A Culinary Tour of Santa Barbara, The Most Underrated Dining City in America
Getting to know the city’s best restaurants, and their 16 — yes, count them — nods from the Michelin Guide
If you want to taste the best pizza in Los Angeles, you’ll need to leave the city. Head about 90 minutes north, and pull into a little country mart tucked into Montecito’s quaint downtown strip. Right on the corner, Bettina has quietly become the most beloved pizzeria in the neighborhood, and possibly, the region. SoCal always has to contend with New York (and Chicago) for pizza dominance, and even style, but Bettina puts the discussion to bed with a near-obsessive sourcing of local ingredients and seriously delicious, wood-fired sourdough pies.
Go with a classic pepperoni and learn it’s anything but — this baby is decked out in crispy ‘ronis, hand-pulled mozzarella, basil, chili oil, and a delicious drip of Ojai wildflower honey. Pillowy, charred, chewy and crispy at the same time … if you’ve been in an isolation slump, this pie will fix you. Bettina’s inventive ‘za comes courtesy of Brendan Smith, who was the head baker at Brooklyn cult favorite Roberta’s before he and partner Rachel Greenspan absconded to California in search of a more carefree life.
Us locals might be the ones benefiting most from their move, but Smith and Greenspan’s new outpost, along with an influx of other new spots, has turned Santa Barbara into a bona fide foodie haven. With plenty of established favorites laying the groundwork, Santa Barbara amassed 13(!) Michelin nods when the 2021 guide launched last fall, bringing their count up to 16 total. (Side note: Michelin only started covering California in full back in 2019, helped along by a hefty $600K check from Visit California: Foodies make the best tourists!)
So, the guide is playing catch up, in some ways, with the excellent culinary scene that’s already been heating up on the Central Coast. In that spirit, here’s our rundown of a few places that Michelin thinks are worthwhile in this little coastal haven, Bettina being one of them, along with a few other favorites and a hotel recommendation for the trip. With this many restaurants on your list, an overnight break is a necessary respite. Your stomach will thank you.
Remember exactly why Spanish tapas are a crowd favorite with an evening of vermouth and paella at Loquita
Newly knighted with the Bib Gourmand honor — for the Michelin newbies here, this distinction sits right below a star — Loquita’s energy emanates before you even set foot in the door. Located right in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, the celebratory vibe from their beautiful patio spills right into the cozy dining room. Load up on cocktails by the pitcher, or take a more refined approach and dive into a Vermouth tasting. Light snacks like jamón and pan con tomate naturally lead you to Spanish octopus, decadent paellas and Basque cheesecake.
Adjourn to a hillside bungalow for ocean views and a taste of the “American Riviera” lifestyle
Between California weather and pandemic precautions, one of 2022’s best hotel trends is all bungalow, everything. Stuffy hallways? Loud neighbors? Shared walls? Not anymore. At the Belmond El Encanto, located in the historic Presidio neighborhood of Santa Barbara, other guests might be staying, but you don’t really feel their presence. Tucked away up above the sea, with epic views of the sparkling water, this mountain retreat lets guests leave behind the beachside feel for more of a refined stay. As the only Belmond property in North America, El Encanto delivers an elevated dose of European hospitality that’s impossible to miss. Since you’re here to eat, check out the hotel’s daily breakfast from chef Bruno Lopez for seasonal, coastal fare like smoked salmon, fresh pressed juices, and custom-order omelets. Dine in-house to enjoy the property’s sweeping ocean views, or opt for breakfast in bed and take advantage of their five-star room service.
Pop into Secret Bao for a twist on the yeasty mini-sandwiches, along with to-die-for desserts
Inventive Chinese baos, Asian fusion appetizers and Korean shaved ice so beautiful you don’t even want to eat it? That’s the range Secret Bao offers. What started as a pandemic pop-up from former Loquita chef Peter Lee has morphed into a full-fledged Santa Barbara dining staple. With a brick-and-mortar location right on Anacapa Street near the historic county courthouse, Lee and his partner Felicia Medina (who served as Loquita’s sous chef) have already earned a Michelin distinction at their former restaurant.
Filled with anything from Korean fried chicken, to peanut butter and jelly, shrimp tempura, or even grilled cheese, these fluffy, two-bite treats are the perfect street food for visitors and locals alike. If you sit down for a full meal and make sure to hit up the Kung Pao Cauliflower or Felicia’s clever Kimchi Jjigae Posole. Kimchi, hominy and guajillo chile? That’s a holy trinity right there.
For a peaceful dinner on a beautiful patio with exquisite service, reserve a table at The Lark
The Lark and Loquita are sister restaurants in many ways (they share ownership, for one), but executive chef Jason Paluska was one of the earliest contenders in the region to earn a Plate Michelin honor back in 2019. Paluska’s family-style portions span from locally sourced farm fare like beets and burrata, Little Gem salads and a mushroom tartine, and lead right into the sea, with oysters, mussels and blue crab as standouts on the current dinner menu. Head back to the land for some smoked pork ribs and fried chicken, or keep things light and stick to the orange blossom olive oil cake with a citrusy cocktail or two to close out the evening.
Greet the day with a breakfast sandwich and fresh coffee from Helena Avenue Bakery
Remember: Even if you’re on a food tour, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Helena Avenue Bakery serves up fresh buttermilk biscuits, gooey breakfast sandwiches on pillowy brioche and clean, light avocado toast with cucumbers, sunflower seeds, feta and aleppo pepper. Whether you’re in the mood for a vegetarian palate cleanser, or a hangover-curing carbohydrate, Helena’s is the go-to breakfast joint. Grab a fresh baguette for the drive home, and fill up on a coffee refill before heading back out into the fray.
Get in on the latest foodie pop-up with double decker smash burgers or fried chicken sandwiches from XO Burgers
The first rule about smash burger pop ups is we don’t talk about smash burger pop ups. Unfortunately, XO Burgers is just too delicious to stay a neighborhood secret much longer. The Instagram-first burger joint is still in R&D mode, operating out of Dart Coffee just a few hours a week from Thursday-Monday. Frankly, their double decker smash cheeseburger is a thing of beauty, but somehow the fried chicken sandwich impressed me even more? The spicy cabbage slaw was everything. Don’t skimp on the secret sauce, either — it costs extra, but most of the best things in life do. Michelin inspectors haven’t found this place yet, and they don’t usually go for fast casual, but sometimes the best things in life are the ones that stay under the radar.
Plan an oceanside proposal or celebrate a milestone anniversary with Caruso’s drop-dead-gorgeous fine dining
Let’s go out on an elegant note, shall we? Caruso’s chef, Massimo Falsini, is a well-decorated Michelin honoree who previously oversaw Napa Valley’s nine-time Michelin starred restaurant, Solbar. He can now add another Michelin mention to his resume, as Caruso’s waterfront dining at the Rosewood Miramar Beach is an absolutely breathtaking experience before guests even encounter the elaborate menu. Honored with a plate distinction this fall, Caruso’s has everything: a lovingly structured prix fixe menu, show-stopping service, a wine list that goes on for days (three ring binder, natch), and a cocktail list with the audacity to include an $85 margarita (aged tequila doesn’t come cheap). Caruso’s is giving everything you want from an expensive-as-praxis meal, so come in style, bring your best occasions to their table, and prepare for a feast.
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