Ahh, Santa Barbara: a coastline jewel where the sparkling ocean meets the majestic Santa Ynez mountains, and the tacos are some of the best you’ll find north of the border. It’s also only 92 miles away from Los Angeles, making it a perfect road trip destination -- or, if you’d rather avoid the 101 freeway madness, a perfect excuse to finally ride the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train.
In addition to being the birthplace of the Egg McMuffin, this central coast city is also known for its fresh seafood (hello uni!) and farm-to-table restaurants that take full advantage of the plentiful produce that surrounds them. With all the new restaurants popping up around the city, you have a ton of options; here are 20 restaurants every food lover should visit the next time they’re in this charming SoCal beach town.
Spanish fare in the heart of The Funk Zone Loquita’s buzzing bar is full of locals and visitors alike, but the best seat in the house is arguably on the outdoor patio -- or at the Chef’s Table, where you’ll drool at the sight of Jamón ibérico being cut into razor thin slices. Wherever you sit, expect traditional Spanish flavors and tapas like patatas bravas, Spanish pulpo, and black tiger prawns that come out sizzling on a cast iron pan in a bath of garlic and brandy. Paella fans will be delighted to find seafood, meat, and vegetarian varieties on offer, but you’ll want to get your order in early: the paella takes 30 minutes to prepare. Don’t forget to order a glass of sangria to start. Salud!
Fancy steakhouse with killer views This ultra-chic haven made for meat lovers sits inside the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara resort, and carries a jaw-dropping 12,000-bottle wine collection that’ll satisfy/intimidate any palate. It’s the perfect place for a special-occasion steak and wine feast: Request a table on the patio at sunset, and treat yourself to A5 Japanese Wagyu, a side of mac & cheese, and a glass (or two) of the outstanding DAOU Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.
Popular wharfside restaurant for shellfish lovers No trip to Santa Barbara is complete without at least one clam chowder bread bowl, and there’s no better place for it than this spot on Stearns Wharf. While the menu features almost every kind of shellfish you can imagine, you’d be a fool if you didn’t order the clam chowder bread bowl. It’s so good you’ll be eating every last bit, down to the soggy bread that’s been holding the chowder.
Fast-casual concept with farmers market ingredients Perfect for a low-key lunch or a picnic sandwich to-go, this no-frills corner spot is the brainchild of two Lucques alums. The (mostly) healthy menu is driven by the farmers market and includes salads, sandwiches, and grilled meat plates, but don’t skip the weeknight specials menu: That’s where you’ll find things like pork belly and coconut rice, or chicken pot pie. You can’t miss Bossie’s Kitchen -- just look for the big white cow sculpture on top of the restaurant.
Laidback cafe by day and a bar by night Stop by in the AM and get a pick-me-up at this hip cafe that not only practices “green habits” (i.e. uses reusable cups) but is also decorated with lush green walls throughout the cafe. If you’re in the mood for a light bite, you’ll find a limited food menu with bowls, bagels, and an avocado toast adorned with pretty petals. Come back in the evening for a craft cocktail and lively bar scene when Lab Social takes over.
Southeast Asian shared plates Crispy duck salad, pan-seared octopus, and Chinese sausage fried rice are just some of the delectable dishes you’ll find on the menu at Sama Sama, but the star of the show is a mound of Mie Gorgeng noodles, which you can score for $10 during happy hour alongside $6 drinks. Walk to the back and get a glimpse (or a table) of Sama Sama’s cozy, string-lit patio, which is only open on Friday and Saturday nights.
Modern Mexican food purveyor Santa Barbara has no shortage of Mexican restaurants, but Corazon Cocina is a definite standout. The fried fish tacos here never disappoint, as well as the Sal De Mar ceviche, made with whatever fish is in season and served on a crispy tortilla with chunks of refreshing watermelon and avocado. The menu also offers plenty of options for vegetarians, like the cauliflower tacos, Corazon salad made with kale and quinoa, and cheese quesadillas mixed with farmers market seasonal vegetables, as well as the obligatory order of chips-n-guac that you’ll no doubt end up placing.
All-day dining inside Hotel Californian Inspired by the abundance of fresh ingredients in Santa Barbara, and in keeping with the Hotel Californian’s Mediterranean vibes, the menu at Goat Tree is a blend of California and Mediterranean flavors that come together to create beloved dishes like shakshuka, falafel and quinoa bowl, and a lamb wrap smothered with tzatziki. That’s not to say you can’t go basic, though: the more traditional brunch items like avocado toast, chicken and waffles and egg frittata are also worth trying. Whatever you do, don’t miss the live jazz on the patio every Sunday.
California cuisine tucked inside the Canary Hotel Kickstart your morning with one of Finch & Fork’s pressed juices, and then work your way through the brunch menu which features plenty of healthy and delicious dishes. If you’re a night owl, you’ll enjoy handcrafted cocktails and beautiful entrees like the diver scallops, rainbow trout, or short rib paired with a variety of colorful vegetables. The Tuesday night special (buttermilk fried chicken) is an absolute must, as is the rainy day happy hour.
Casual seafood spot overlooking the harbor This family-operated bar and restaurant is situated on the water, so you can grab a seat on the patio, feast on fish and enjoy the view while throwing back a cold one. The menu has an extensive list of fresh seafood, but the grilled mahi mahi or Cajun sea bass are not to be missed.
Chef Phillip Frankland Lee’s second location for the omakase-only concept Following the restaurants success in Encino, this 10-seat omakase restaurant located in the Montecito Inn is more than just your average sushi dinner: it’s an intimate dining experience where guests are required to eat with their hands, sip on old whiskey, and admire the sushi chefs artfully craft each bite. The reservation-only restaurant offers a 16-course menu for $110 per person that includes a welcome cocktail, dessert and tea (a lighter 9-course menu for $65 is also available) -- a bargain for the quality and quantity of food you’ll be eating. You will start your evening by checking in at the hostess stand, inside the hotel (not the restaurant), where Japanese whisky and an unforgettable night of nigiri awaits.
Exquisite dining celebrating local flavors with panoramic views Since 1918, the gorgeous oasis perched high above the mountains inside the Belmond El Encanto Hotel has been charming diners with it’s breathtaking views overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Perfect for a romantic date night dinner (don’t miss the sunset) or Sunday brunch, the restaurant at Belmond El Encanto offers California coastal food, great drinks, and chill vibes, except for Friday-Sunday from 7-10pm when they have live entertainment as well. Whether you’re a guest staying in one of the 92 suites or just dining at the restaurant, you won’t want to leave this beautiful property.
Gourmet cafe featuring seasonal pastries and baked goods Your senses will awaken when you walk into Helena Avenue Bakery: the smell of freshly baked bread, the taste of house-made ingredients, and the sight of gorgeous pastries that will make you forget about your waistline. You can admire chefs and bakers through the clear glass window whipping up most of their ingredients from scratch like their buttermilk biscuits, ricotta, granola, even down to their mayonnaise. Pop in for a healthy breakfast, or picnic sandwiches and goodies like the Cuban sandwich or Nashville hot chicken sandwich with sides like house pickled veggies or marinated olives. The restaurant also shares a space with Santa Barbara Wine Collective, so you can add a bottle of wine and get all your Sunday Funday essentials covered.
A modern twist on Indian cuisine with a stellar wine menu Owner Alejandro Medina presents Indian culinary influences combined with local produce to offer a fresh take on traditional dishes like curry, tandoor and grill, and naan. Mr. Tso’s cauliflower and the uni biryani are must-haves, and you can also pair your meal with wine selected by Rajat Parr, co-owner and three-time James Beard award-winning sommelier.
Neapolitan-style pizza from a former Roberta’s baker Couples that bake together, say together; at least that’s what happened to Brendan Smith and Rachel Greenspan, the pizza-obsessed couple who met while Brendan was working at Roberta’s in Brooklyn. They eventually made the pilgrimage to the west coast and opened up this cozy pizzeria with a unique seasonal menu, where you can find pizzas with exciting toppings like maitake mushrooms, summer peach, and roasted cauliflower pizza.
Classic Italian fare on State Street This upscale establishment has everything you look for in an Italian restaurant: homemade pastas, a cozy atmosphere, and the option to BYO wine. It also happens to be one of Oprah’s favorite restaurants -- not that that should influence your decision, we’re just reporting the facts here. Try the famous turkey meatballs or the bolognese if you’re feeling particularly carnivorous.
A warm atmosphere with friendly service If you’ve been to the Honor Bar in Beverly Hills, you might be wondering if its Santa Barbara sister location also serves the highly-praised fried chicken sandwich -- and the answer is yes, yes they do. The wrap-around bar in the center of the dining room is the focal point of the restaurant, but if you’re dining with a group or aren’t in the mood to rub elbows with strangers, you’ll want to request one of the signature leather booths. The restaurant is situated along Coast Village Road, which is lined with boutiques and cafes perfect for a post-meal stroll.
Popular neighborhood spot with a vibrant bar scene This farm-to-table restaurant in the Funk Zone pays tribute to the four seasons, with a menu showcasing the current season’s bountiful produce through plates that look like works of art. There are plenty of seating options whether you prefer a more private booth, communal table or alfresco seating. Make your reservations in advance, as this local spot typically books up.
Hash house bustling for breakfast Housemade baked goods and hearty breakfast dishes make this place the Sunday brunch spot your hangover craves. Even though this place is counter service, expect lines on the weekends -- but don’t let that discourage you, because it’s totally worth the wait. Build your own hash or opt for the chorizo hash special; the breakfast burrito is always a good choice too. Wash it all down with one of Dawn Patrol’s organic coffees or juices, and you’ll be good to go until dinner.
A hodgepodge of local eateries and artisanal shops under one roof If you’re looking to get a taste of local flavors, look no further than the Santa Barbara Public Market: a food-lover’s dream, for some of the most popular eateries in the neighborhood. Tantalize your taste buds as you walk by freshly baked goods from Enjoy Cupcakes, smell the coffee beans roasting from Green Star Coffee and taste the oils at il Fustino.
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Santa Barbara is one of Leila’s favorite SoCal beach towns, mostly because she spends most of her time eating while she’s there. Follow her food adventures in Santa Barbara and around the world on Instagram at @LeilasList.