A Foodie’s Guide to Exploring Santa Barbara

A tempting serving of paella at Alcazar Tapas Bar.
A tempting serving of paella at Alcazar Tapas Bar. Photo courtesy of Alcazar Tapas Bar/Silas Fallstich
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For hikers, bikers, surfers, and paddlers passionate about food and drink, Santa Barbara has plenty to offer. From its mountains to its coastline, this Southern California city has its share of trip-worthy trails and waves, world-class wineries, breweries, and restaurants. When visiting, it can be tough to take it all in. You’ll never be able to hit everything, but if food is a priority for you (and who isn’t on that list?), here are some places to try on your Santa Barbara vacation.

Best Coffee

Handlebar Coffee Roasters

128 E Canon Perdido Street

An artisanal coffee shop in downtown Santa Barbara started by two former professional cyclists, Handlebar Coffee is a popular destination for outdoorsy foodies. Their beans, which are from Central and South America and Africa, are roasted on Mondays and Thursdays. The cafe menu includes Renaud’s Patisserie pastries and locally made bagels. A highlight is their mochas and hot chocolates, which use local Twenty-Four Blackbirds chocolate.

The French Press

1101 State Street

A local favorite, The French Press is a small, craft roaster and cafe on downtown Santa Barbara’s iconic State Street. It has speciality drinks such as the Shakerato (an iced espresso and simple syrup mixed in a martini shaker) and the Magic Bowl (chamomile tea steeped in milk with honey). Local’s tip: Order a buttermilk biscuit and jam with your coffee.

Best Brunch

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Scarlett Begonia

11 West Victoria St., #10

Is it possible for brunch to be simultaneously healthy and decadent? Scarlett Begonia gives it a good shot, with its farm-to-table, housemade organic fare. It’s in a small, cute hidden courtyard downtown, with outdoor seating available. The brunch menu changes seasonally, but you’re likely to find fresh juices, lemon ricotta pancakes, an array of biscuits, shrimp and grits, and the Yukon Gold cinnamon roll. It’s a great spot to enjoy the sunshine and good company on a weekend morning.

Bella Vista Restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort

1260 Channel Drive

Locals know the best upscale Sunday brunch in town is at the Four Seasons Resort. The $75 buffet includes local smoked salmon, caviar, a carving station, waffles, a short rib hash, a chocolate fondue and dessert station and more. Don’t miss the panoramic ocean and island views from the terrace. Think of it as an indulgent way to replenish your calories and cap off an outdoor adventure weekend.

Best Casual Thai Restaurant

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Your Place Thai

22 N Milpas Street

You’ll find eclectic Asian decor and a mix of locals, families, and surfers at this no-frills joint five blocks from the beach. The restaurant may be small, but the portions are big, and the menu is vegetarian-friendly. Highlights include the combination seafood soup (the best around), the shrimp or squid salad with spicy lime dressing, the spicy mint noodles (flat rice noodles with chili, garlic, and bamboo shoots) and the Panang curry (served in a light, sweet and spicy coconut milk broth). Local tip: Check out Your Place’s $8.95 weekday lunch menu.

Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar

38 West Victoria St., #109, in the Santa Barbara Public Market

Just off State Street, among the local, organic food purveyors in the Santa Barbara Public Market, you’ll find this Asian fusion gem. Empty Bowl is known for its hot bowls of noodle soup and curries, but equally good are the melt-in-your-mouth roasted duck buns. Standout dishes include the long tail boat noodle soup with filet mignon and vegetables. The wine, beer and sake menu is better than you’d expect at such a small restaurant. It’s a popular lunch spot for people-watching and clean, fresh food.

Best Sushi

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Arigato Sushi

1225 State Street

There’s a reason for the long line outside this State Street landmark—the artfully arranged dishes are incredible. Examples include the "Mrs. Ebilyn" pot stickers with shrimp, halibut, spicy aioli, and ponzu, and the award-winning Gold Shot, a sea urchin shooter with quail egg. The dress is casual, but the food is not. Arigato doesn’t take reservations, but you can list your name and number and window-shop downtown while you wait.

A-Ru Sushi

225 McMurray Road

Deep in the wine country, in a strip mall on the fringes of Santa Barbara County, you’ll find this small, busy restaurant full of surprises. First, the fish. It’s fresh from Los Angeles markets, where the Korean-born owner, Jina Bae, hand-picks the best cuts. Many of A-Ru’s customers are sashimi connoisseurs who drive from Santa Barbara and Paso Robles. The sashimi menu is constantly changing based on what’s best at the market. If you love fish, this is the place.

Best Burger

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The Paradise Cafe

702 Anacapa Street

You’re likely to find an old-timer local crowd at this classic Santa Barbara grill, housed in a historic 1930s bakery. Their signature Paradise burger is a ground beef patty grilled over Santa Maria live oak wood, served on an onion roll. It’s topped with Tillamook cheddar cheese, beefsteak tomato, pickles, and onion, and comes with fries. Staff suggests pairing the burger with a glass of Bordeaux wine. Local tip: Mondays are burger night, when you can get the Paradise burger for $8.95, a great deal for a great burger.


116 Santa Barbara Street

This trendy comfort food joint is in The Waterline, a communal space that also includes a wine tasting room (Fox Wines) and two tap rooms (Lama Dog and Topa Topa) in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone neighborhood. The order window is cut into a blue corrugated metal shipping container, and customers can enjoy a beer or wine from one of the other establishments while they wait. The NOOK burger is a black Angus beef patty (chuck and tenderloin) with bacon jam, tomato, pickle, swiss cheese, a house special sauce, and optional parmesan truffle fries. Add a fried egg on top for perfect, gooey goodness.

Originally written for Visit Santa Barbara.

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