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Jul 17, 2006 10:03 PM

ISO great food in Santa Barbara for casually dressed travelers

We'll be in SB on Friday night and are looking for excellent, flavorful, "can't talk, I'm eating" food. Fresh, locally grown = bonus. Any cuisine, but having a craving for Californian, maybe French and/or Asian influences. Don't care about "scene", won't be buying the fancy cocktails, and don't even care that much about service, but will pay just about anything for WOW food. Trick is, we'll be in our walking clothes (not jeans, but probably capris and flat sandals) -- so where can we go where we won't feel under-dressed? Downtown would be easier, but we'll drive if necessary.

From chowhound and other reviews, I have a few ideas: Bouchon, Sage and Onion, Opal, and Jade. Any advice on which of these would best fit my criteria? Any suggestions for other places? Any specific recs for what to order there?

Thank you in advance!

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    1. Hi Joy,

      Enjoy your visit to my town, SB. I'm opinionated, so here goes:

      Your fine dining destinations in SB, emphasizing food quality over other considerations, should be: Downey's (subdued food temple run beautifully with personal touch by chef owner and hostess/artist wife); Bouchon (rich and varied menu with outstanding service and diverse and tasty and not outrageous wine list); Ca Dario (excellent Italian food preferred by all local foodies over other pretenders, though wine is routinely served WAY too warm and the seating can feel a bit cramped.

      NOTE WELL: Sage and Onion is a major disappointment to me and my foodie friends. Multiple visits over many years by many people have relegated this formerly esteemed venue to second-tier status. Opal, which you mention, is a very friendly and fun hangout type of restaurant that in no way features the "WOW" food you want. It's fairly priced with charming staff and decent food. No better. I don't know anything about Jade.

      I hate to be bombastic, but of course food matters. Downey's and/or Bouchon are your best bets. Chef Downey makes a poached mussel (appetizer) that I haven't seen elsewhere. It is spectacular. Downey's emphasizes fresh and local ingredients. Bouchon is simply an all around pleaser, slightly less formal than Downey's, but equally committed to food excellence. SB is quite casual, so all but the most run-down attire should not be a problem. I've been to Downey's in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt (I'm XY).

      Ca Dario is no slouch, just a little more accessible than the other two. They make a locally legendary ravioli appetizer (ricotta filled pillows served in a brown sage butter with a small dollop of marinara and fried sage leaves - heavenly) and many super entrees. (Just bring your own wine - the corkage is reasonable and the house wines are served at that appallingly warm temperature...)

      All of the restaurants I've mentioned are downtown, within a few blocks of each other. Make sure to get a reservation!

      Happy Eating!


      3 Replies
      1. re: Cheese Please

        "Ca Dario (excellent Italian food preferred by all local foodies over other pretenders,"

        At least one local food enthusiast disagrees!
        I have no quibble with Ca Dario's food, but I would hardly call Alberto at Olio e Limone a pretender. If I had to choose between the two for an authentic Italian meal (thankfully, I don't) I'd go with Olio.

        1. re: peasoup

          You know, I was a little harsh and peasoup is right - Olio e Limone is worthy too. I'd take Ca Dario over Olio, but Olio is a quality place too with gracious owners and staff.

          1. re: Cheese Please

            Haven't been to Olio yet but every time we are in SB, we make a point to have at least one dinner at Ca'Dario. They have a lamb shank over saffron rice that is fantastic and a great pancetta-wrapped asparagus in balsamic appetizer. Good stuff!

      2. Thanks for the advice. Opinionated was just what I was looking for. :-)

        We have reservations for Bouchon, and I'm looking forward to it. I looked up the other recs too, and they all look great. I'm filing them away for my next visit, which I hope will not be too far in the future.

        1. The Number 15 Special at La Superica on Milpas Street - don't talk to me, I am eating and downing it with a Horchata. Casual clothes and attitude required - long lines depending on the primeness of yoru arrival time would be the major drawback.

          Sorry to get the update on Sage and Onion - it has been several years since I have been there and felt it was the most inspired of all places in SB then. Alas - the town now does slide into dining mundaneness.

          Best to seek out singular dishes that any one individual restuarant does well instead of counting on across the board excellence at only one of them -- like the Number 15 Special (The Tocino) at La Superica.