Santa Barbara - home of world-class beaches, and birthplace of Jonbenét Ramsey, a.k.a. Katy Perry. And let’s not forget, this is also wine country. Some of the best wineries in America are near Santa Barbara, and that means their tasting rooms are in the middle of town (taking over a strip of SB referred to as The Funk Zone).
But where are you going to go to soak up all that Chardonnay?
Luckily, in addition to being an extremely beautiful town, 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 started taking advantage. Plan your next weekend trip up the 101 around these, the 23 best Santa Barbara restaurants.
It’s easy to assume that Santa Barbara would have great, divey Mexican food or fancy seafood restaurants for pinot-worshipping retirees. But a beautiful, modern 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 Funk Zone, The Lark is the pride and joy of Santa Barbara. If this restaurant was in LA, it’d be one of the hardest reservations in town. But it’s here, in Santa Barbara, and still one of the hardest reservations in town. Plan ahead.
Thanks to one Julia Child proclaiming to America that this was her favorite restaurant, 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, Ms. 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. 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 trip of any kind, Bouchon is your #1 spot.
Loquita is one of the newest places in Santa Barbara, but its position here is well-earned. And that’s because the food here can go toe-to-toe with the best in town. Sure, the price point at this modern tapas restaurant is higher than the more casual spots around the Funk Zone, but if you’re looking for an upscale dinner option that isn’t going to put you to sleep at the table, Loquita is a sure bet. They have a great patio, strong cocktails, and a lively crowd there to take advantage of both. The pulpo, the scallops with chorizo, and the churros are all must-orders.
Metropolous has been around for about a decade now, but the crowds have seemingly only gotten longer. Why? Because this joint knows how to do lunch better than anybody. The Greek-ish market/deli is family-run and home to a gyro sandwich that will shake you to your core (as well as a giant menu of other sandwiches, salads, and baked things you’ll put in your bag for later). Just be sure to get there early - they stop serving at 4pm. If you’re not feeling lamb today, don’t worry, you can’t really go wrong with anything here.
This is our completely made-up term for the group of three connected and very delicious concepts - Olio Pizzeria, Olio Crudo Bar, and the more full-scale restaurant Olio e Limone. 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 will say that the squid ink calamari at Olio Pizzeria is easily the best calamari we’ve ever had.
If Super-Rica is the king of Santa Barbara’s Mexican food, Lilly’s is the queen. Located essentially under a freeway overpass, this extremely popular, no-frills taqueria doesn’t clutter your vision with burritos or quesadillas - you just have about 10 different tacos to choose from here. 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.
After an unsuccessful first run, The Santa Barbara Public Market is back and living its best life. And the stall you need to be running to is Corazon Cocina. The seafood-heavy Mexican food counter is fantastic, and an ideal spot to grab a low-key lunch in between wine tours. The move is definitely any of the seafood tostadas (the yellowtail and watermelon-covered Sal Del Mar is our go-to), but don’t skip out on the mole chicken taco either. Lines do get long.
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 spot and a very solid lunch option when you’re too wine drunk to walk anywhere else. This order-the-counter spot is all about the pizza, but don’t miss the sandwiches either.
Located in the Santa Barbara equivalent of that terrifying “fishing village” in Marina Del Rey, there’s no denying that Brophy Bros is an all-out tourist magnet. However, it’s a tourist magnet with good 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 Super-Rica might be a tough gig. Unless you’re Los Agaves. This casual spot has become one of the most popular places for traditional Mexican food in town. While everyone else focuses on tacos, Los Agaves is giving you all the enchiladas, chile rellenos, and queso fundido you can handle.
If you’re a human, you’ve heard of McConnell’s and are probably eating some as you read this. 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 State St. store is a worthy pilgrimage for anyone who enjoys the good things in life.
Toto, we’re not in Napa anymore. This is Santa Barbara Wine Country and that means you’re 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 a tasting crawl through the neighborhood. Everything at this dime-sized taco spot is worth ordering, but our move is the barbacoa combo or the chicken burrito. And whatever you do, get involved with the salsa situation. Pistachio salsa? We’ll take it. Warning: weekend lines here get insane.
Barbereño calls itself Central Coast cuisine. We’re not sure exactly what that means, but it must have something to do with good versions of food everyone likes, because that’s exactly what’s going on here. The space is modern, with a front patio perfect for a date night that won’t empty your wallet. If you sit at the bar, you’ll get the full menu plus the (excellent) bar menu that isn’t offered at the regular tables.
Right when you think you have the Santa Barbara food situation pinned down, in comes Sama Sama. This bright, modern restaurant downtown is serving the kind of Indonesian-fusion you might not expect to find in a town that believes burritos are meant to be eaten for all three meals. Sama Sama is a tad pricey, but the food is damn good and unlike anything else in Santa Barbara. Put down that quesadilla and go grab a bowl of the ‘ayam kecap’ jidori wings instead.
Anybody who’s spent more than a boozy Saturday in Santa Barbara knows the name Los Agaves, a well-established Mexican restaurant with locations from downtown all the way to Westlake Village. But now they’ve thrown off the mom and pop vibes for something a bit more upscale at Santo Mezcal, and we like it. This is modern Mexican food, so expect things like massive plates of ceviche (the halibut and ahi tuna are your orders), shrimp covered in creamy mezcal sauce, and an octopus in adobo dish you’ll think about late at night. Also important: the mezcal cocktails are fantastic.
UCSB is a big part of Santa Barbara’s identity, but it’s important to note that it’s not actually 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, Freebirds is a must. The 30-year-old burrito joint is a full-blown national chain these days, and we simply don’t care. The original Isla Vista location is required eating no matter how many blunts you’ve had.
Santa Barbara doesn’t have a ton of sushi options, but that is entirely forgiven thanks to Arigato. The tiny sushi spot right on State St. is serving quality raw fish at the high prices you would expect. But it’s worth it. Arigato’s menu is pretty big, but you can get a mayo-covered 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 wholeheartedly approve of.
Every good food town needs old-school pastrami place to brag about, and Santa Barbara has Norton’s - a tiny little dive a block off the main drag that’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 - a.k.a, the lovechild of a pastrami and french dip sandwich. And yes, it’s as good as that sounds.
This little order-at-the-counter Mexican joint 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.
Most people come to the Funk Zone to white wine raft their way through the tasting rooms. But over on Santa Barbara St., things take a hoppier turn at The Nook/Lama Dog Tap Room. This take-out food window/beer hall is the best place to drink craft beer in Santa Barbara, with some pretty strong bar food as well. You order your food at Nook (the short rib burger and lobster mac and cheese are musts), then stroll over to the long communal tables at Lama Dog and proceed to drink your afternoon away with their 19 taps and over 300 different varieties of cans and bottles.
Being one of the few late-night spots in downtown SB, you might think The Blue Owl was only meant to be visited after a long night out at the bars. And you’d be wrong. This Thai-fusion restaurant is serving food that tastes good no matter where you fall on the sobriety scale. The banh mi is magic, and the Thai basil cheeseburger (late-night menu only) is everything we want at 1am.
There’s no lack of hyped 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 locals who know they’re eating some of the best tacos nobody knows about. Our move is the alambre - beef topped with bacon, vegetables, 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.