Now it’s official: the Benson family’s on its way to an empire. With shops in Solvang, Los Olivos, Montecito, and the ever-popular store across from Our Daily Bread on Santa Barbara Street, Carter Benson admits they have their eye on conquering Carpinteria and bigger cities to the south. Meanwhile, back home, Benson’s overjoyed at being picked by the readers two years in a row. “I don’t know what our secret is. I know people dig our honey mustard. They like our consistency; I know I hear about it if a vendor can’t get us our usual ingredients. But best of all, we’re locals who hire locals to serve locals. So I guess what we have to work hardest at is preserving that essence di Panino,” he said, smiling.
Finalist Italian/Greek Deli and Pizzeria
Restaurant for Dessert; Caesar Salad; Caterer
3987 State St., 967-6037; 901 E. Cabrillo Blvd. (Santa Barbara Inn), 963-0111
Owner Jill Brouillard laughed heartily when we suggested that Fresco’s in the Five Points shopping center is the moral equivalent of a chick flick. Look at the daily lunch crowd and you will see a preponderance of female diners. “All I can say is, thank god for that gorgonzola walnut salad,” she said. Fresco now has a full-service restaurant in the Santa Barbara Inn — former home of Michel Richard’s Citronelle — and Jill and her co-owner and husband, Mark Brouillard, are perhaps even happier with the cuisine they are creating there with Jason Banks, chef at Fresco at the Beach. They are grateful for their customers; all are welcome to taste the fresh joys of their sandwiches, main courses, and desserts. “We’re loving it,” said Jill of all the reader attention.
Finalists Restaurant for Dessert: Sojourner Café; Caesar Salad: Pascucci; Caterer: The Country Meat Market
Restaurant for Eating Alone
134 E. Canon Perdido St., 965-7922
Dining out can imply a variety of motivations, from simple nourishment attainment to complex social interactions like, “Thanks for being in my wedding” or “How can we end this terrible war between our crime families?” The Soj, as it is universally known, has long been more focused on the intake of vitamins, with its gourmet health food priced to be universally accessible. Maybe that, added to the warmth emanating from both staff and setting, makes the place a natural for winning this category, which it has for at least the past five years. Besides, solitude loves company, and the readers feel this is the best place in town we can be alone together.
Finalist Natural Café
5112 Hollister Ave., Goleta, 967-3775
“We’re everywhere,” explained owner Gino Stabile, as one way to analyze the perennial popularity of this funky-on-purpose BBQ restaurant out in Goleta’s netherworld between San Marcos High and Old Town. The eatery also does concessions at events like company picnics, sporting events, and Cousin Charlie’s 50th birthday bash at Tucker’s Grove. Paradoxically, according to Stabile, “A lot of people in Santa Barbara, where Woody’s started, don’t realize we have a great place out here.” And by the way, “we have a really good product. Our ribs and chicken are the best,” he said.
Finalist Cities Barbecue
Restaurant to Be Seen In; Martini; Happy Hour
625 Chapala St., 568-1876
It’s a little place, really, off the beaten path on Chapala, which is threatening to become a hip neighborhood. If it does, Chads (and the long-gone Somerset) paved the way. Chads began as a pioneer of American cuisine, and the food still balances well between comfortable and flashy; it isn’t a steakhouse, but it’s not quite a Wine Country New Nouvelle either. One unmistakable quality, however, is Chads’ friendly throngs, who overspill the place on Friday nights. The happy hour is legendarily wacky and the crowd young and professional; the martini is made from the Absolut finest alcohols. Put it together and it comprises the best hanging Chads this side of Florida.
Finalists Restaurant to Be Seen In: Lucky’s; Martini: Harry’s Plaza Café; Happy Hour: The Brew House
It’s all about family, according to Manager Alex Noormand, one of the owners of the Montecito Giovanni’s. His son runs the Carpinteria place and tutto la famiglia agrees to keep an eye on the freshness of the ingredients and the aged confidence kept in the old recipes. “Of course it’s the service that really makes us popular,” said Noormand. “We get nothing but compliments all the time. That’s what keeps us going.”
Finalist Rusty’s Pizza Parlors
Isla Vista Restaurant
879 Embarcadero del Norte, Isla Vista, 968-0123
In that forlorn student ghetto to the north, businesses come and (mostly) go. Among them, only one stands indifferent to the tides of change — and it houses a burrito bar that was built, believe it or not, on an idea from the student union cafeteria, which is also gone. Freebirds, with its funny typography suggesting a bad jam-band from the late 1980s, succeeds because it is made-to-order food — you pick the ingredients — served in a pile that commandingly settles any hunger urge. It’s good food for the kids, and if you don’t believe us, come by some weekend — try Halloween — and stand in line for the most delicious of the bellybombs I.V. ever threw.
Finalist Silvergreens Restaurant
8 E. Cota St., 963-5000
New Orleans cooking is the specialty, and now a second generation of S.B. twenty-somethings is firmly establishing itself here and reinforcing the restaurant’s role as a place of big celebration, from sexy anniversary to still-not-scary birthday. The food’s always been great. But the service, which has been perfected from a show-offy panache in the 1980s to a friendly yet ruthlessly helpful machine in latter years, is why we wait in line. The team approach ensures that once you’ve sat down ye shall not want until the good times have fully rolled.
Finalist Opal Restaurant and Bar
605 Paseo Nuevo, 568-3688; 3849 State St., 569-8800; 131 N. Fairview Ave., Goleta, 683-1857
As beneficent chain places go, this is one of the most streamlined for pleasure. You get in line and march down the buffet where staff members scoop out your pleasure from the orange chicken to the kung pao beef — with many authentically delicious stops in between. The prices are reasonable, and it’s rare when you don’t see Chinese people eating there. So you know it’s an acceptable path to connect your taste buds swiftly with the heaven of a nice cafeteria.
Finalist China Pavilion
Hot Dog; Place to Get Tires
7095 Marketplace Dr., Goleta, 685‑4461
Ours is not a city founded on street food, though you’d think its tourist economy would make dogs and slices of pizza as common as the ubiquitous California Roll. But one place Santa Barbarians are known to seek frankfurters is on a money-saving visit to the big-box emporium of northern Goleta. While pulling down the town’s best deal on tires, eyeglasses, and (now) burial caskets, the typical South Coaster can’t be blamed for ordering a Hebrew National on a fluffy bun with a soda for less money than a gallon of gas.
Finalists Hot Dog: DogHouse; Place to Get Tires: Big Brand Tire Co.
Eight locations, 564-1111
It gets there fast, and it’s still hot because there are stores strategically placed near the vital hunger centers of Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, and Montecito. The readers can choose from a few options for this kind of efficient meal acquisitioning, but they keep picking Rusty’s because it’s the fast, hot, and delicious one they like year after year.
Finalist Pizza Mizza
Japanese Restaurant; Sushi Restaurant
1225 State St., 965-6074
Arigato’s initial popularity has never faded. Any night by Victoria Court will find people waiting outside, mostly not complaining, to be admitted into the newer, more spacious Arigato digs. With two stories of dining pleasure, the place vibrates with a constant intensity, and the food rewards those who like traditions (like freshness and intricately subtle flavors), but lean well toward the contemporary too. A constant victor in reader polls and demonstrably popular, Arigato is as Santa Barbara now as the Mission bells.
Finalist Japanese Restaurant; Sushi Restaurant: Sushi Teri
2030 Cliff Dr., 966-3863; 626 W. Micheltorena, 962-4028; 6547 Trigo Rd., Isla Vista, 961-0020
This Mexican dish, which food writers allege was invented in Los Angeles, compresses many substances of flavor, texture, and nourishment in an almost delicate floury edible container called a tortilla (cousin of the Chinese laobing) and maligned by bad usage as a “wrap.” At Cuca’s, they are made huge and with truly surprising varieties of flavor, though the chicken and veggie seem to dominate sales. The place has exceptionally fine (spicy) chile verde, too, and substantial carnitas (pork cooked tender in lard). Annual winners of the voter’s award, Cuca’s likes to brag about its size, but the kids like it because it’s satisfyingly delicious. And that’s a wrap.
Finalist Los Arroyos Mexican Restaurant
French Restaurant; Bouillabaisse
2700 De la Vina St., 682-2272
Owners Chris and Derrick Melton get all self-effacing every time they win. And it must be admitted that there is far less French cooking going on in this town than there was a couple o’ decades back. But Mimosa has survived for the last 23 years (the Meltons worked there many of those years and owned it the last six). One of the little-known secrets of the recently spiffed-up place, beside the elegant and hardy bouillabaisse recipe? “People don’t realize we serve reasonably priced food. I mean, it’s great food but not as expensive as a lot of people think,” said Chris. Are they happy winning the reader poll? “Yay,” she added.
Finalists French Restaurant: Pacific Crêpes; Bouillabaisse: Brophy Bros.
Italian Restaurant; Pasta; Tiramisu
729 State St., 963-8123; 6920 Marketplace Dr., Goleta, 968‑6201
This is another one of those places, like Cajun Kitchen and Arigato, where the reputation seemed to be made immediately and the lines in front have never shortened. It’s an inexpensive yet elegant form of Italian cooking, which can be accessed easier than, say, an eatery just north of Venice. The ingredients are supplied by Santa Barbara vendors of great reputation like Shalhoob Meats and Kanaloa fish, and the service is friendly. Even the kids at UCSB like to mangia downtown for a big plate of their pasta.
Finalists Italian Restaurant: Ca’ Dario; Pasta: Palazzio Trattoria Italiana; Tiramisu: Via Maestra 42
3026 State St., 682-6561
It’s all in the family, swears Rajinder Josan. That is to say that Flavor of India’s secret to success is the consistency of care. “It’s family all the time, so there is excellent food and excellent service all the time,” he said. And he should know — he’s the son of the head chef and the guy with glasses you are likely to see out front. “Because we are family, we are stable. So if a customer comes in, they will come back 90 percent of the time,” he said, laughing. “Maybe the next day, maybe every day. Some of them even ask if they can rent a room upstairs so they can always eat here.”
Finalist Taj Café
1316 State St., 963-0242
You enter the courtyard one step off State Street right across from the glamorous Arlington Theatre. Suddenly, there’s a splashy fountain, big wrought-iron chairs and tables, and a different kind of salsa and bread on your table. This is Argentinean gracefulness, which implies a way with beef dishes and lime-flavored alcoholic drinks. But there are scads of other dishes and a loyal clientele who like to sop up some New World elegance before they reenter the old world elegance of upper State. What a town.
Finalist The Alcazar Restaurant
Mexican Restaurant; Salsa; Take-Out Mexican
14 W. Figueroa St., 961-5541; 1280 Coast Village Rd., Montecito, 969-9059
Like La Super-Rica Taqueria, our most famous Mexican restaurant, at Los Arroyos you go to the front, order, and pay, then find a table advantageous to your feng shui. The canny diner will have stopped and loaded up on cutlery, drinks, and, of course, the wide variety of salsas. (It’s impossible to know which one the readers love, but they’re all terrif.) When the food comes, you have already gotten over all the bad parts of dining out, including the bill, so it’s hard not to enjoy the food, which may be of conventional fare from enchiladas to flan. But the readers want you to know, es la más mejor comida Mexicana — it’s the best of Mexican food from a town full of great south-of-the-border cuisine.
Finalists Mexican Restaurant: La Super-Rica Taqueria; Salsa: Rose Café; Take-Out Mexican: Rudy’s Restaurant
22-A N. Milpas St., 966-5151
These guys have been the perennial favorites since they introduced the pad thai, red curry, pineapple fried rice, larb, Thai toast, coconut chicken soup, basil chili beef, and Thai barbecued chicken to a town that never even knew it was hungry for all of the above. The citizens, and particularly those who happen to be our readers, have never forgiven them for introducing their palates to such delicious addictions.
Finalist Your Choice Thai Restaurant
636 State St., 962-6815
Forty years ago the store was named Johnny’s, but it’s officially been the Italian/Greek Deli since Johnny Morosin’s parents bought it from Ezzy Possato in 1971. “But all the old-timers still call it Johnny’s,” said its namesake. The continued success is because it’s all familiarity — and family. “We make a great connection to our customers. We talk to them. We know their favorite sandwiches — most of the time we start making them before they order. Are we the best deli in town? I don’t really think so; there are a lot of really great delis. But we do have an authentic connection with our customers.”
Finalist South Coast Deli
Restaurant More than 25 Years Old; Neighborhood Bar
3313 State St., 687-2800
It’s been almost five years since John Scott bought this famous place, and if it was rocky at first — and it was — it’s smoother now. “I’m thrilled we won. I think what people like is that Harry’s is the same place that it was when Harry opened it in the 1960s. People know we pour the most generous drinks in town and they love our special dishes like the Omaha. It took us a while to get it back to what it was,” he said. “The only surprise you are likely to get is how big it is when you walk through the small front doors.”
Finalists Restaurant More than 25 Years Old: Joe’s Café; Neighborhood Bar: Elsie’s
New Restaurant (since Aug. 2005)
14 E. Cota St., 965-4565
It’s seasonal American cuisine, and if that sounds a little trendy, just remember: Owners Caitlin Scholle and Justin Tuley got some back-up. “We have our own farm,” said Chef Tuley. “And though you can call this seasonally driven, and we change the menu all the time, I’m still not giving up on summer. I’ve got some great corn and heritage tomatoes I want to use,” he said. Right now, he’s proud of a Hawaiian ono pair of dishes: one’s hot and served with citrus dust, and the other is raw with musk lime gelée and avocado mousse. His popularity with the readers, we believe, must be flavor-driven.
Finalist Le Bon Café
5905 Sandspit Rd., Goleta, 964‑7881
“Good food, good service, good location,” said manager Chris Martinez, braggin’ on his eatery’s ideal parking lot spot between UCSB on the right and Goleta pier — gateway to Hope Ranch — on the left. But Martinez also thinks it’s the chef’s tropical orientation to seafood that helps differentiate the place from others of the fish dish persuasion. “He’s also introduced paella this last year, which is something hardly anybody is doing,” said Martinez. “It’s unique for this part of town,” he said, still harping on his fine location.
701 Linden Ave., Carpinteria, 684‑3811
It’s been in Bill Bennett’s family for 50 years, so he should know. “People like us because we haven’t changed a lot during a time of great change. The place basically looks like it looked when my grandfather built it in the 1960s. We have a single concept that people like, so it’s easy to come in,” said Bennett of the grill-your-own steak and big horseshoe bar /nightclub combination. “It’s a nice, fair meal at a decent price. And everybody likes to party. We’re very happy the readers picked us,” he said.
Finalist Zookers Café and Juice Bar
1295 Coast Village Rd., Montecito, 969-3392
It very well could be the coconut cake, the great chicken breast, or the filet, that, along with the good prices, inspired the customers’ votes and longtime citywide faithfulness. Mark Huston, chef and co-owner of the beautiful Montecito Café, confirms that the restaurant will be opening a second site by the Arlington, but has no plans to vacate this one, despite rumors. He says he’ll be there cooking. “Why? Because I own it. I can’t leave even if I want to,” he laughed.
1812 Cliff Dr., 962-0337
Owner Alvaro Castellanos Rojas, who also owns Chilangos, has been at this almost-tucked-away Cliff Drive location for seven years. “It’s a destination spot; it’s not down there on State Street,” he said proudly, also happy that it draws well from the late 20-, early 30-year-old market he feels is being underserved in this town. “Where can you go, except to the movies in the early evening?” The place stays open late for the Mesa, though, and parties pretty hard for the suburban surroundings. And right now the spot is hot, with art by locals on the wall and, if Rojas may suggest, the focaccia bread bowl filled with cheese or the mini filet mignons. They’re both good enough to make a whole meal. Keep an eye out for a new hot spot, Milk & Honey, at 30 West Anapamu Street come mid November of this year.
Since time immemorial — or at least the late ’70s — this has been a place where people actually stand in line for their weekend brekkie. No scones and fruit compote here. Whether it’s the old eggs-and-b, or authentic corned-beef hash, or pork chops, or a hangover-mediating bowl of gumbo, the accent is on big flavors. Since its first week in business, Cajun Kitchen has been indisputably the joint where real Barbareños go for real breakfast pleasure.
Finalist Esau’s Coffee Shop
Sunday Brunch; Buffet
1260 Channel Dr., 969-2261
Ironically, the restaurant portion of this five-star hotel was closed from last November ’til April. And yet they still won. “We really appreciate how much these dining experiences mean to the community,” said Karen Earp, the dulcet-voiced general manager of Four Season’s S.B. resort. “We’re also very happy with what’s coming out of Martin Frost’s kitchen,” she said, referring to the Biltmore’s California wine country-cuisine chef. Meanwhile, they’ve reopened with the facelift going on through the hotel portions of the iconic SoCal hotel. “We’re very proud of the honor,” said Earp.
Finalists Sunday Brunch: El Paseo Restaurant; Buffet: Spice Avenue
4865 Calle Real, Goleta, (800) 786‑1000
Most people lose their chain-store snobbery when entering this bastion of medium-fast food during the day. But at nighttime, it’s even better. A nice proximity to freeway flying, the ample variety of American staples like cheeseburgers, shakes, and fries, the availability of off-the-menu stipulations (fries well done, burger animal style), and the plain fact that it’s always open makes it a ready stop for witching-hour refuels, and — this is a big plus in this town — a see and be-seen hangout for the kids.
Cheap Eats; Sidewalk Café/Patio; Veggie Burger
508 State St., 962-9494; 361 Hitchcock Wy., 563-1163; 5892 Hollister Ave., Goleta, 692-2363
Health food restaurants once ran this town. Sun and Earth, The Tea House, and The Good Earth used to be where we ate when we were the way we were. But now, except for the vaunted Sojourner Café and SpiritLand Bistro, which are all gourmet and stuff, only the Natural Café is left to feed us when we want healthy but haven’t got the time to whip up brown rice and veggies at home. Still, it isn’t that which our readers claim to love about NC. They like the veggie burger, which is almost a miracle to pull off, the al fresco dining, and the great prices at this three-store S.B. success story. So, what we’re saying is, the city likes to eat a cheap, alternative burger on a patio, and, what’s that you say? It’s healthy? Good call.
Finalists Cheap Eats: Taco Bell; Sidewalk Café / Patio: Paradise Café; Veggie Burger: Sojourner Café
Salad Bar; Steakhouse
3888 State St., 687-4417
It used to be hard to get a steak in this seaside town. Chuck’s won the award annually, and the owners liked to point out the dearth of competition. But it’s not true anymore: There are at least half a dozen great places for good cuts of grilled beef, and the prices even range from that of celebrity watering hole to reasonable old Santa Barbara family in the meat biz (cheap). Still, Chuck’s gets the honors year after year, probably for the simple elegance of the dining experience and great cuts of meat in a friendly atmosphere. And the salad bar? It was the first, and, according to our picky readers, still the best.
Finalists Salad Bar: Savoy Truffles; Steakhouse: Holdren’s
1202 Chapala St., 560-6028; 1070 Coast Village Rd., Montecito, 565-9380
Since the Chen family took over this downtown haunt, the cuisinal bar has officially been raised. There is great Chinese food in town now. Longtime owners of Peking and Szechuan restaurants in the past, the family just recently took on these, a fact that seemed to unleash a new precision and daring in the kitchen. The chef leans toward Shanghai food (try the dim sum Shanghai noodles), but is quite proficient with commanding spice assaults like the beef with basil. What’s great is how quickly the public caught on. While we all mourn the loss of a certain downtown Cantonese favorite, there is true cause to celebrate the Chen’s sudden and complete victory here.
Finalist Mandarin Palace
Seafood Restaurant; Restaurant with a View; Cioppino; Clam Chowder; Bloody Mary
This may be the biggest award sweep ever. (One nearby four-star hotel took four awards at once a couple of times.) The accomplishment is increased when you consider how the seafaring theme should tightly focus the field. It’s a seafood restaurant, but just because you specialize in fish doesn’t ever imply great clam chowder, cioppino, and halibut — all at the same time, too. Then there are the indispensable extras. The view, which famed designer John Saladino described as one of the most beautiful in the world, showcases the sky changing colors over a field of masts. And there’s that famed Bloody Mary in a big glass rimmed with pepper that can both set hearts aflame and smooth them. Congratulations to the little place in the harbor that could.
Finalists Seafood Restaurant, Cioppino, and Clam Chowder: Enterprise Fish Co.; Restaurant with a View: El Encanto Hotel and Villas; Bloody Mary: Mesa Café & Bar
216 S. Milpas, 962-7472; 628 State St., 892-5400; 5735 Hollister Ave., Goleta, 964-0366
Evolution has shortened the old bizness name from the alliterative Hamburger Habit to the more ambiguous, and hence suggestive, name it bears today. The menu has been streamlined a bit, too. The old chiliburger that once bore the flagship title of the restaurant is gone. Perhaps I was the only one who ordered it. The three locations no longer seem like a clone of Tommy’s in Los Angeles, and the burger holds its head high as being simple, proudly and deliciously charred, with tomato, onion, a little lettuce, and no secret sauce. It’s still the one the readers love, no matter what other habits the establishment wishes to nurture — what with all this elegant minimalism — and it puts out great fries to boot.
Finalist In-N-Out Burger