. Their menu features an assortment of coffee or tea libations, generous (and delicious) breakfast and lunch options, and even the option to prepare a picnic basket if you’d rather eat your meal on the beach. Check out the Green Eggs and Ham Biscuit. This Dr. Seuss reference features a fried egg, perfectly complemented by the smoky black forest ham and pepper jack cheese drizzled with spicy green harissa sauce all packaged in a delicious mess on a house-made buttermilk biscuit. For a lighter gluten free option; try their house-made lemon pepita granola, paired with locally sourced honey and organic Greek yogurt and fresh fruit.
Santa Barbara also offers you the space to be present with yourself. It is a place that engenders reflection and peace. There’s something about sunshine, fresh ocean air, and exceptional food that soothes the soul. This is Santa Barbara at its finest.
Check out more from Niki Chopra Richardson at www.thegalavantinggastronome.com
About the Author: Born in India, Niki traveled the world before she turned 16. Her father was a Master Mariner and worked on mega-container ships. Travel is in her DNA. In 1994, she charmed her parents into settling her in the US at the age of 21. She spent five years in New York, where for two years she worked and learned the life of high finance at the iconic 2 World Trade Center. She moved west to earn an MBA from Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA and fell in love with the weather and a boy! She and her husband Jason share a passion for good food and travel. Everywhere they go, they take pictures of food; they love cooking at home and on trips, and love sampling local fares. Jason is a scientist and brings his analytical yet artistic mind to the foods he creates and is the chef behind BBQ Theory. Please visit www.thegalavantinggastronome.com to read about our Gastronomic adventures around the globe.