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Santa Barbara
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Yifan Ma

Escape from L.A. with this food-lover’s road trip to the Central Coast

From Los Angeles to Los Alamos, here’s where to dine along the coast

By Stephanie Breijo
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We’ve set out for a vacation without a bathing suit or enough pairs of socks, but one thing we never forget to pack is an appetite—especially on a road trip. There are drive-worthy eats in every direction from Los Angeles, but some of the best lie within three hours north of the city, and to get there you’ll need to travel up some of the most beautiful coastline in the world. (Tough life, right?)

Start heading north along the Pacific Coast Highway and—in about two and a half hours and with a slight turn inland—you’ll reach Los Alamos, a destination so stylish and beloved by Angelenos it’s now nicknamed “Little L.A.” The town is tiny but the vibes are big: Frontier-chic shops, tasting rooms and original Old West structures set the scene for a relaxed and hyper-local way of life. Produce gets sourced from nearby farms, and breezy, modern taprooms feature the best of the area’s world-class wine region.

As you travel up the coast you’ll pass Malibu, Ventura and Santa Barbara, with plenty of restaurants, wineries and bars to keep you well fed all the way there. Maybe remember to pack some stretchy pants before you head out.

Your L.A. to Los Alamos travel itinerary

1. Joules & Watts and Broad Street Oyster Co. in Malibu

No matter what time we head up the coast, we’re always partial to coffee. Fortunately there’s an excellent new espresso bar and micro-roastery in Malibu to fuel you for the drive: Joules & Watts pours single-origin drip and espresso in a corner of Malibu Village using organic and fair-trade beans, plus serves iced matchas, scoops of gelato from James Beard Award-winning chef Nancy Silverton, and bags of coffee beans to go.

Around the corner, L.A.’s best lobster rolls can be found at Broad Street Oyster Company, where massive, meaty lobster claws and tails rest in buttered brioche buns and can get topped with uni, caviar or both. Order a few along with some oysters and whatever they’ve got on special before you jump back on PCH.

2. Bettina in Montecito

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Don’t get us wrong—Los Angeles is home to some of the country’s best pizza. It’s just that Bettina is so special, so neighborly and so seasonal that we find outselves thinking about it even while surrounded by L.A.’s wealth of incredible pies and slices, so it’s always worth a stop.

The husband-and-wife team of Brendan Smith and Rachel Greenspan opened a cozy wood-fired pizzeria on the edge of Montecito and Santa Barbara that turns out gloriously blistered Neapolitan-style pies built around airy, flavorful, naturally leavened sourdough crusts. Toppings include hand-pulled mozzarella, house-made sausage, and a rainbow of herbs and vegetables sources right from the farmers market. You’re going to want a slice of olive oil cake, too—you know, for the drive.

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3. The Funk Zone in Santa Barbara

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This neighborhood is aptly named. It’s where you’ll find plenty of funky independent businesses, artist galleries and shops, and it’s also where fermentation thrives. Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is home to one of the largest concentrations of tasting rooms along the Central Coast, with breweries, wineries, bars and restaurants nestled right up against each other for easy walking. With enough time to sip and get acquainted with the area—or with a designated driver in tow—you can drink your way through most of the Urban Wine Trail here, plus duck into breweries, bakeries, restaurants and shops when you need a break from all that local wine.

We’re partial to the modern and tasteful Municipal Winemakers, which prioritizes sustainable, organic and biodynamic practices (and has another tasting room in Los Alamos), and if you drop by mixed-use warehouse Waterline you can check out multiple concepts at once, such as Topa Topa Brewing Co. and Lama Dog Tap Room.

Feeling peckish? Check out the patio-perfect and always buzzing The Lark for California cuisine; the Southeast Asian street-food–inspired curries, rice bowls and salads of Tyger Tyger; or, just a short walk from the Funk Zone, one of our favorite restaurants in Santa Barbara: Bibi Ji, a real party of an Indian food restaurant with a stellar natural wine program.

4. Cold Spring Tavern in Santa Barbara

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Veer off the highway and head for the hills to find the historic Cold Spring Tavern, a rustic gem trapped in time. Visiting the 1886-founded restaurant feels like stepping back into the Old West, and it should: Cold Spring Tavern is a former stagecoach stop, after all, and it’s wedged in the mountains between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, giving it plenty of privacy away from the areas’ more modern stops.

Today, slabs of steaks cook over a wood-fired grill—that tri-tip sandwich is a must—and chili, beer-battered onion rings, and plates full of apple cobbler are all the norm. There’s breakfast, too, which is often less busy than lunch; if you’re stopping on a weekend at any time of the day, try to make a reservation.

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5. Skyview in Los Alamos

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Follow Route 154 past Los Olivos and you’ll shortly reach your destination. Once you arrive in Los Alamos—passing that old-timey wooden sign welcoming you—head straight to the pool and one of the most stylized hotels in the area: the remodeled Skyview. The 1950s roadside motel has been restored to its mid-century modern glory, and while the architecture is decidedly old-school, this 33-room now-boutique hotel includes plenty of modern amenities (private patios, Linus bikes to cruise around, a heated pool, Western-haute room decor).

Its onsite restaurant, Norman, offers straightforward charcuterie boards, burgers and salads, and overlooks the Santa Ynez wine region—fitting for a restaurant sporting wines so local, some are even made from the hotel’s own vineyard. 

6. Bell’s in Los Alamos

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Bell’s has romance in spades, and technique in spades, and creativity in spades; the French-leaning restaurant is practically overflowing with all of it. The husband-and-wife team behind it—Gregory and Daisy Ryan—come from backgrounds in NYC fine dining, and the care and eye for detail you might expect is all there in dishes such as a flawless beef tartare and delicate crêpe cakes (both sweet and savory). The pair care deeply about local sourcing, not to mention keeping things Franch. It’s the rare kind of restaurant that’s chic and elegant while still fresh, youthful and inspired—a true old-meets-new draw that breathes life into Los Alamos and gives the former Old West town a culinary destination worth hours on the road. 

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7. Bob’s Well Bread Bakery in Los Alamos

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Bob’s Well Bread is so much more than simply a bakery, but you’d be a fool to leave the charming storefront—and all of Los Alamos—without armfuls of pastries and loaves to bring back home. Start your day with fresh bagels, English muffins, mushroom-stuffed croisants, strawberry danishes, pain au chocolat, pear tarts, you name it—and that’s just the bakery case.

Bob’s offers a full café menu, too, in case you’re in the mood to stick around for some eggs Benedict or a meatloaf sandwich. We wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to leave, and neither would owner Bob Oswaks—in fact, he built out two cottages in the back of his bakery, which you can even rent on Airbnb.

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