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Santa Barbara: places to avoid or are most good enough?

When people ask about where to go in Santa Barbara, it is hard to pin down because there are a lot of good choices. I personally think there are no great restaurants in Santa Barbara, but there are a lot of very pleasant ones.

And if that is the case, then almost anywhere someone goes in Santa Barbara, it will be a fairly good experience. In fact it may well be ambiance, price or setting more than food that makes one stand our over the others. And example is Hungry Cat where the food gets good reviews, but I personally have problems with their service attitude. So does it deserve not to be recommended? Nope, they can turn out some good food

Which got me wondering if there are few places we should tell people to stay away from in this town of mainly pretty okay restaurants. I couldn't think of any because if something is really bad, it usually does not last long in this town.

I have a dining rut and stick with my own list of favorites that I have been going to for years. I tend to choose a restaurant in this town because i am in the mood for a certain kind of food. The "better" restaurants are usually the most expensive and end up being infrequent special occasion restaurants for me.

But when I simply want to go out to eat, then it is more likely to those places than are more in the middle end of the dining scale - not great but also don't cost an arm and leg. And in that category, almost any restaurant in SB is good enough and at least has one or two things on the menu worth going back for over and over again.

Bottomline, when someone asks where they must dine in Santa Barbara without knowing more about tastes, price, setting and locale it is a hard question to answer because there are few that are terrible, and there are also very few that are entirely great. Thoughts?

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  1. Bouchon, Bouchon, Bouchon...you will have a moment of clarity.

    1. For me, the list of don't go restaurants tend to be about service more than food. If I have had bad service I just won't go back. I haven't been to any places locally that have food so nasty that I would tell people to stay away - maybe I have just been lucky in choices.
      I will never ever go back to a couple of places where the food is generally good but the service was snotty or dismissive, and I would discourage others from patronizing these places for those reasons. I'm not naming names now...

      I do think Opal is the kind of place one can recommend to anyone and they would be happy with the wide menu and decent prices. Is it a must dine location? Maybe not.
      Oh, for the return of La Marina and their Wednesday night 4 course menu, half off wine nights. THAT was a must-dine experience in my book.

      2 Replies
      1. re: sbgirl

        LaMarina is in the Biltmore Hotel which is way high on the list for setting and ambiance, that is for sure. You are right, it is usually the service that makes or breaks a place. Owners, listen up. Hospitality comes from the top down.

        1. re: glbtrtr

          Sadly, they killed La Marina for public dining and turned it into an event space. The menu for the new restaurant (my mind draws a blank b/c I am so bummed about losing La Marina and their stellar manager/somellier, Barb) isn't nearly as inspired.

      2. Avoid: Never order steamed clams at Moby Dick. I can still remember from years ago....broth like water. Zero flavor and limp clams. Nothing worse than a limp clam.

        1. I agree. Moved here from NYC two years ago and as much as I love Santa Barbara, I can't seem to find any GREAT restaurants. Just when I think I've found THE SPOT, I go back and it's terrible. But, it's not the food. The service destroys the meal. Wherever you go in Santa Barbara, you can expect slow, unreliable service. If you don't care if the server actually listens to your order, brings out what your ordered, brings all the food at the same time, refills your drinks, notices if you need anything or apologize when they screw it up, you'll be fine. But, if you're like me and hate paying top dollar for mistakes, you'll start cooking at home. The hungry cat is delish, but I rarely go as the service is ridiculous. Used to love Bouchon...and then took a large group there for a birthday and almost walked out. Had a NY quality meal at Miro/Bacara one night....went back again and it was one of the worst experiences I've ever had. But, the food was good....once it was delivered.

          Nothing infuriates me more than paying bucks for a mediocre dining experience. And I wish it would change. We went to Napa last month and had fantastic service at several restaurants. Why can't we do it here? If anyone knows, do tell! Let's invest in a restaurant and set the standard.

          -----
          the hungry cat
          1134 Chapala, Santa Barbara, CA

          3 Replies
          1. re: wireles2go

            Old world service at Downey's which brings us back again and again. Subtle, refined dining atmosphere, traditional yet unique preparation. Everything always seems to hit the right notes there if you don't hold it to a big city dining standards. Great value for their $50 prix fixe four course dinners.

            And for the fun of it try the Gourmet Dining Room on Thurs and Friday nights at Santa Barbara City College School of Culnary Arts. You can help train the food service people of tomorrow because they want to do their best and love challenges in both food preparation and service finesse.

            1. re: glbtrtr

              After nearly a quarter-century of dining at Downey's, I can tell you that the service is always very good, on occasion excellent, but it's the delicious cuisine that brings me back again and again. I've never had a bad dish there -- especially anything with duck or lamb or salmon ... -- and love to take guests who appreciate exceptional food in a civilized atmosphere. I don't hold Downey's to the "big city dining standards" that you mention, glbtrtr. I hold Los Angeles restaurants to Downey's standards, and they usually fall short. God bless John and Liz Downey -- may they be forever young.

              -Harry

              1. re: Harry Niletti

                Just went to Julienne (East Canon Perdido) last night and we now do have big city dining standards in Santa Barbara for a far more casual atmosphere than Downeys, but the edge for creativity and execution now goes to Julienne. Downeys retains the edge for refinement and tradition. Both shall remain special places for us. Let's just say now the upper-end dining torch has been passed to a new generation in this town, in the sad event Downey's ever thinks they want to retire after serving this niche so long and so well in this town.

          2. I really like Via Maestra 42 on upper State St. It is named after the owners address in Rome. I recommend their osso bucco, pumpkin ravioli, and ricotta cheesecake. Their service can be a bit disorganized but I think it is more to do with the amount of customers they get in a small place. They also sell specialty items like cured meats and burrata cheese.

            1. I agree with most people - the food is consistently good pretty much everywhere, but the service is completely unreliable. A group of us usually go to Sharkeez on Sunday mornings for football, and usually it's really fun. However, today we had THE WORST service. The bartenders, AND manager, were rude, slow, constantly got our order wrong and hassled one of my friends, taking her (valid) ID and refusing to give it back to here, even lying to her about calling the cops. After all of this, after the police came (and only after we called them) and validated her ID, we did not get so much as an apology. Next Sunday we're going somewhere else!