Stay-cation takes on a whole different meaning when you live in a destination location as we do in California. Ever since our kids were babies, we maximized vacation time and finances by staying close to home and enjoying all of the things that other people travel here from around the world to enjoy. From setting up base camp in Oceanside at a campground on Coast Highway to renting a hotel room on the beach for a couple of weeks each summer, staying close to home was always a blast and a nice reprieve on the wallet.
With family in town that had not seen much of our great state beyond the San Diego/Tijuana area, we opted to head up the coast to cooler weather. While this is not necessarily a great secret, taking the Surfliner is an out of the ordinary way to enjoy coastal views, stay out of LA freeway traffic and relax a bit while enjoying a Bloody Mary, glass of wine or a good book. Taking only slightly longer than the drive (less than 5 hours from Oceanside to Santa Barbara) with pretty much zero stress level, this $60 ticket to Santa Barbara put us in town mid-afternoon with a nap under our belts at a great value. (For an extra $20, tickets can be upgraded to Business Class with guaranteed seating on the upper level of the train.)
When we first visited Santa Barbara a couple of years ago, the Funk Zone was barely even a thing. This year, it is the reason we chose this as our first stop and a two day warm up as we headed up the coast on this trip. Over the last couple of years The Funk Zone has burgeoned into a vibey, eclectic, two square block area full of artists, winemakers, brewers, distillers, chefs and like-minded consumers and patrons.
While there were only a couple of wineries represented on our last trip, the current Funk Zone map lists close to 15 – all within easy walking distance of State street, the train station and the beach, easily providing a days worth of tasting without the hassle of needing a designated driver, limo or bus to travel between locations.
An interesting note about why grapes and wine do so well and can be so varied in this area; Santa Barbara is home to the only transverse valley system in the Americas. Where most mountain ranges in coastal regions run parallel with the coast line, forcing the winds and climate to either climb over or be trapped along the coast, the mountains in the central coast area run perpendicular to the coast, allowing the climate and winds to funnel down the valley, warming as they traverse farther inland, thus creating tons of microclimates in a very short span.
Intermingled with the art galleries, wineries and small shops are cool new places to eat like this copper penny covered pizza shop in the heart of the Funk zone.
For our first dinner we chose The Lark. It has a menu chock full of local offerings from one of the most prolific agricultural regions in the world.
While I think it’s kind of hard to mess up a deviled egg, it’s equally as difficult to make one that is a knock your socks off experience. This one was. We enjoyed a great savory flavor throughout the mousse like yolk with a slight hint of pickled sweetness for balance.
On a good charcuterie board, lots of things come into play – the quality of the meat, the garnishes, the mustard, the spices, etc. This board was spectacular throughout — the cured meats, the house pickled vegetables, the perfectly toasted crostini that didn’t tear up the roofs of our mouths and the beautifully spiced grape mustard. Every bite on this board was a treat.
This was the Central Coast vegetable plate. With Romanesco, grilled spring onions, pickled ramps, crispy parmesan and an assortment of other greens, this may have been the best plate of the night. It was like a re-invented and deconstructed Ceasar salad. The base ingredients for the dressing were on the plate so that when all items were mixed together and the perfectly poached egg was invaded to let the yolk flow freely, it became the catalyst that released all the creamy goodness and aromatic flavor of the dish, including the paramount anchovy overtone of a Caesar dressing that lightly pecked at our taste buds without being too fishy or strong.
The scallops on this crudo dish were a cut above normal, having a melt in your mouth, creamy texture combined with the exact right amount of density without any rubberiness. We flicked the fruit away and devoured the scallops raw bar style.
Hangar steak, when done correctly, is a great cut of meat. A bit toothy and grainy as cuts of beef go, it also has the propensity to be overcooked, tough and stringy when executed poorly. Based on our experiences of the night, all at the table agreed that the opportunity of having a memorable hangar steak far outweighed the risks of having a bad one. I love it when a plan comes together! The steak had a great char and season while the fried onion rings looked like the one’s that come out of a can, but were from another galaxy completely. Find a way to can these and world peace could become a reality.
These Mascarpone cheese filled profiteroles were a great ending to a perfectly executed meal. Crispy, smooth, non -oily goodness cleared the palate and the soul.
Seafood lovers will appreciate that the farther north you head up the California coast, the better and more prevalent the seafood seems to get. After the monster dinner the night before, a Bloody Mary from Tupelo Junction Cafe with a fresh dungeness crab claw filled the bill nicely for breakfast.
For lunch, though, we got a bit more serious. After skipping breakfast, it’s fair to say we were a little crabby. I know. Give me a break, I’m on vacation.
The Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is located at the end of Stearns Wharf, exactly where you probably don’t want to eat in the middle of tourist season. However, this is the epitome of a local hole in the wall crab and oyster joint. Squeezed elbow tight at the skinny tables on the perimeter of the room, you’ll probably want to know what to do with a crab before you put your name on the list to be seated. Service is quick and friendly, but no nonsense. Read the menu, order and then tear it up when it’s served.
The local Rock crab was described to us as a little “gamey”. We ordered the 1.5 lb version and 3 lb version as well as a 2 1/2 lb local King crab. I don’t know what our server meant by gamey, but apparently around these parts it means great, juicy, tender, succulent pure essence of steamed crab, a little rounder and sweeter on the palate than a dungeness with about 50% more flavor.
With the crab and a couple of dozen local oysters in our gullet, we serious contemplated returning for dinner.
Instead we opted for the Finch and Fork, nestled in a Kimpton (maybe one of the best boutique hotel chains ever) and renowned for their cuisine in a town known for its great cuisine. Starters of warm marinated olives were fleshy and packed with light, citrus marinated olive flavor.
We finally found the spicy Shishito peppers after several outings of nothing but mild ones and they paired in gorgeous fashion with a creamy, sweet parsnip soup balanced with raw mustard seeds.
After four days of ridiculous eating, we continued to give ourselves a break with more vegetables. The sweet corn with queso fresco and roasted caramelized cauliflower reminded me of how easily I could consider becoming a vegetarian…if I didn’t like meat so much.
You know how sometimes you just want a good steak? Not to mention that we were heading into a travel/recovery/diet day. We had to pack on some protein to get us through. Anyways, steaks don’t get much better than this hearty, grilled ribeye accompanied by Cippolini onions, chimichurri and trumpet mushrooms.
An easy and enjoyable train ride anytime of the year, Santa Barbara and the Funk Zone are a great way to spend a day or two away from the SoCal hubbub in an artsy environment akin to Seattle or Portland, albeit on a smaller scale. Great food abounds as well as a laid back atmosphere with sophisticated service and plenty of opportunities to indulge, imbibe and imagine that life is every bit as good as you believe it can be. Cheers, my friends!