Santa Barbara - home of world-class beaches, the Funk Zone, and birthplace of Jonbenet Ramsey/Katy Perry. Called “the American Riviera," you’re not going to find many places as strikingly beautiful (or well-kept) as this tiny beach town. And let’s not forget - this is wine country. Some of the best wineries in America are near SB, and that means all their tasting rooms are right in town.
But where are you going to go to soak up all that chardonnay?
Luckily, Santa Barbara is home to a damn impressive restaurant scene. From old-school taquerias to high-end French restaurants and everything in between, SB holds its own. And it’s time you start taking advantage. So next time you make the hour and a half trip up the 101, here is everywhere you need to be eating in Santa Barbara.
Simply put, The Lark is operating on a different level than everybody else right now in Santa Barbara. It's easy to assume this town would have great dive-y Mexican food or fancy seafood restaurants for pinot-worshipping retirees. But a stunning, new-age restaurant in a former fish market that wouldn't look out of place in the Arts District? Not so much. Smack in the heart of the wine-guzzling Funk Zone, The Lark is so cool it hurts and the pride and joy of Santa Barbara. If The Lark was in LA, it’d be one of the hardest reservations in town. But it’s here, in Santa Barbara, and one of the hardest reservations in town. So plan ahead and go get in on the fun.
Thanks to one Julia Child, La Super-Rica isn’t just one of the most popular spots in Santa Barbara. It’s one of the most popular spots on the entire California coastline. While every road-tripping college kid and brochure tourist is waiting in line with you, we’ll tell you right now, Mrs. Child knew what she was talking about. This order-at-the-window Mexican spot is delicious and dirt cheap and a must-visit for anyone in SB. Order the Especial, or you’re dead to us.
Having absolutely nothing to do with the super fancy and super French restaurant in Beverly Hills, this Bouchon is the super fancy and super French restaurant in Santa Barbara. Seriously, no crossover. But make no doubt about it, this place is one of the finest meals you can have in this town. It’s expensive and you’ll definitely need a reservation, but if you’re in Santa Barbara on a romantic escape, Bouchon is your #1 spot.
This is our completely made-up term for the group of three connected, fairly insane concepts - Olio Pizzeria, Olio Crudo Bar, and the more full-scale Olio e Limone. Having nothing to do with a similarly named LA restaurant as well, Olio is a Santa Barbara staple and you frankly can’t go wrong with any of the spaces. Since they all share the same address, you can walk into each and choose the vibe and menu that's right for your situation. However, we’ll say that squid ink calamari at Olio Pizzeria is easily the best calamari we’ve ever had. Go and find out for yourself.
If Supa-Rica is the king of Santa Barbara Mexican cuisine, Lilly’s is the queen. Located essentially under a freeway overpass, this extremely popular, no-frills taqueria is indeed all about the tacos. No burritos or quesadillas to clutter your vision here, the entire menu is composed of about 10 different varieties of tacos and that’s it. And while their Abodaba (marinated pork) is a must-order, don’t run from the more adventurous ones either. You didn’t wake up thinking you’d eat beef lip today, but turns out you are.
You’re staring at the glorious structure that is The Lark, and suddenly you notice something in the corner of the parking lot that resembles an upscale construction trailer. Welcome to Lucky Penny - The Lark’s casual, all-day concept and the best lunch you can get on your stumble-y afternoon through the Funk Zone. This order-the-counter spot is all about the pizza, but don’t sleep on the sandwiches either. Or anything else on the menu.
Located in the Santa Barbara equivalent of that terrifying “fishing village” in Marina Del Rey, there’s no doubt Brophy Bros is an all-out tourist magnet. However, it’s a tourist magnet with absolutely delicious food and some of the best views in Santa Barbara. You’re on the water, so it’s all about the seafood. More specifically, the clam chowder. Yes it’s 82 degrees out, and no we don’t care. We just ordered two more cups.
On paper, owning a Mexican restaurant one block south of La Supa-Rica might be a tough gig. Just don’t tell Los Agaves that. This casual spot has quietly become one of the most popular places for traditional Mexican food in town. While everyone else is worried about their taco game, Los Agaves is giving you all the enchiladas, chile rellenos, and queso fundido you can handle. And you’re going to want to handle as much of it as you can.
If you’re a human who is alive, you’ve probably heard of McConnell’s. You might even be eating some right now and that's ok. Because it’s some of the best ice cream on the West coast, and a Santa Barbara original. Though the McConnell’s ice cream empire is far-reaching these days, paying homage to its original store on Mission St. is a pilgrimage for anyone who enjoys happiness.
Barbereño proudly labels itself Central Coast cuisine. If you’re unclear what that entails exactly, it apparently means delicious versions of food you love, because that’s exactly what’s going here. The space is modern, with a fantastic front patio perfect for a date night that won't break the bank. Tip: Sit at the bar and get the full menu plus the (excellent) bar menu that isn’t offered at the regular tables.
Toto, we’re not in Napa anymore. This is Santa Barbara Wine Country and that means you’re not just allowed, but encouraged to eat Mexican food while drinking wine. Located on a side street in the Funk Zone, Mony’s is another must-stop for anyone doing their weekly tasting crawl through the hood. Everything at this dime-sized taco spot is excellent, but our move is the barbacoa combo. And whatever you do, get all up in that salsa situation. Pistachio salsa? We'll take it.
Right when you think you have the Santa Barbara food situation pinned down, in comes Sama Sama. This bright, modern restaurant in the thick of downtown is serving up the kind of Indonesian-fusion you would never expect out of a town that believes burritos are meant to be eaten for all three meals. (A belief we greatly admire.) Sure, Sama Sama is a tad pricey, but the food is outstanding and unlike anything else in town. So put down that quesadilla and go grab a bowl of those 'ayam kecap' jidori wings instead.
What Santa Barbara lacks in the overall sushi game is entirely forgiven with the presence of Arigato. The tiny sushi spot right on State St. is dishing out top-shelf sushi at the high prices you would expect. But it’s worth it. Arigato’s menu is pretty big, but you can get a mayo-doused specialty roll anywhere. Stick to the nigiri and sashimi sections. Ordering that jalapeno yellowtail over and over again until you’re full is a move we whole-heartedly approve.
UCSB is a big part of Santa Barbara’s identity, but it’s important to note that it's not in Santa Barbara. It’s in Isla Vista, a tiny enclave 15 minutes down the highway. And while IV has a solid dining culture all to itself, no place rivals that of Freebirds. The 30 year-old burrito joint is a full-blown national chain these days, but the original Isla Vista location is required eating no matter how many blunts you've had. Is there anything better than those nachos at 3am?
Can you actually say you’re a good food town without having an old-school pastrami place? We think not. Luckily, Santa Barbara has Norton’s - a tiny little dive a block off the main drag who’s built a following for cheap and delicious diner classics. And while you can’t go wrong with their regular pastrami, our move is always the Pastrami dip. Think pastrami sandwich and french dip sandwich combined. And yes, it’s as good as that sounds.
Sopes never seem to get the credit they deserve on most Mexican menus, but not at Cuernavaca. This tiny order-at-the-counter Mexican joint (is there anything else in Santa Barbara?) has some of our favorite sopes in the history of the world. Perfectly crisp, yet perfectly doughy. They come in vegetable, chorizo, or chicken tinga. Or just get all three for $8 like a real American. Caution: lines get long at lunch time.
“Yeah, it’s drunk food." Being one of the few late-night spots in downtown SB, The Blue Owl has probably heard this from time to time. And if that ever deters you (regardless of where you fall on the sobriety scale), it’s your loss. Because this Thai-fusion restaurant is serving some of the best food in town, day or night. The banh mi is fantastic, and the Thai basil cheeseburger (late-night menu only) is what we want every night at 1am.
There’s clearly no lack of hyped-up Mexican joints in Santa Barbara, but El Zarape is definitely not one of them. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood far away from downtown’s poorly-medicated Sur La Table crowd, El Zarape is packed with real locals who know they are eating some of the best tacos nobody knows about. Though our move is still the alambre - beef topped with bacon, veggies, and all the cheese you can handle. Just make sure you swing by the salsa bar on the way out. That habanero one is no joke.