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    Santa Barbara: America’s Riviera

    By David Landis–

    The Gay Gourmet–

    They don’t call it America’s Riviera for nothing.

    Santa Barbara has the coastal vibe of California, the Mediterranean influence and architecture of Spain, and that year-round temperate climate. And, it’s a perfect 5-hour getaway from the Bay Area.

    But how is it to travel there during Covid? And with dogs? Easy squeezy.

    Being travelers “of a certain age,” we made sure to ask lots of questions before we hit the road, especially during the current pandemic. In particular, Santa Barbara Vacation Rentals couldn’t have been more helpful. My husband and I chose the dog-friendly “West Beach Jewel,” a two-bedroom, two-bath remodeled condo one block from the beach and a dog park—and walking distance to the hipster Funk Zone, home of many innovative Santa Barbara restaurants. Set in a Mediterranean, red tiled-roof property, the condo had accents of chartreuse, my favorite color. The set-up includes a sizeable living room for lounging, a generous eat-in kitchen (fully-equipped with Miele appliances and a Viking range), contemporary design, and plenty of storage. Best of all, the condo featured a front-facing balcony, perfect for sipping a cocktail and with a peek-a-boo view of the beach. And did I mention parking, too?!! I spoke with Bob at Santa Barbara Vacation Rentals prior to our trip, just to make sure there would be a day between when the last guests left and we arrived—he helped make sure that happened.

    Places to Eat

    Santa Barbara, not surprisingly, has become something of a culinary destination, with innovative young chefs as well as longstanding restaurants of note. Here are some of my favorites:

    Our first night we decided to splurge and met some friends at the San Ysidro Ranch, made famous because that’s where JFK and Jackie honeymooned many years ago. The stylish Stonehouse restaurant, located in a 19th century citrus packing house, was serving outdoors and welcomed us with our dogs on the patio. Arriving at the sumptuous property, we were transported to the south of France given Stonehouse’s outdoor terrace, mature trees, and quaint atmosphere. Beginning with a perfect Negroni, we split starters of olives and radishes; a cold watermelon and tomato gazpacho with lump crab; and a wedge salad with crispy bacon and bleu cheese dressing. Moving to the entrées, I ordered a deliciously fresh maple-glazed salmon garnished with fennel in a light lemon beurre blanc sauce; and my husband had the classic Steak Diane (a throwback to the 60s), cooked medium rare and flambéed tableside. Insider’s tip: order the house rosé from local winery Margerum—it’s Provencal style and doesn’t break the bank. For dessert, what could be better than a house-made cherries jubilee, also flambéed tableside? Divine.

    The next day, we traveled to next-door Montecito, home of the rich and famous. I have to admit, we were looking for Oprah. We didn’t spot her—but we did have a simply lovely outdoor meal at Coast & Olive, located in the Hotel Montecito on the main drag in town. Upon seating, the restaurant delivers their house-made popcorn with just the right amount of spice—a perfect start while you’re perusing the California-style menu. My trout almondine with lemon caper brown butter was tender, flavorful, and big enough for two. My husband felt righteous by ordering the little gem chicken salad—light and tasty, served with avocado and a green goddess dressing. Coast and Olive also has an extensive wine list; we tried the Folded Hills rosé from the St. Ynez Valley nearby and it hit the spot.

    That night, we took the pups and met friends at the dog-friendly Hendry’s Beach—an easy 10-minute drive from our condo. A pre-dinner beach walk fueled our appetites to then sample the seafood offerings at the Boathouse. The Boathouse is a bit touristy, but if you order carefully, you’ll find some crowd pleasers. Our favorites were the fresh mussels in a cioppino sauce and the just-out-of-the-ocean California stone crabs (I didn’t realize California has native stone crabs!) with two kinds of sauces for dipping. And yes, Maude, their house-made Negroni (made with a local gin, distilled by the owner)—along with the spectacular view—makes you think you’ve arrived in Portofino.

    For lunch the next day, friends had recommended the intimate Margerum Wine Company, Tasting Room and Café on the brink of the Funk Zone. Our server, Ariel, couldn’t have been more welcoming, and it was re-assuring that he took everyone’s temperature prior to seating us with the dogs on the outdoor covered patio. This local winery has locations in Santa Barbara and nearby Buellton. The Santa Barbara venue is one block off State Street but feels a world away. Their Margerum Riviera Rosé (which we had sampled at Stonehouse) is so dry and light that we had to buy a case of it to be shipped back home. Munching on green chick-pea hummus and pizza with four cheeses, fresh tomatoes, pesto, and arugula (we added sopressatta salami)—it was the perfect way to while away a couple of hours in the Santa Barbara sunshine.

    Test Pilot

    As readers of this august column know, I’m something of a tiki buff. And believe it or not, Santa Barbara has one of the best tiki bars in the state, the aptly-named Test Pilot. All drinking these days in SB is outdoors and food purchases are part of the mix, too. We visited Test Pilot prior to dinner one night—again, it’s in the cool Funk Zone and offers many fun cocktails, including: a passionfruit mule (vodka), a Zombie (multiple rums, grapefruit, and clove), the signature Test Pilot drink (house blend rum, cloves, absinthe foam) and a Bahama Mama (rum, cold brew coffee, and pomegranate). But I couldn’t pass up the “Purple Mai Tai,” a classic mai tai made with purple butterfly pea extract that turns the drink a beautiful color. It’s as tasty as it looks. While you’re sipping your mai tais and pretending you’re on a beach in Hawaii, they’re, of course, playing 60s lounge music by Brazilian bossa nova artist Walter Wanderley.

    Caruso’s at the Rosewood Hotel (Miramar Beach) is worth a visit—just for the spectacular view. The California cuisine menu is terrific and the service is first-class—but there’s nothing quite like looking out at the beautiful expanse of beach in Montecito. Don’t miss their cacio e pepe, one of the best pastas around. Just bring along your pocketbook—it ain’t cheap!

    I’m saving the best for last. It’s on every culinary list and has been around seven years (since we last visited SB), but The Lark might be our absolute favorite. One of the first restaurants to pioneer and open in the Funk Zone, The Lark has set the standard from day one. Now with Covid, they’ve turned the entire parking lot into a beautiful outdoor dining experience. The Lark starts the meal with their house-made, seasoned popcorn (not sure why this is a thing in Santa Barbara, but I like it!); we then ordered the perfectly vine-ripened heirloom tomato salad with dill, parmesan, and vinaigrette. For our next course, we split the fig and goat cheese tartine (with lemon basil!), which melts in your mouth. For our main course, we had the most tender pomegranate-braised beef cheeks with yams and turnips, pistachios, and mint. The wine list steers toward California, but we ordered a light Caparsino Chianti, which paired well with the beef cheeks.

    Things to Do

    Besides the gorgeous beach, there’s a lot to do in SB (even with Covid), especially outdoors. Here’s a sampling:

    Santa Barbara Botanical Garden

    Set on 78 acres in the hills above Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden is a testament to all plants that are native to California. A living museum, the Garden utilizes collections-based research to preserve more than 1,000 types of native California plants in a knock-your-socks off setting (on a good day, you can even see the Channel Islands!). The Garden boasts a huge meadow, the historic Mission Dam (which served water to Santa Barbara’s beautiful Mission), and one of the southern-most groves of redwoods in the country. On top of it all, well-behaved dogs on leash are welcome.

    Santa Barbara Mission

    While the Mission is currently closed due to Covid, you can still explore the outdoor gardens and appreciate the mission-style architecture of this 234-year-old Mission, located at East Los Olivos Street and Laguna St in Santa Barbara.

    Wheel Fun Rentals

    What’s more fun than bicycling around town—either in a two-wheeler or a six-wheeler with your family? Wheel Fun Rentals is one block away from the beach and Stearns Wharf, in the heart of the Funk Zone. It’s the perfect starting point for rolling expeditions along Santa Barbara’s coastal bike path, along the boardwalk, past beautiful sandy beaches and all the way to the bird sanctuary.


    Created by a Polish opera singer and socialite—and touted as one of the world’s most important horticultural wonderlands—Lotusland is a must. Named one of the top 10 gardens by The Telegraph, its magical 37 acres include a Japanese garden, waterfalls, an aloe garden, a fern garden, a spectacular cactus forest, a tropical garden, and more. With Covid, you must make reservations and tours at this time are self-guided only (with knowledgeable docents positioned throughout the garden).

    State Street Promenade

    This is Santa Barbara’s main artery and where the action is, closed to vehicular traffic and spanning multiple blocks. You could almost imagine you’re in Barcelona on Las Ramblas. According to Visit Santa Barbara, “Santa Barbara has transformed its downtown area into a pedestrian mall, with restaurants, bars, and businesses expanding onto sidewalks and the main boulevard, infusing a sense of energy and vitality.” It’s also the perfect place to appreciate Santa Barbara’s quintessential and historic Mediterranean architecture.

    So, take it from the Gay Gourmet. Santa Barbara is worth the drive and an easy Covid getaway from San Francisco. And it’s a lot closer than St. Tropez.

    For More Information about Santa Barbara

    Visit Santa Barbara

    Santa Barbara Vacation Rentals

    Restaurants/Cocktail Bars

    Stonehouse Restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch

    Coast and Olive

    The Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach

    Margerum Wine Company

    Test Pilot

    Caruso’s at the Rosewood

    The Lark

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a PR executive. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF, on Twitter @david_landis, email him at: or visit him online at:

    Published on October 22, 2020