Travel

This Old West California Town Is Hiding a Killer Wine and Food Scene

Somehow, this place still lies under the radar.

Los Alamos is a hidden gem on the California coast | Jeffrey Bloom Photography
Los Alamos is a hidden gem on the California coast | Jeffrey Bloom Photography

Gorgeous scenery and intriguing little towns zip by pretty fast along southern California’s Highway 101, especially between Santa Barbara and Monterey. And if you blink at the wrong time about 2.5 hours north of LA, you’ll unknowingly blow past the exit to one of California's most underrated spots for wine, dining, and Old West ambiance. 

For starters, Los Alamos looks like a remarkably preserved set from a Clint Eastwood western, complete with vintage signs, historic facades, and stagecoach remnants of a bygone era. But there's real substance here, too: The town of 2,000 packs an impressive amount of coolness into just seven blocks of Main Street-style charm.

Most people stumble upon Los Alamos by accident en route to some other familiar place like Paso Robles or Santa Barbara, so it’s no wonder the town has unofficially been named “Lost Almost.” But it's not going to stay lost for long. Its other nickname? "Little LA," owing to a recent wave of Angeleno transplants who've traded in their LA looks for faded boots and cowboy hats. And none of it feels like an act.

"It’s truly funky… not curated funk.”

In the past five years, Los Alamos has flourished. New tasting rooms and restaurants have sprung up on Bell Street -- the town's main drag -- adding to a small but mighty culinary lineup to pair with its offbeat, artsy vibes. 

“Everybody that’s come in has done something with intention and authenticity,” says Bob Oswaks, the owner of Bob’s Well Bread, arguably one of the best bakeries in southern California. “I just like that everybody has brought their A-game and done something so unique.” 

Los Alamos serves as a gateway to the Santa Ynez Valley, with over 100 wineries in the region. Along with small towns like Solvang and Los Olivos, it's quickly becoming a popular and more approachable wine destination -- like the quieter, chiller cousin to bougie Napa and Sonoma.

“This is a pretty magical place,” says Will Henry, co-owner of Pico and Lumen Wines. “You have vineyards coming right to the edge of town here. Winemakers, of all sorts, coming through the door.”

There's a surprising and genuine sense of camaraderie that exists among business owners here, who all seem to share a communal pride in how they each elevate the town in their own way.

“I call [Los Alamos] the vortex of love,” says Sonja Magdevski, owner and winemaker at Casa Dumetz and Babi’s Beer Emporium. “Such interesting connections are made in this little wacky, funky town. I always say it’s the right amount of right, and the right amount of wrong. It’s truly funky… not curated funk.” 

Los Alamos leaves a trace of simpler times when the WiFi was weak (or better yet, didn’t exist), slow food was a way of life, and good drinks were always flowing -- which might just be exactly what you need right now. Here are some things to check out once you roll into town.

Explore Los Alamos' restaurants and culinary scene

Oswaks was a Sony executive who left a 30-year career in entertainment to open Bob’s Well Bread. He transformed an old 1920s gas station on Bell Street into an all-day breakfast and lunch destination where you are guaranteed to find two things: a line, and delectable pastries and bread-focused dishes using seasonal ingredients from the garden. 

A block away, husband-and-wife duo Greg and Daisy Ryan run their beloved bistro Bell’s. The no-fuss “Franch” restaurant (a nod to French and ranch food) has been thriving on the strength of its prix fixe dinners, which rely on local farmers and fishermen to craft exquisite five-course feasts for an affordable $65 price tag. (Fun fact: Daisy was named one of the 2020 Best New Chefs by Food & Wine.)

For more casual fare, head to Full of Life Flatbread for wood-fired pizzas from omnipresent owner and Los Alamos OG, Clark Staub. And Pico, housed in a general store from the 1880s, serves upscale farm-to-table fare -- think steak frites, fresh seafood, and vibrant fruit dishes -- in a lovely outdoor garden. 

1880 Union has been a landmark for more than a century | Matt Dayka

Drink your way through tasting rooms and old-school saloons

Enjoy a tasting of rotating rare and domestic beers and ciders on the outdoor patio at Babi’s Beer Emporium. Or, if you’re in the mood for wine, sample six for $25 at Casa Dumetz, which shares a patio with Babi’s. 

Keep the wine flowing at Bedford Winery’s lush courtyard, just a few doors down, best known for producing Old World style wines. Lumen Wines, housed inside Pico, offers a refreshing orange wine that's worth the trip alone. For a non-alcoholic afternoon pick-me-up, Plenty on Bell is a chill cafe pouring organic coffee, which also comes in handy after a day of wine tasting in the surrounding countryside. 

And if you want to fully embrace the Old West vibes, the original Union Hotel has been preserved as the 1880 Union, complete with all the requisite taxidermy and whiskey to make you forget what year it is. Though it's closed for now, this iconic landmark should be back running as soon as indoor dining's a thing again.

The newly chic Skyview Motel | Visit SYV

Where to stay in Los Alamos

The Alamo Motel, in the heart of town, is a boutique roadside motel that was revived in 2016. Rooms draw inspiration from the nearby farms and ranch community using rustic and Western textures like cowhide rugs and natural woods. (Book a room with the standing clawfoot tub. Trust me on this.)

Long-awaited newcomer Skyview Los Alamos just transformed a 1950s motel into a mid-century modern, desert-chic outpost. The room design blends throwback accents like retro radios with hardwood floors and farmhouse sinks. The five-acre property also offers an all-day restaurant, complimentary Linus bikes for guests to use, and a pool that feels straight out of Mad Men with striped lounge chairs and pastel umbrellas.

Otherwise there are Airbnbs and rental properties a'plenty; even Bob’s Well Bread converted two back cottages you can book on Airbnb.

Courtesy of the Visit the Santa Ynez Valley

Shop around Los Alamos funky artistic side

Bell Street is dotted with antique shops like Los Alamos Depot Mall and Sister’s Gifts & Home where you can forage for vintage furniture and home goods. T&T, inside a former bus garage, is a fine art gallery showcasing local artists which also (unofficially) doubles as an artist’s workspace -- if you’re lucky, you may find a young artist named Bobby Williams live painting. After that, walk across the street and stock up on handmade tie-dye shirts and porcelain dinnerware at Terramonary Porcelain.

Leila Najafi is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram at @LeilasList.