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One dinner in Santa Barbara...

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I'm coming out to Santa Barbara for a couple weeks with the possibility of moving there permanently. I'm flying my wife out for a few days, and need a recommendation for a great, quintessential Santa Barbara restaurant to help convince her that moving there is a great idea.

We're staying downtown, so that area would be preferable (but not a huge deal if a short ride is worth it).

If such a place exists, please help me out.

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  1. Lots of good restaurants in this whole area, so no one restaurant alone really represents this town, though a package of many of them would certainly show the range of what will be available if you do decide to come ..... and maybe stay.

    Not knowing your age or likes, it is hard to say but I can offer you the standard list, but the charm of this town lies also with what is in between as well because we have pretty much all bases now covered, which we could not say even just a few years ago.

    Lately this town has a number or younger chefs who do things a bit more creatively that have added to the overall dining scene of some relatively classic favorites and some long time fusty ones, who still deliver just plain good food.

    Julia Childs did winter here so we are not totally off the dining radar. But she actually liked the hot dogs at Costco and our funky little take-out LaSuperica fresh mexican stand. And she also supported our local community college School of Culinary Arts which has a fun student run Gourmet Dining Room on Thurs/Friday night to add to the mix.

    The star attraction right now that fits "quintessential Santa Barbara" is the brand newly opened El Encanto Hotel and Resturant - mixed reviews since it is only a few days open, after a very lavish remodel but it was always the go to place to show off our town from its grand hillside setting, historic gardens and wide open verandah where sunset view cocktails were on everyone's must do list when guests came to town.

    This is high end make-over as it was taken over by the Orient and Express Company to be a showcase hotel in their luxury line. But the place is rich in history for all of us locals who are happy to see it opened again, though it probably no longer will be our backyard meeting place any more.

    Classics of the old school downtown: Downey's; buchon; Olio et Limone; Wine Cask, SeaGrass. Downeys is our special occasion restaurant as it is the white table cloth formal place of subtle elegance and refined cuisine - nothing edgy here or even adventuresome. Just finely prepared and exquisitely served. Fabulous desserts - best in town.

    New young chefs downtown: Julienne, Scarlett Begonia; Anchor Woodfire Kitchen - all really special.

    Ethnic around town: La Superica (Mex), Ca Dario (It), Renauds (Fr), Brummis (Ger), Via Maestra 42, (It) Arigato (Japanese); Petit Valentin (Fr); Stella Mares (Cal/Fr)

    Out of SB: GiannFrancos in Carpinteria; various ones in Montecito; Ballard Inn Restaurant in Santa Ynez Valley town of Ballard.

    Haven't tried but good reviews for downtown: Relais de Paris -french bistro; Sama Sama Indonesian Test Kitchen (going there tomorrow)

    There are some real fans here for the downtown Chase Grill and their calamari piccata (or the other various piccata offerings) which for casual, just might also fit the bill for quintessential SB since it was one of the very first restaurants that moved away from the really dull meat and potatoes town we were 30 years ago.

    Sadly our most quintessential downtown SB setting is El Paseo, but its kitchen (Mex), while improved, does not live up to its romantic Spanish courtyard setting - might be worth it for a margarita and at least a look see.

    The other one downtown "Cielito" in the very lovely La Arcada plaza near the Library and Art Museum, also has a very interesting Spanish small plates menu and stylish bar scene that looks good, but I have not been there myself.

    And a little further afield for "quintessential SB" is Cold Springs Tavern off San Marcos Pass Road - old as the hills, rustic and totally charming for a secret Santa Barbara insider's get away.

    The other aspect if you are foodies and decide to live here is there is a range of ethnic markets that support many in our international community too from asian to european to latin america.

    3 Replies
    1. re: glbtrtr

      Wow, that's a lot of great info. Yeah, I guess I forgot to mention that I'm a huge foodie (I really hate that term), and we both eat pretty much anything. We love all places from hight end to complete dives.

      From my preliminary searches and menu look ups, Julienne is the one place that got my attention. We're now both in town for 2 solid weeks, so I'll do some research on the rest of the places you mentioned as well.

      1. re: Corporate_40

        Good choice. Julienne sets the high water mark. Also if you plan on living here, there are different neighborhoods with different dining options as well.

        A local residential favorite is the San Roque area of Upper State Street where many favorites are located, but not in the high scenic tourism part of town. Just a very nice suburban type neighborhood of quiet streets and some great shopping/restaurants.

        Or the new "foodie" central is around the Presidio - Julienne and friends. And an upcoming area that is more modest allowing some of the newer places to get a start is Upper DeLaVina area. (Foodie is short-hand - sorry for its use - agree, it is pretentious everywhere but on Chowhound!)

        Restaurant Ground Zero is the 1000-1300 blocks of State Street around the Arlington Theater and Granada Theater and the surrounding blocks going both east and west.

        For ethnic markets, go to the K-Mart shopping center in humble Goleta for the best pan-asian market outside of LA.

        1. re: Corporate_40

          Ain't no "foodies" 'round here, you're among the 'hounds. Stand tall.

      2. I have to say if you are around for lunch (or for a casual dinner) def check out Santa Barbara Shellfish. It's the small place all the way at the end of the pier with tanks of crabs and abalone. Very casual but good local seafood. If the have the local live shrimp steamed in beer or the spider crab you must try it. Wine & beer only.

        1. OK, so based on some recommendations, the night we arrive we're going to keep it casual and check out Cielito. Figured that's a good start, and we'll be able to walk around downtown and check things out.

          Scored a reservation for Julienne for the following Friday night, so very excited about that. Not sure if we'll do another high end place on Saturday, but I have plenty of reservations for casual lunch and dinners during the weekdays.

          Last question I have is in regards to dress codes. We're originally from Philadelphia and currently live in Orlando, do we're aware that different parts of the country differ greatly in what's acceptable. So for a place like Cielito or Julienne, are they both relatively casual places? Would a nice t-shirt and jeans, and even stylish sneakers be appropriate? Just not sure how trendy or dressy these places are.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Corporate_40

            Dress in SB is casual for the places you picked, so I think you will be just fine. Cielito likes to think of itself as more stylish and big city drama, but not sure many in town know what this means.

            Last night we went to SamaSama Indonesian Test Kitchen and it was full of young, very casual people - think about putting this on your list because it was very good, very well priced and enticingly original. Everyone walking up and down the street were also in casual. You will pick up on the dress vibes as you walk around town and pretty quickly get a good feeling for the places you might want to dress up a bit for or not.

            If you are staying in the Canary Hotel downtown, they are a little more formal than most for their dining rooms and bar. But not by much. Smart casual again is the good middle of the road place to hit, regardless of how ambiguous that term is today.

            The only place that begs for more dress attention is Downey's because it is just a special place. They are too gracious to turn you away, but I think this is one of the few places where you would want to dress up a bit, for on your own sake. San Ysidro Ranch, Biltmore Hotel, El Encanto, and most private country clubs --- that about covers the only other places around town where casual or that ambiguous smart casual does not cut it.

            I can't think of any place that still exercises a dress code. We had that meltdown a few decades ago when pant suits started slipping into women's fashions and flummoxed the maitre d' at our old classic Talk of the Town. The kind of place that had extra jackets and ties for men, and dress requirements for women.

            Santa Barbara invented the term "laid back" if I am not mistaken. This in fact may unhinge an east coaster for a short (very short) while. Just like we get a bit unhinged when we go back east and the intensity of everything shoots up a few notches. It will be great getting your impressions. I get stale so I really like hearing new viewpoints about our old standards.