Santa Barbara - home of world-class beaches and the Funk Zone, and birthplace of JonBenet Ramsey (Katy Perry). You’re not going to find many places as strikingly beautiful or well-kept as this little beach town. And let’s not forget, this is wine country too. Some of the best wineries in America are located near Santa Barbara, and that means they all have tasting rooms in town.
But where do you go to soak up all that chardonnay, Diane?
From old-school taquerias to high-end French places and everything in between, Santa Barbara has a damn impressive restaurant scene. The next time you make the hour-and-a-half jaunt up the 101, here is everywhere you need to be eating in Santa Barbara.
Bibi Ji is one of the newest restaurants in Santa Barbara, but it’s already the most exciting. This modern Indian restaurant (by way of NYC and SF) is located right on State Street in a neon-light-covered space that works for anything from date night to a group dinner to solo drinks at the bar. We’d drive up from LA just for the uni with biryani rice, but as long as you’re here, you should go ahead and order the full $50 chef’s tasting menu - it gets you eight of the best dishes on the menu, including an entire curry sampler platter and two different desserts.
Located inside the new Hotel Californian, Blackbird is easily the fanciest restaurant in the Funk Zone. The space has a heavy 1940s art deco aesthetic, but the large windows and outdoor patio keep things light and airy, so you don’t forget you’re a block away from the beach. The menu is a mix of things you see a lot in Santa Barbara (oysters, octopus, citrus on everything), and it’s all fantastic. If you’re in town for a special occasion, and want to throw down a bit, Blackbird should be at the top of your list.
Santa Barbara Shellfish Co. was founded on the pier in 1980 as a place for local fishermen to sell their freshest catches of the day. Slowly, they started taking the seafood being sold and cooking it into clam chowder, crab cakes, and lobster pasta until SB Shelling became the fully-fledged restaurant that it is today. Come lunchtime, this tiny place is a certifiable tourist magnet, but if you bypass their regular menu and go straight for the daily specials instead, you will be rewarded with the freshest seafood in Santa Barbara. We wish we could eat their uni-topped scallops every afternoon for the rest of our lives.
It’s easy to assume that Santa Barbara would have great Mexican places or fancy seafood restaurants for pinot-worshipping retirees. But a massive, modern restaurant in a former fish market that wouldn’t look out of place in LA’s Arts District? Not so much. Smack in the heart of the Funk Zone, The Lark is the pride and joy of Santa Barbara. If this restaurant was in LA, it’d be one of the hardest reservations in town. But it’s here, in Santa Barbara, and still one of the hardest reservations in town. Plan ahead.
Thanks to Julia Child proclaiming to America that this was her favorite restaurant, La Super-Rica isn’t just one of the most popular spots in Santa Barbara. It’s one of the most popular spots on the entire California coastline. While every road-tripping college kid and brochure tourist is waiting in line with you, we’ll tell you right now, you’re going to want to wait it out for their tacos, chicken suizas, and gorditas. This order-at-the-window Mexican spot is a must-visit for anyone in SB. Order the Especial, or you’re dead to us.
Having absolutely nothing to do with the super-fancy and recently-closed restaurant in Beverly Hills, this Bouchon is a super-fancy and very-much-open restaurant in Santa Barbara. This French place serves one of the finest meals you can have in this town. It’s expensive and you’ll definitely need a reservation, but if you’re in Santa Barbara on a romantic trip of any kind, Bouchon’s meat-heavy menu and French farmhouse interior are exactly what you want.
Metropolous has been around for about a decade now, but the crowds have seemingly only gotten longer. Why? Because this joint knows how to do lunch better than anybody. The Greek-ish market/deli is family-run and home to a gyro sandwich that will shake you to your core (as well as a giant menu of other sandwiches, salads, and baked things you’ll put in your bag for later). Just be sure to get there early because they stop serving at 4pm.
This is our completely made-up term for the group of three connected and very delicious concepts - Olio Pizzeria, Olio Crudo Bar, and the more full-scale restaurant Olio e Limone. Olio is a Santa Barbara staple and you frankly can’t go wrong with any of the spaces. Since they all share the same address, you can walk into each and choose whatever feels right for your situation. However, we will say that the squid ink calamari at Olio Pizzeria is easily the best calamari we’ve ever had.
Loquita is one of the newer places in Santa Barbara, but its position here is well-earned. And that’s because both the food and outdoor patio setting go toe-to-toe with the best in town. Sure, the price point at this modern tapas restaurant is higher than the more casual spots around the Funk Zone, but if you’re looking for an upscale dinner with great cocktails (that isn’t stuffy at all), Loquita is a place where we’ll always send you. The pulpo, the scallops with chorizo, and the churros are all must-orders.
If Super-Rica is the king of Santa Barbara’s Mexican food, Lilly’s is the queen. Located essentially under a freeway overpass, this extremely popular taqueria doesn’t clutter your vision with burritos or quesadillas - Lilly’s is all tacos, all the time. Their Abodaba (marinated pork) is a must-order, and while you may not have woken up thinking you’d eat beef lip tacos today, you absolutely should.
After an unsuccessful first run, The Santa Barbara Public Market is back and living its best life. And the stall you need to be running to is Corazon Cocina. The seafood-heavy Mexican food counter is fantastic, and an ideal spot to grab a low-key lunch in between wine tours. Order any of the seafood tostadas (the yellowtail and watermelon-covered Sal Del Mar is our go-to), and don’t skip out on the mole chicken taco. Lines do get long.
You’re staring at the glorious structure that is The Lark, and suddenly you notice something in the corner of the parking lot that resembles an upscale construction trailer. Welcome to Lucky Penny - The Lark’s casual, all-day spot that’s a very solid lunch option when you’re too wine-drunk to walk anywhere else. This order-at-the-counter spot serves mostly pizza, but the sandwiches are good too.
Located in the Santa Barbara equivalent of that terrifying “fishing village” in Marina Del Rey, Brophy Bros is an all-out tourist magnet. However, it’s a tourist magnet with good food and some of the best views in Santa Barbara. You’re on the water, so you’re here for seafood. More specifically, the clam chowder. Yes, it’s 82 degrees out, and no we don’t care. We just ordered two more cups.
If you’re a human, you’ve heard of McConnell’s and are probably eating some as you read this. It’s some of the best ice cream on the West Coast, and a Santa Barbara original. Though the McConnell’s ice cream empire is far-reaching these days, paying homage to its State St. store is a worthy pilgrimage for anyone who enjoys the good things in life.
On paper, owning a Mexican restaurant one block south of La Super-Rica might be a tough gig. But not if you’re Los Agaves. This casual spot has become one of the most popular places for traditional Mexican food in town. While other Mexican spots in town are famous for their tacos, Los Agaves is giving you all the enchiladas, chile rellenos, and queso fundido you can handle.
Located on a side street in the Funk Zone, Mony’s is another must-stop for anyone doing a tasting crawl through the neighborhood. Everything at this dime-sized taco spot is worth ordering, but our usual is the barbacoa combo or the chicken burrito. And whatever you do, get involved with the salsa situation. Particularly the pistachio salsa. Warning: weekend lines here get insane.
Barbareño calls itself Central Coast cuisine. We’re not sure exactly what that means, but it must have something to do with good versions of food everyone likes, because that’s exactly what’s going on here. The space is modern, with a front patio perfect for a date night that won’t empty your wallet. Get the tri-tip and whatever the homemade ice cream is that day.
This bright, modern restaurant downtown is serving the kind of Indonesian-fusion you might not expect to find in a town that believes burritos are meant to be eaten for all three meals of the day. Sama Sama is a tad pricey, but the food is damn good and unlike anything else in Santa Barbara. Put down that quesadilla and go grab a bowl of their jidori wings instead.
Anybody who’s spent more than a boozy Saturday in Santa Barbara knows about Los Agaves, a well-established Mexican restaurant. Santo Mezcal is their more upscale place serving modern Mexican food like massive plates of ceviche (get the halibut and ahi tuna), shrimp covered in creamy mezcal sauce, and an octopus in adobo dish you’ll think about late at night. Also important: the mezcal cocktails are very good.
Freebirds World Burrito
UCSB is a big part of Santa Barbara’s identity, but it’s important to note that it’s not actually in Santa Barbara. It’s in Isla Vista, a tiny enclave 15 minutes down the highway. And Freebirds is its most iconic eating spot. The 30-year-old burrito joint is a full-blown national chain these days, but we simply don’t care, and neither does the mob of stoned college kids waiting in line. The original Isla Vista location is required eating.
This tiny sushi spot right on State St. is serving quality raw fish at the high prices you would expect. But it’s good enough that you’ll want to eat here anyway. Arigato’s menu is pretty big, but you can get a mayo-covered specialty roll anywhere. Stick to the nigiri and sashimi sections. Also, ordering that jalapeno yellowtail over and over again until you’re full is a move we wholeheartedly approve of.
Norton's Pastrami & Deli
Every good food town needs an old-school pastrami place to brag about, and Santa Barbara has Norton’s - a tiny little dive a block off the main drag that’s built a following for cheap and delicious diner classics. We always go for the pastrami dip - the lovechild of a pastrami and a French dip sandwich. And yes, it’s as good as it sounds.
This little order-at-the-counter Mexican spot has some of our favorite sopes in the world. Perfectly crisp, yet perfectly doughy. They come in vegetable, chorizo, or chicken tinga. Or, just get all three for $8.
Most people come to the Funk Zone to white wine raft their way through the tasting rooms. But over at The Nook/Lama Dog Tap Room on Santa Barbara St., things take a hoppier turn. This take-out food window/beer hall is the best place to drink craft beer in Santa Barbara, with some pretty strong bar food as well. You order your food at Nook (get the short rib burger and lobster mac and cheese), then stroll over to the long communal tables at Lama Dog and proceed to drink your afternoon away with their 19 taps and over 300 different varieties of cans and bottles.
The Blue Owl
Being one of the few late-night spots in downtown SB, you might think The Blue Owl was only meant to be visited after a long night out at the bars. And you’d be wrong. This Thai-fusion restaurant serves food that tastes good no matter where you fall on the sobriety scale. The banh mi is great, and the Thai basil cheeseburger (late-night menu only) is everything we want at 1am.
There’s no lack of hyped Mexican joints in Santa Barbara, but El Zarape is definitely not one of them. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood far away from downtown’s aggressively-medicated Sur La Table crowd, El Zarape is packed with locals who know they’re eating some of the best tacos nobody knows about. We get the alambre - beef topped with bacon, vegetables, and cheese. Just make sure you swing by the salsa bar on the way out. That habanero one is no joke.