They call it the American Riviera, where frenzied Los Angelinos come to escape the rat race. Where the rich and famous head to kick back. And where the rest of us swarm to bask in the endless sun and surf aside platoons of palms, fruity fig trees and brilliant blossoms festooning every possible surface.
Me? I’m here to channel my inner Julia Child. She lived in nearby Montecito, shopped at Saturday’s farmers market and vowed that a certain taco stand was “the best restaurant on earth.”
“She never stopped talking about it,” said our guide on a fabulous, four-hour Eat This, Shoot That! walking tour. As its title hints, the tour allows visitors to not only sample food and drink at special local haunts, but also receive tips on how to best photograph these treats with a mobile phone.
The neighborhood we’re tramping through is called The Funk Zone — named, we learn, for the smelly fish market that once occupied the formerly seedy niche of Santa Barbara between State and Garden streets near the water.
Not anymore: It’s now the city’s trendy artists’ quarter, crammed with galleries, indie boutiques, wine-tasting rooms and farm-to-fork cafes. No skyscrapers, no billboards, no neon, by law: Instead, you’ll find white stucco walls topped by red-tiled Spanish Mission-style roofs, fronting streets named after conquistadors.
Mission and museums
A hop-on/hop-off trolley tour, leaving from the harborside visitors center, provides an overview and a history lesson in the city’s past. We trundled through ritzy Montecito, home of glam resorts, the zoo and Oprah, then up to the beloved Santa Barbara Mission of 1786, with its twin towers silhouetted against the tawny surrounding mountains. (It’s called Queen of the Missions among the 21 that dot the California coast.)
There’s an even earlier church — 1782 — clasped within the El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, the fort where the Spanish set up shop, in what’s now the heart of town, where the protection it offers today is from sunburn rather than members of the Chumash tribe.
To add flesh to these historic bones, step into the nearby Santa Barbara Historical Museum, where all that glitters probably is gold, from church treasures carried by intrepid missionaries from Spain and Mexico to an old scale, weighing a panner’s findings in the Gold Rush. That rush brought more immigrants, spelled out in an exhibit called Bandits! and another on Chinese arrivals, with gorgeous silks and a shrine.
A Project Fiesta! exhibit employs restored ruffled costumes, posters, art and artifacts. Santa Barbara herself gazed patiently upon us from her carved likeness.
On the water
The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum fills in the gaps, starting with the nearby discovery of a human bone 13,000 years old (!), well before Juan Cabrillo of Spain sailed up the coast from Mexico in 1542. The Chumash natives greeted him in their sophisticated canoes. Seal hunters and whaling ships followed, then surfers in the mellow 1960s. Interactive exhibits allow you to steer a vessel and peer through a periscope, too.
The Sea Center at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (on the city’s historic Stearns Wharf) presents close encounters with marine animals from the Santa Barbara Channel.
Near the wharf, board a tour boat for a jaunt along the coastline, which includes spying sea lions, nonchalantly catching rays atop cement buoys, who batted nary an eye at us as we passed. You can go whale watching here, too, to see Pacific greys, humpbacks and even a few blues, plus dolphins — or just jump right into the salt spray with the locals at the area’s many sandy swimming beaches. (See 10best.com for a list.)
Sumptuous city life
Dry your toes, then step aboard the State Street shuttle bus (25 cents). Or hike along wide brick, palm-shaded sidewalks, past shops galore (my favorite: a Japanese micro-Walmart called Miniso — like Hello Kitty for grown-ups) on down to the prettiest building in town: up, the courthouse, with its signs in fake Olde Spanish and everything else in a 1925 version of Colonial decor.
Patterned tiles climb every surface, creating a glorious, inside-the-kaleidoscope experience. Clamber to the bell tower for a 360-degree view of the city, then relax on the courtyard lawn as festive wedding parties troop past.
But Julia’s calling. Saturday’s farmers market was her all-time fave, and now it’s mine, too: It boasts 140 vendors showcasing of-course-it’s-organic everything, from stone fruit of every persuasion to cucumbers shaped like lemons; newborn turnips and infant cobs of corn; bouquets of lavender; and mountains of avocados. A vendor of heirloom tomatoes offers free poetry readings with purchase (or, actually, without).
Speaking of avocados, the avo toast at Helena Avenue Bakery is perhaps the sexiest dish in the state — half a ruddy boiled egg on a chunky terrain of avocado atop a slice of house-baked toast, shimmering with a dash of olive oil and a sparkle of sea salt.
The Lark, around the corner, was voted “one of the 30 best restaurants” in the land, and that’s a modest understatement. The casual café shines with platters like my salad, topped with baby yellow tomatoes, cukes, cantaloupe and goat cheese. I followed it up with suckling-pig porchetta toast, then smoked quail in porcini butter.
Its neighbor, Loquita, knows a thing or two about tomatoes, too. We started with a toss of cherry tomatoes, peaches, mozzarella and pine nuts, then summoned a couple of the tapas for which this Spanish kitchen is famed, finishing with a seafood paella. Not to miss: the El Bulli olive — named for Spain’s foremost restaurant — an oval of liquid that explodes in your mouth (an effect made possible with a technique known as reverse spherification).
Blackbird, in the Hotel Californian, whose chef came from California’s famed French Laundry, got me at dessert — offering strawberries with hay semifreddo and nettle ice cream, plus rhubarb with meringue and wild-flower granite. At Hotel Indigo, its neighbor, Mezcal is the spirit of choice in its Mexican kitchen (Santo Mezcal); linger to ogle the art on loan from a local museum.
Convivo’s Italian menu, in the Santa Barbara Inn, is devised by a Minnesota bro who graduated from Gustavus Adolphus before heading west. He makes a mean tagliolini, heaped with shellfish.
Another Minnesota boy, who grew up in Willmar, now reigns at much-admired bouchon bistro, leading the vanguard of Wine Country cooking. He pairs foie gras with Belgian endive and Bordelaise sauce, rather than the usual fruit, then produces an avocado toast (yes, for dinner) that’s seductively chunky, not mashed. He’s rightly famed for his trio of scallops — one upon vanilla-scented risotto, another paired with prosciutto, potato rosti and corn pudding, and a third partnering with fennel, orange and tapenade. Spot-on wine pairings abound here, too.
Speaking of which, the Urban Wine Trail sports 25 tasting rooms, virtually all within strolling distance (eight within 250 steps in the Funk district alone). Au Bon Climat and Santa Barbara Winery stand out as tops with their versions of the region’s heavy hitters, pinot noir and chardonnay. Another vintner, the man behind Jamie Slone Wines, boasts a Minnesota connection, too: He’s got a cabin in our north woods.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.