I don’t know about you, but I can never stay away from Santa Barbara for very long. Her red-tile roofs, lapping waves, stately churches, colonial mystique and relative proximity provide a nice break from L.A.’s hustle and bustle.
My infatuation and familiarity with Santa Barbara have also helped me identify some affordable lodgings, eateries and activities that make it possible to come back again and again.
The sea is free. Stroll Cabrillo Boulevard along the waterfront, which features an all-day Arts & Crafts Show every Sunday. Sooner or later, you’ll bump into Stearns Wharf (www.Stearnswharf.org), one of California’s oldest working wharves, where fishermen cast their lines and tourists wait in line for their catches. For more walking adventures, follow the Red Tile Walking Tour of downtown Santa Barbara. It covers 12 blocks, includes 17 stops and introduces you to 22 historic and architecturally significant buildings. Obtain a brochure by visiting www.santabarbaraca.com/includes/media/doc/Distinctive-Destination-Brochure.pdf.
If you have any juice left, catch a great view of the city from the clock tower at Santa Barbara County courthouse. Explore it on your own or take the free docent tour at 2 p.m. daily. The courthouse is located at 1100 Anacapa St. For more information, call (805) 882-4520.
The Santa Barbara mission, at 2201 Laguna St., is another of the city’s jewels. Self-guided tours, $1-$5.
For breakfast, try the Mesa Café, a Santa Barbara institution located at 1972 Cliff Drive (805), 966-5303. It may be in a strip mall, but the breakfasts, table service and wait staff are wonderful. It’s been voted No. 1 by the local media several years in a row.
Since you’re already in the neighborhood, roll down the hill to The Boathouse at Hendry’s at the Beach. Indulge in vanilla bean French toast browned to perfection and topped with powdered sugar and maple syrup or enjoy two poached eggs over Dungeness crab cakes on a bed of roasted potatoes, topped with chipotle Hollandaise, pico de gallo and avocado, jog along the dog-friendly beach. This is Santa Barbara cool at its best. There’s really no better way to start the day. Hendry’s is located at 2981 Cliff Drive, (805) 898-2628. Once you’ve eaten here, you’ll feel like a Santa Barbara insider.
For lunch, try a sandwich from Panino at 834 Santa Barbara St., (805) 936-34700 or 1014 Coast Village Road, Montecito, (805) 565-0137. Take your pick from 30 selections such as English Stilton with Asian pear, goat cheese with roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, or roast turkey with Genoa salami combo.
The Enterprise Fish Co. is another solid lunch alternative. If you want to go light, try one of its mesquite wood- grilled artichokes. Perfectly seasoned, it will keep your fingers and lips busy while you take in your table mates’ conversation. In winter, also try the Boston clam chowder. This thick and hearty soup, filled with clams, will warm your bones. Although a little difficult to find, at 225 State Street (805) 962-3313, the Enterprise is definitely worth seeking out.
For happy hour, a relative new up-and-comer is the Arch Rock Fish Bridge, which takes its name from the Arch Rock at Anacapa, the smallest of the Channel Islands, off of Santa Barbara’s coast. But there is nothing small about the taste at this upscale, contemporary watering and feasting hole at 608 Anacapa Street, (805) 845-2800. All the appetizers are perfection, and with the house wine running only $3 a glass, I was one giddy happy-hour customer. The spicy tuna & salmon sushi roll was divine as were the fish tacos. Maybe the best surprise was the bundle of dreamy, perfectly seasoned tater tots that landed on my plate. I couldn’t get enough of them. With the happy hour this good, I can only imagine how great dinner will be on my next visit.
For dinner, Albert Baltieri’s Presto Pasta, at 827 E. Montecito St.; (805) 568-1678, is inexpensive but imaginative. Pick your favorite pasta, sauce and extras (i.e., meatballs, vegetables, chicken) and you’ll get garlic bread, a large salad and infinite beverage refills for under $10.
The Rose Café, at 1816 Cliff Drive; (805) 965-5513, rules if you want Mexican food. It’s been voted Santa Barbara’s best countless times. Free chips, too, so what’s not to like?
One more dinner place I’ll dare to mention is Aloldi’s Café at the corner of Cota and Olive Streets. It’s strictly old school Italian. If you’ve ever been to the Hill in St. Louis, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The stone-cutting founder fashioned the place of quarried sandstone rock. The handed-down recipes might be more ancient than the rocks. Again, Arnoldi’s isn’t elegant or nouvelle like Arch Rock, but it gives off incredibly warm, cozy vibes. As soon as you walk through the front door, you feel like a neighborhood regular. You can belly up to the bar, order a drink and catch up on the scores of all the games or meander out back and play some bocce ball. I tried the calamari, pizza and chicken parmesan. Red sauce was flowing everywhere, maybe a little too much for my taste, but it wouldn’t feel like home with mama yelling from the kitchen, “Mangia, mangia, mangia.” At 600 Olive St, Arnoldi’s is located blocks from the State Street tourist traps, which only adds to the restaurant’s appeal.
For hotels around $100, try Agave Inn (3222 State St., 805.687.6009), Blue Sands Motel (421 Milpas St.; 805.965.1624), Cabrillo Inn at the Beach (931 E. Cabrillo Blvd., 800.648.6708), Presidio Motel (1620 State St.; 805.1963-1355), or The Sandman Inn (3714 State St.; 805.687.2468). These recommendations range from hipster vibe to classic, so get on the phone or the net to learn more and plan your stay.