Fine restaurants and excellent hospitality in Santa Barbara make it a perfect getaway

garden2By Anna Wilding
SANTA BARBARA (Herald de Paris) —
  Santa Barbara is nestled on a south-facing section of coastline between the Santa Ynez Mountains and Pacific Ocean. The city, designated one of the most expensive areas to live in the United States, is a mere and very pleasurable 90 minute drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles, and through Malibu. The 101 from the Valley also provides another driving option.

The city is a popular spot for Los Angelenos looking for a quick or romantic getaway. The Santa Barbara climate, designated as Mediterranean, is often described as, “America’s Riviera.”  Though its lashings of green foliage and budding flowers, aka California wildflowers, are reminiscent of a combination of Hawaii and the Mediterranean, it is though truly Californian in outlook and it joins many lovely spots that can be found all along the Pacific Coast Highway, as you head up north.

I was last in Santa Barbara when a film that I acted in in New York, was selected for Santa Barbara Film Festival the very same year another film of mine, that I directed and acted in, was playing out of competition at Sundance,  Buddha Wild. I recall I went from the snowy winter fields of Utah to the radiant California sunshine in a matter of hours. I love Santa Barbara, the town, its quiet serene streets, its historic Spanish Mediterranean architecture, its friendly and unassuming people, and its civilized earthy intelligence. Set amongst a population of palm and other sub tropical trees that sway in gentle ocean breezes, Santa Barbara is one of the coastlines most picturesque spots.


Right from the get-go, it became obvious that it was far better to stay in one of the charming inns in Santa Barbara than either of the two 5-star resorts. We selected the Cheshire Cat Inn. Nestled over two quiet city streets the Inn ‘provided unparalleled personalized customer service, spacious rooms and incredible food . The Inn’s large rooms, large beds, and its free amenities, such as free computer wife and printing, free movies, and complimentary evening wine soirees, would embarrass any five-star resort in the area. Clearly, looking at the amount and diversity of guests staying on a known “quiet’ weekend after Thanksgiving, many were already “in the know” about this Santa Barbara secret.

My companion had not been to Santa Barbara before and like many who visit did not want to leave. Santa Barbara is far more than a resort town. The area is home to some of the wealthiest families and personalities in the United States, and is also a university town, home to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Oprah Winfrey lives just up the road in Montecieto; Ted Danson, just down the road in Ojai. Culturally, the city offers a smorgasbord of events from visiting artists, through to dance troupes and live music shows from around the world. The town’s annual Santa Barbara Film Festival shimmers for its glitz and glamor on the international festival circuit and its convenience to Los Angeles.


We arrived around lunchtime on a rainy Saturday, and found a home for lunch at Olio e Limone and Olio Pizzeria, owned by husband and wife team Elaine and Alberto Morello. We had a choice.

Olio Limone, the fine dining restaurant, was empty. Although Olio e Limone does buzz to life every evening, its core lunch business is during the week. Next door, the sister restaurant Olio Pizzeria was full of life, vitality and a roaring pizza oven to go with it. We chose the Pizzeria. Perfect. Olio Pizzeria is known for its cured meats, cheeses and pizzas. This was going to be a tad difficult for the me as semi-vegetarian.  However, I am use to such challenges. First thing I noticed was the ambiance and friendly staff. With its stone and medieval style warmth and a roaring pizza oven it had a comfortable Mediterranean revival feel to it.  A whiff of Tuscany. We started off with a high quality trio of olives and Caprino Al Tartufo – a mild goat cheese with honey and black truffles. The olives were fresh, ripe and full of succulent flavor. I was in rapture over the Caprino Al Tartufo – golden liquid honey tinted with fresh truffles dish that accompanied goat cheese and bread, and it was all I could do to stop taking the truffled honey home. I did settle, however, for a take home bottle of the Olio brand signature red pepper olive oil. I use it daily.

I ordered some greens, however these were not particularly memorable and soon forgotten on arrival of the pièce de résistance, which did in fact blow everything else out of the water, if that was even possible after the truffled honey.

The Olio Pizzeria black truffle and mushroom pizza is the best pizza best I have ever had. This is truly a destination pizza. The crust, so thin, the white cheese, so delicate, and lashings and lashing of black truffle with mounds of mushrooms. Two days later and I am craving this pizza.

We completed with an Italian classic, Panna Cotta Alla Nociola, a chocolate hazelnut Panna Cotta.

Rolling out the door, literally, we headed for Cheshire Cat Inn. It was now about 3pm and we were so full from lunch we deserved a rest.

The Cheshire Cat Inn is a fairly standard converted old elegant colonial Victorian and neighboring cottages. Once settling into our large room, called Tweedledum, that was bigger than any New York apartment, we had a quick rest before rolling towards the comfortable living room. A fire was blazing and guests were gathering. It was in its service that the Cheshire Inn stands apart.

A delicious odor wafted out of the kitchen and soon we were presented with freshly baked cheese crackers and a cool Chardonnay. The service and order of affairs at the Inn is exemplary and great value. We even heard we would have fresh fudge brownie on our arrival back later that evening.

I received an invitation to the Mission for its candlelight tour and we left the soiree early for the Mission. Santa Barbara was certainly turning it on for us, and our visit was getting more magical and lovely by the minute.

Once at the Old Mission, which is also known for its fabulous view of the Pacific Ocean during daytime, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that their archives were open – and that this indeed was a very rare occurrence. The archive is home to a unique collection related to the missions of California, California history, Franciscan history, and the the history of the native people of the South West until approximately 1850.

As we made our way down the hallowed stone walls of the Franciscan monastery, passing the gentle heart-warming Christmas decorations, we entered the archive and found one of the oldest mission prayer books in the USA. What a treat. We spent a good hour perusing documents and drawings that covered everything from the mission history, religion, through to architecture.

We weren’t able to see the stunning the gardens as it was evening. We were then invited to the refreshment room where tables were spread, thanks to the local community, with a host of Christmas goodies and treats to have with hot apple cider. Having now, by virtue of excellent hospitality in Santa Barbara, eaten virtually non-stop since our arrival a few short hours ago, it was was all we could do to nibble more refreshments before dinner, but we did.

The Santa Barbara Mission was established on the Feast of Saint Barbara, December 4, 1786. The Mission continues to be the chief cultural and historic landmark in the city of Santa Barbara. Franciscan Friars still live at the Mission. The Mission also serves as a retreat center with guest rooms, conference rooms, and a fully equipped commercial kitchen and dining room. The church itself is beautiful, with a large and active parish. The Mission’s commanding position and grand proportions, graceful lines and soft, blending colors all reinforce her title, “Queen of the Missions.” There are 21 Missions in the United States.

At 7pm we went to the main church and listened to the choir and orchestra. The special musical works, were fantastic; the choir beautiful. We left early for our next venue.


We then went down to the newest restaurant in town on picturesque Cabrillo Boulevard at the waterfront, the welcoming Toma. Founded by Victoria and Tom Dolan, Toma appears to be a lesson in creativity. Toma’s romantically warm yellow walls and large paintings, were the perfect backdrop to an enticing menu that was proud in its use of local ingredients and fresh farm produce. In fact not only was Toma proud of it’s ingredients it boldly showcased them in a completely creative yet subtle way.

The first standout dish was the Spinach Gnocchi. The Spinach gnocchi were green, wholesome and bursting like full flower buds, against a backdrop of tender wild mushrooms that covered one end of the plate to the other. These delicatables were bound by sprinkling of white beans and a warm fragrant sauce made of black truffle butter that was just as good on its own as with the gnocchi.

The ahi tuna ceviche, made with ginger, sesame, soy, and chives were artfully presented upright in a crisp sesame cone. Not the strongest and most creative dish on the menu but definitely fun. The steamed olive oil cake with notes of citrus and almond, was notable for its earthy goodness, originality, incredible texture and sublime taste. It is one of the best deserts I have had and I urge you to order this wonderful addition to the Toma menu. Toma is on the waterfront, covered in ivy, has a warmly lit interior, perfect sound ambiance and is, not surprisingly, booked months in advance at peak times. It has some of the freshest and most creative food in Santa Barbara and a must on any visit.

Crawling back to the Cheshire Inn to fresh brownies, we were in love with this town.

The next morning we were greeted to hot baked apples and cinnamon complete with cloves, and freshly made frittata. By now it was pretty obvious that not even a five-star hotel would have delivered this level of service and breakfast without extraordinary cost.

Afterwards we sauntered along the jetty, amongst the large gulls and pelicans, recounting our enjoyable visit to the Natural History Museum and market the day before. A stroll through the beachside arts market, then Santa Barbara Main Street and it was time for lunch.


We were keen to try Cielito’s, a contemporary Mexican and Latin American fusion restaurant, headed by Chef Ramon Velazquez. Cielito’s is a short pleasant stroll through located in one of the main historic arcades on Main Street. Walking in at lunchtime, Cielito’s can seem rather cavernous at first, clearly designed for night time affairs, but on closer glance it lent itself to lunch very well.

It was in daylight you could see the clear sumptuous details that had gone into the design and architecture of this restored space. The old wooden ceiling on the mezzanine was reclaimed from an old barn in Monterrey, and aligns with a stunningly restored stamped tin ceiling, in the main room. From the majestic oak 1880’s historic bar from Chicago, to vintage airline armchairs, through to the warm golden hue of the stained glass from a Lutheran church is St Louis, to ample counter tops and an eye catching copper raw food bar, Cielito’s on inspection was a feast for the inquisitive and trained eye , there was no question about it. The treasures were originally bought to Santa Barbara by Hugh Peterson, and were found in the basement and given new life at Cielito’s. Now it was up to the food to impress.

Impressed it did.

We started with a sublime Aqua Fresca – cucumber and pineapple juice. We then proceeded into a culinary extravaganza that was a delight to the taste buds and an adventure of the senses. Each dish was presented with flair and an uncommon finesse not usually found in your average Mexican restaurant. However what was incredible was that each dish completely retained its authenticity. Clearly this chef is a find and one to watch for. The dishes were iconic.

We sampled many dishes. Each dish was unique and completely different in taste from the previous dish. I will focus on what I had. Pomegranate guacamole with freshly made warm taco chips. A plus.

We sampled some Antojitos before the main tacos- Antojitos means small cravings.

Firstly tamales. I love tamales, and the Tamales Oaxaquenos – chicken tamales with mole negro sauce – were full of flavor that was only tempered by just the right mount of Mole negro – refined,restrained and the perfect launch to the rest of the meal. While my companion launched on his various excellent pork and beef dishes, such as Sopesitos de Costilla and Pork Belly Quesadilla, I moved onto an array of impressive Vegetarian and Semi Vegetarian Tacos. Tacos de Calabacitas was a sturdy and hearty mix of zucchini, poblano rojas, roasted corn succotash,salsa verde cream, and queso freso. Everything was chopped and assembled so finely that the flavors oozed out while losing nothing of its authentic hearty Mexican feel. A steady succession of grilled fish tacos followed, equally refined and delicate while hearty and fulsome. There was no room for more of course but I had ordered a salad. I was still on the lookout for a great salad and finally I found it. One of the best salads I have eaten anywhere this year – the Ensalda Quinoa. Yes, I finally found an incredible fresh and unique salad this year, and it hasn’t been easy. The undertones of mint burst through in a refreshing way balancing out the red quinoa, seasonal fruit, jicama, red onion, arugula and smoked chile vinaigrette.

Cielito’s has a secret in hiding, a star Chef . While you are enjoying your food and drinks, it is worth taking a pause and looking closely at what you are eating, as some dishes are truly exceptional and unique in the world of food, and certainly show the new heights reached and new found sophistication in the world of Mexican and Latin American cuisine.

To wrap up lunch, we had the golden hued Vanilla Bean Flan. A delicately decadent and sublime interpretation of vanilla bean custard with a rich caramel sauce which we have also named one of the best deserts for 2013.

We left Santa Barbara with new discoveries and knowing that if we ever wanted to return or recommend it to friends we can do so wholeheartedly.

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Jack Greenwald December 17, 2013

Thanks for the great article and we are glad that you enjoyed your visit to the American Riviera

Richard August 1, 2014

Great article…like reading about Santa Barbara , not just Montecito .El Encanto is a great resort in SB.

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