“Stick with what you know,” Michael Towbes admonished me over a weekday lunch at Ca’ Dario. A simple statement, one that reflected not only his considerable business dealings, but his lunch choices as well. True to his own advice, Towbes stuck with what he knows, and he knows Ca’ Dario well. The staff knows him well, too, greeting him sincerely. He ordered one of his standard dishes, the Lattughette con Gorgonzola e Noci, which is a fancy way of saying a mixed green salad with apple, walnut, raisin, and crumbled blue cheese. I went with Michael’s recommendation of the rigatoni.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Towbes attended Princeton and MIT, studying structural engineering before enlisting in the Navy for a three-year tour of duty with the Civil Engineering Corps. His father, originally from Russia, “possessed a law degree, though he never practiced law.” Instead Towbes’s father got into real estate, acquiring a few apartment buildings. “He’d pay off the mortgage and then go fishing,” Towbes recalled. “He didn’t quite have the drive that I have.”
But something clicked for Michael and he caught the developer bug. He would have stayed in D.C. developing properties, were it not for a woman. “I married a California girl,” he said of his first wife, Gail. Hence, Michael ended up on the Central Coast, where he became extraordinarily successful not only developing residential and commercial properties, but also forming Montecito Bank & Trust, which holds nearly $600 million in assets. He insists he’s not a banker, but “just a very experienced borrower.”
During his nearly 45 years as a developer, he’s built more than 5,500 residential units, an impressive amount of homes. But after Gail’s passing, he found a new energy in philanthropy. In 2003 he made a bold move. He gathered 100 local nonprofits together in one room to give away $1 million between them, and has been doing it ever since.
But Towbes is never all business. He values good food and enjoys talking wine. “I’m a modest wine drinker,” he said. “Anne [his new wife] and I will usually have one glass each night with dinner.” He strongly supports the local restaurants and wineries and said, “I’ve been drinking the wines long enough that I have a reasonably good knowledge of them.” He also subscribes to several wine magazines to learn more about the industry. During his wedding last year at the Bacara he served his guests mainly Santa Barbara wines.
“I stay close to home,” he said. “When I go to New York or Washington, I search the wine list for California wine.” His favorite California wines? “I don’t think you can find better pinot noir than Santa Barbara, but if I’m drinking zinfandel, it will be from Napa or Sonoma.” Though Towbes doesn’t frequent many Santa Barbara tasting rooms, he did attend this year’s Vintners’ Festival to check out the goods from the nearly 80 wineries in the county.
With all that wine, a man needs to eat. Towbes’s culinary tastes tend to be more adventurous than his wine choices. “I’m perfectly happy going to the Palace Café for a hamburger as I am going to Downey’s,” Towbes said. “And I enjoy both. I also love short ribs and a good steak now and then. Actually, I have pretty broad tastes.”
His niece — Amy Sweeney, who owns and operates Ammo restaurant in Hollywood — told me, “I’ve eaten with him many times and I know he and Anne appreciate fine food.”
In spite of the occasional red meat indulgence, fish is a staple within his diet because he’s “become more health conscious.” Halibut is his favorite because of its versatility. And indeed his choice of a simple salad during lunch with a small amount of bread, dipped in olive oil, shows that he doesn’t intend on filling up on useless carbs. “Look, I have a big investment in clothes and I don’t want to outgrow them,” he laughed. “I like to dress well. I love ties and I have a big collection of them.” Of course, when he attended Princeton, that was the dress code and he’s never deviated from it.
With all of the restaurants coming and going in town, does he see the fierce competition among them as being detrimental? “There’s a phenomenon in Santa Barbara, when a new restaurant opens, everyone goes there at least once,” Towbes said. “This can give a restaurateur a very biased view that they’ll be enormously successful based on their first weeks in business.”
He also understands the virtue of not only eating healthily, but acting that way. He plays tennis about three times a week. “Mostly doubles,” he said, which he prefers over singles. Perhaps it’s his age, or perhaps he understands that life is no longer about individual accomplishment, but collaboration. Perhaps that’s why he and his wife are so compatible. “Anne and I love doing things together, but we’re also comfortable doing things on our own.” It appears he’s met his match.
And when all is said and done, after all the meals and deals have been concluded, how best to be remembered? As a businessman? Developer? Owner of a successful bank? “When I cash in my chips I think I’d like to be remembered as a philanthropist. Being successful as a developer has allowed me the joy of giving.”