A Local’s Guide to Santa Barbara
The iconic red-tiled roofs of Santa Barbara offer more than just your standard shopping spread. Divert from the well-worn path of the tourists that flock to State Street and you’ll discover rich, authentic Mexican fare, local grassroots wineries, and salty coastal pub scenes that rival the hippest bars of Portland, San Francisco, or Seattle.
We’ve picked the brains of our most well-rooted Santa Barbara colleagues and compiled a list of their favorite places in town. These are the happy hours we frequent after work, the taquerias we turn to at lunch, the unassuming dives, greasy spoons, and bootstrapped wineries of California’s Riviera.
You may not find these local haunts in the newest edition of Fodor’s. They may not rise to the top of your Google searches. But as they say, sometimes the best road is the road less traveled.
The Empty Stomach: The author apologizes in advance for the overwhelming number of taco recommendations. Take it with a grain of salt…and a dash of lime.
On The Alley. (Enduringly referred to by locals as OTA). Wedged into a narrow alley along the Santa Barbara Wharf, this unassuming eatery serves up simple, honest food. Menu staples like the carmelized OTA Burger and fresh Baja Fish Tacos stand on their own. OTA offers salty coastal ambience and outdoor picnic seating with room for the whole group. Expect the catch-of-the-day to roll past you in the bed of a rusty 4×4 and bask in the briny beauty of the harbor.
Pro Tip: Grab a frosty brew from the wharf’s General Store to complement those fish tacos!
Mony’s Mexican Food. If you’re looking for authenticity in your Mexican food, you’ll find it here. These folks serve up South of the Border like no one else in the 805. Carnitas, mole, barbacoa, and full salsa bar with some off-the-wall choices. Pistachio salsa…need I say more?
Three Pickles Deli: Take a break from the tacos and put a classic sammie in your hand. Just off the foot-traffic gridlock on State Street stands this brick and mortar deli serving up anything and everything you can press between two pieces of French Bread. Three Pickles revitalizes the classic deli of yesteryear. Go for their specialty sandwiches like the Presidio on Rye or Goodland Club.
Cielito Restaurant & Tequila Bar. Tucked in the very back of La Arcada Courtyard directly off of State Street lies the trendy Fiesta-themed Cielito. Hip Spanish fare, like the Peruvian Seafood Stew, is served alongside classic favorites like the Ensenada taco with Sriracha aioli. An ideal locale for an outdoor group dinner on a comfortably warm Santa Barbara evening, this place is a favorite among tourists and locals alike.
The Happy Hour: Just a few of the finest after-work haunts and weekend watering holes on the Central Coast. Cheers!
Figueroa Mountain Brewery: Having just opened up new locations in Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo, Fig Mountain’s popularity is only growing in the 805—and for good reason. Their locally inspired ale is some of the best in the county. The flagship Santa Barbara tap house is nestled among the craft wineries and art galleries of the Funk Zone district in downtown SB. Bring the whole squad for a flight of beer tastings on the patio.
Corks n’ Crowns: Come for the wine, stay for the…wine. Just one of the many craft wineries crammed into the Funk Zone, but a local favorite in vibe and environment alone. On any given Sunday you will find the outdoor patio packed shoulder to shoulder with locals, hipsters, wine connoisseurs, and the occasional lucky tourist. Another great place in the Funk Zone for an afternoon group tasting…if you can lock down some of that prime patio real estate.
The Good Lion: At the Good Lion, simplicity is key. No frills. No excess. Just. Good. Drinks. The Lion embodies a warm inviting Central Coast Chic–style that values intimacy and community over the impersonal big box chain approach. Their menu consists of a small constantly rotating selection of local tapas and house cocktails like the Pear Mule and the Rosemary Clooney. Catering to individual drop-ins or group events, The Good Lion is an experience best shared.
Armada: Speaking of Central Coast Chic, nothing screams Santa Barbara like a grassroots wine bar. Modeled after a pit-stop on a sailing merchant’s trade route and serving up beverages from every corner of the globe, Armada is the perfect place to share a glass of Pinot from Spain or a frosty ale from Lake Tahoe. This retro nautical outpost is unassumingly tucked away in the corner of the historic San Marcos Courtyard. Duck in for a glass with the locals.
The Escape: Looking to liberate yourself from the typical tourist traps? Santa Barbara thrives off the beaten path.
Sandpiper: If your group is keen on hitting the local links, you can’t do better than the Sandpiper Golf Club in Northern Goleta. Views of the ocean from the course are unbeatable as nearly every fareway hugs the Pacific coastline.
Sandpiper is welcome to all players, from duffers to scratch golfers. You can play a full 18-holes followed by appetizers & cocktails at the nearby Bacara Resort & Spa where you are free to revel in your Birdies or wallow in your triple Bogeys.
Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach: Boasting some of the best views of the Santa Barbara Channel and with menu quality to back it, the Boathouse is a staple for visitors and locals alike. Voted Best Signature Breakfast in Town by yours truly, the poached eggs over house-made crab cakes will knock your sandals off.
The Goodland Hotel: The Goodland Hotel is the new bohemian hotel hangout in Northern Santa Barbara County. Transported back from the heart of the 1970’s, this Kimpton property has been fully remodeled from the skeleton of an old Holiday Inn. Rocking a self-proclaimed “Flip flop-friendly boutique” style, an indoor-outdoor restaurant, and two bars complete with record players, The Goodland offers an escape to simpler times, when wood paneled wagons roamed the streets and vinyl reigned supreme.
Cold Spring Tavern: Listed by popular demand, this one’s an Elite Meetings office-wide favorite. Nowhere else does the melting pot of America blend so thoroughly than at the Tavern. Surfers and tourists rub elbows and share tables with dusty bikers and rancheros. On Sunday the place oozes with the sounds of sweet harmonica blues and the intoxicating scent of their smoky Santa Maria style tri tip (might be a good idea to double-up on napkins). Dripping with character and rich with local history, the Tavern is a great place for a group to detach from the hustle of the Riviera.
Photos: red-tile roofs and palms at sunset, Shutterstock. Cocktails, wine and harbor, Ross Monnich.