By Carla Waldemar
They call it the American Riviera, where frenzied Los Angelinos come to escape the rat race. Where the rich and famous head to kick back. And where the rest of us swarm to bask in the endless sun and surf aside platoons of palms, fruity fig trees, and brilliant blossoms festooning every possible surface.
Me? I’m here to channel my inner Julia Child. She lived in the neighborhood called Montecito, shopped at Saturday’s farmers market, and vowed that a certain taco stand was “the best restaurant on earth. She never stopped talking about it,” swears my guide on a fabulous, four-hour Eat This, Shoot That walking tour (as its title hints, not only do visitors sample food and drinks in special local finds, but also receive tips on how to best photograph these treats with your phone).
The neighborhood we’re tramping is called The Funk—named, we learn, for the smelly fish market that formerly occupied this once-seedy niche of town. Not anymore: It’s now the city’s trendy artists’ quarter, crammed with galleries, indie boutiques, wine tasting rooms and farm-to-fork cafes. No skyscrapers, no billboards, no neon, by law: instead, white stucco walls topped by red-tiled roofs, Spanish Mission-style, fronting streets named after Conquistadors.
Step aboard the State Street shuttle bus (25 cents)—or hike along its wide brick, palm-shaded sidewalks, past shopping ops galore (my favorite: a Japanese micro-Walmart called Mini So—like Hello Kitty for grown-ups) to the hands-down prettiest building in town.
A Foodie’s Dream
Saturday’s farmers market was Julia’s all-time fave: 140 vendors showcase of-course-it’s-organic everything, from stone fruit of every persuasion to cucumbers shaped like lemons; newborn turnips and infant cobs of corn; bouquets of lavender; mountains of avocados.
Speaking of avocados, the avo toast at Helena Bakery, in the Funk, is perhaps the sexiest dish in the state: half a ruddy boiled egg upon a chunky terrain of avocado atop a slice of house-baked toast, shimmering with a dash of olive oil and a sparkle of sea salt.
The Lark, around the corner, was voted “one of the 30 best restaurants” in the land, and that’s a modest understatement. The casual café shines with platters like my salad, heaped with baby yellow tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe and goat cheese. I followed up with suckling pig porchetta toast, then smoked quail in porcini butter.
Its neighbor, Loquita, is known for its tapas but not to miss is the seafood paella. The El Bulli olive, named for Spain’s foremost restaurant—an oval of liquid (How is this possible?) that explodes in your mouth.
Blackbird, in the Hotel California, whose chef came from California’s famed French Laundry, got me at dessert: strawberries with hay semifreddo and nettle ice cream, or rhubarb with meringue and wild-flower granite (fine entrees, too). At Hotel Indigo, its neighbor, Mezcal is the spirit of choice in its Mexican kitchen; linger to ogle the forward art on loan from a local museum.
The Urban Wine Trail sports 25 tasting rooms, virtually all within strolling distance (eight within 250 steps in the Funk alone). Au Bon Climat and Santa Barbara Winery stand out as tops in the region’s heavy hitters, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
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