Looking for the best Santa Barbara restaurant or bar for your weekend getaways? From Julia Child-recommended tacos to a fancy French bistro, the city has lots to offer—including its very own craft brewery. Authentic, tasty (and cheap) Mexican food is around every corner, which makes it hard not to eat sopes and burritos for every meal—but it's worth branching out for treats like alfresco fine dining and old-school deli sandwiches. Whether you want brunch, picnic fare or a romantic dinner, read on to see our top picks for where to eat and drink in Santa Barbara.
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Not to be confused with Chef Thomas Keller's Bouchon bistros, this quintessential Wine Country dining destination melds California and French cuisines with locally endorsed results. Many of the gourmet items on the seasonal menu are matched with a suggested pairing from the restaurant's extensive local wine list. If it's nice out, opt for a table on the inviting year-round garden patio. And if you find yourself in Santa Barbara on a Tuesday evening, accompany Chef Greg Murphy to the city's farmers market for an informative "foodie stroll" and dinner.
Avoid racking up a huge trip bill and drop by this no-frills taco joint right off the 101 for lunch. Expect a line (it moves quickly) at pretty much any time you visit—this is one of the more legit taco spots in town, as evidenced by the mostly Spanish-speaking clientele. Find tasty, cheap tacos from the traditional (asada and pork) to the weird-but-even-more-traditional (steamed beef head, lip, tongue, eye), as well as a veggie option. Be adventurous and order the beef cheek taco, then add all the fixings at the extensive fresh salsa bar. Take note: This spot is cash-only.
This unpretentious, industrial warehouse primarily functions as a brewery for handcrafted, unique American ales, which are brewed in small batches using local ingredients. On Thursday, Friday and Saturdays, however, it opens the doors of its tasting room and serves pints and growlers to beer lovers—a perfect option for weekend travelers. Squeeze in among the friendly crowd and try the generous five-beer tasting consisting of unique and sometimes limited-edition options.
This taco joint was put on the map by Julia Child, which has to be the most glowing endorsement a taqueria can receive. Located right by the beach, the otherwise unassuming spot would only stand out for its bright turquoise trim if not for the tacos that tourists often make pilgrimages to taste. Though there's a share who deem it overrated, most flock to the spot for its fresh tortillas made throughout the day. Brave the long line and order the rajas tacos (sautéed strips of pasilla chilies, onions, herbs and melted cheese) for a delicious alternative to meat, or the chilaquiles, and wash it down with the refreshing agua fresca de sandia (sweetened watermelon juice). Note that La Super is closed on Wednesdays.
Don't miss this hole-in-the-wall local favorite if traveling through Montecito. Located all the way up San Ysidro Road, the shop is known for its wide selection of cheeses and local wines, but most of its longtime customers are here for the sandwiches. Mounds of meat sliced to order are piled high on your choice of delicious sandwich breads. Just add some cheese, mustard or mayo; they don't get any more simple—or better—than this. The service here is friendly and quick, so don't be deterred by the long lines at lunchtime. Plus, you can't beat the prices.
Reenergize with a sweet treat at this contemporary French bakery Downtown (there's also an uptown location at 3315 State St). The croissants—widely deemed the best in town—are a must. Line up and take some to-go or sit down and indulge with a cappucino paired with one of Chef Renaud Gonthier's creations. He employs his French pastry skills to offer a dazzling display of éclairs, mille feuilles, small pies, macarons, cookies and homemade chocolates, not to mention his whimsically beautiful custom-made cakes. Traditional French breakfast items are served until 11am and salads and sandwiches for lunch are available as well.
Although its set-up is similar to La Super-Rica, Downtown's Romanti differentiates itself by its Oaxacan style and famous mole sauce, which they put on top of asada burritos, chips, chicken and enchiladas. The spot applies its down-to-earth home cooking to a handful of breakfast dishes as well. Order the celebrated horchata with your huge-portioned meal and dine outside on the patio or catch up on telenovelas in the small indoor dining room.
For a taste of local nightlife that's a bit more refined than the college scene, head to the Merc in nearby Goleta. Tucked in a strip mall next to an auto body shop and looking more like a blank storefront than a bar, the spot is the definition of a hidden gem. Find a wide selection of wine and beers on tap, from IPAs to Belgian brews, and a laid-back atmosphere perfect for conversation with friends or a date. Settle in on one of the leather couches and enjoy the free bowls of popcorn served with drinks. Special events like live music shows from local bands, free pool nights or L'Eighties Nights (with drink specials for girls and plenty of '80s attire) add to the lounge's quirky charm.
For a taste of the familiar, stop by Chef David Lentz' trendy seafood restaurant—other outposts are in Hollywood and Santa Monica. Santa Barbara's Hungry Cat features the same inviting modern lines, minimalist booths and stainless steel countertops. There’s no shortage of seafood options, with a raw bar of goodies on the half shell and in the shell—better yet, opt for the eponymous seafood tower ($145)—lobster and clam rolls, several grades of caviar, plus plenty of composed plates of land and sea. Depending on the season, kabocha squash soup might join Nantucket bay scallops with sage brown butter or whole, grilled striped bass ($28) dressed in carrot purée, spigarello, hazelnuts, blood orange and chermoula. Of course, another way to enjoy the fruits of the sea is an oyster with an Old Bay–rimmed vodka chaser, as in the Maryland Mary ($12), a tasty (and eye-opening) weekend cocktail. If you visit in the summertime, look out for the seasonal crab fest.
The patio alone is reason enough to eat at this old-school family-run establishment. With one of the best outdoor eating areas in town, La Playa Azul has been serving authentic Mexican cuisine to its loyal local customers for decades. Expect fresh and consistently well prepared food at reasonable prices. Try the Tacos de Camerones (grilled shrimp tacos) or the Pescado in Salsa Verde (halibut in tomatillo sauce) along with any of their delicious signature flower-flavored margaritas, and you'll wish you were a local, too.