Unlike its hotels, the best Santa Barbara restaurants fortunately do not all fall into the expensive category. Local chefs are, for the most part, driven by the locavore “fresh and local” mantra. California cuisine, which is Mediterranean at heart, predominates, sometimes with a distinct French or Italian accent, but always light and healthy.
This restaurant has no affiliation with Thomas Keller’s chain of Bouchon bistros. It offers seasonal California cuisine with a French accent, using mostly organic local produce, fish from the Santa Barbara channel, and venison and lamb from local purveyors. The wine list exclusively features Santa Barbara County wineries, and they can recommend pairings. Bouchon prides itself on its seared duck, venison and lamb. The covered patio is lovely year round. All in all, this is one of Santa Barbara’s better eateries, so reservations are essential.
More Details onBouchon Santa Barbara »
This is the Santa Barbara outpost of the wildly popular L.A. restaurant. They’re known for their seasonally-changing seafood menus with an emphasis on local catch—you might have roe from Channel Islands sea urchin, or a whole rock crab. The seafood platters are expensive but more than filling, including shrimp, clams, oysters and lobster, with extras like ceviche. There are some old reliables, like pan-roasted halibut, and the fish-phobic in the party can order burgers or pasta. Hungry Cat is known for its cocktails, which feature inventive combinations and fresh-squeezed juices.
More Details onThe Hungry Cat
A local foodie favorite, oft-visited by the late Julia Child, this sophisticated, fairly small Italian joint is one of the best Santa Barbara restaurants. The owners are Sicilian and their roots show in everything from the atmosphere to the cuisine. The décor is understated—white-clothed tables in a cream-colored room with olive-green accents—and Olio e Limone (oil and lemon) lacks the patio-dining ubiquitous in Santa Barbara, but the food is terrific. A simple appetizer carpaccio of beef with arugula, capers and parmesan is a perfect contrast of tastes. Duck-filled ravioli is served in a creamy mushroom sauce, and spaghetti with crabmeat and prawns comes in a spicy tomato sauce that makes you think of hot days in Taormina. For a less-expensive but equally delicious meal, try their just-opened Pizzeria enoteca (wine bar) and pizzeria next door, same address and phone number.
More Details onOlio e Limone
This popular-with-locals café with a perky striped awning is housed in a former bakery building constructed in 1915. They claim to have been the first place in Santa Barbara to grill their food on Santa Maria live oak, and who are we to argue? The burgers are famous, and the grilled artichokes, when they have them, are delicious; basted in lemon butter and served with chopped tomatoes. Another favorite sometimes-special is pan-broiled white sea bass. Try the Colorado lamb chops with rosemary and garlic. Or just go for the Happy Hour at the bar—it’s too good a bargain to miss. Grab a seat under an umbrella on the patio if you can.
More Details onParadise Cafe
If there’s an “iconic” Santa Barbara restaurant, this is it. In the first place, the 30-year-old Wine Cask is located within the of El Paseo. Inside, the restaurant has hand-painted wood beamed ceilings, a stone fireplace, and patio seating. The town was shocked when it was sold, then went out of business in 2009, but the former owner has partnered with the owner of Bouchon and Seagrass to bring the Wine Cask back. The fare is described as American Riviera Cuisine—it’s fresh local produce, fish and meat prepared with Mediterranean influences, including a great cioppino and a cassoulet with home-made sausage, duck leg and pork cheeks. The Wine Cask Bar & Café serves small plates and pizza, so it’s considerably less expensive, and the former owner is now running the Tasting Room, which should not be missed if you don’t have time for a wine country expedition.
More Details onThe Wine Cask
This award-winning seafood restaurant (founded in 1986) at the Santa Barbara Harbor belongs to the Sustainable Seafood Program, which means you won’t find endangered fish on the menu. What you will find is a clam bar, offering seasonal hot and cold shellfish, including beer-boiled shrimp, steamed mussels, Dungeness crab, and oysters on the half-shell. The restaurant also features locally-caught white seabass. Hate fish? The fare includes burgers and sandwiches as well. And you can feel good about leftovers; they go to the Foodscraps Collection Program, which makes compost for area parks and farms, helping to eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers. Plus there’s that million-dollar view of the harbor and mountains from both indoor and outdoor seating, and from the stools at the clam bar.
More Details onBrophy Brothers
Long a local favorite, this family-owned spot serves northern Indian food including standbys like curries, chicken vindaloo or tikka masala. Tandoori ovens turn out moist roasted chicken, lamb, salmon or shrimp. The Indian décor is calm and cozy, and its location on upper State Street means it’s a bit of a hideaway from the tourist throngs.
More Details onFlavor of India
The Pierre Lafond complex of market and shops in Montecito has a great affordable breakfast and lunch spot for refueling during a reconnoiter of the local mansions. Eggs can be had “any which way” (it’s $1.75 an egg) and for $10 you can compose your own sandwich. There are also burgers, paninis and salads.
More Details onPierre Lafond Bistro »
The chef-owner of this casual health food café, which has been around since 1978 (compared to which she’s relatively new, the owner since 1997), presents an eclectic menu of mainly vegetarian dishes—although there’s free-range chicken, turkey and fish available as well—that are made from fresh ingredients. There are daily specials—you might find a Mayan stew or a Thai curry—and standards like veggie burgers, soups, salads and lasagna or sandwiches.
More Details onSojourner Cafe