All weddings have the same underlying rhythm: They move inexorably, like a wind-up toy, from great tension to big relief. Even a quickie Justice of the Peace ceremony involves some performance anxiety before the I Do’s, and your big church weddings are often stiff mannered followed by champagne toasts and cake-mashed-in-the-face feasts. A microcosm of that scary fun is the wedding rehearsal dinner. Here we have the first twining of the clans — your crazy mom meets my anal-retentive papa, which often happily ends in a big boozy dinner after the tense mock ceremony. A G-rated bachelor/bachelorette bash, though usually sans strippers.
The best wedding rehearsal I ever attended took place in the pre-Sideways Santa Ynez Valley. Dragooned into driving a small busload of newly interlaced family through a few choice wineries, I enjoyed watching the barriers slip as the late-harvest zinfandels took hold of my passengers. But I also enjoyed that glorious valley; each winery seemed more bucolic and memorable, even though I was strictly not partaking. Their appetites whetted by three rounds of sophisticated bevs, we dined like European plutocrats at a winery picnic, whilst a few napped unceremoniously in nearby woods.
Want formal? Many of the vintners, like Sunstone and Firestone, will arrange long-table feasts in their aromatic cellars, according to culinary genius and food critic Brigitte Guehr, who has recently added hotelier to her sparkling list of résumé successes. Owner of the charming Meadowlark Inn and the Storybook Inn (both in Solvang), Guehr herself does rehearsal dinners at her hotels (call her at 688-1703), and is currently tinkering with a whole gestalt wedding package (“With everything. You just bring the dress.”) done for somewhere on the affordable end of five figures.
But your vinous version could conclude at the Ballard Inn & Restaurant where Chef Budi Kazali’s consummate mastery of the cuisines of both East and West represents a unity of adventure and sumptuous flavor worlds. There’s The Hitching Post (classic, dude) for great steaks and a fine bar. Restaurant Nu’s Dave Cecchini runs The Ballard Store, and the Brothers, as they are always called, of Mattei’s Tavern, routinely instill delight into comestibles. All these people need a long lead time if we’re talking about Saturday nights. The wineries are always there.
Quintessential Santa Barbara weddings orbit the Biltmore, though. One good reason, besides the elegant SoCal feel of the beachfront luxury digs, is the adaptability of forums. Parties of about 10 could fit nicely into the Bella Vista room, which features a seaside terrace and a fireplace. Larger parties, say 90 people (and, hey, this is getting a little crazy for just a rehearsal), might be accommodated in the Del Mar room, with banquet stations ands chefs in attendance. (All this will be endlessly assisted if the daddy footing the bill is surnamed Warbucks.) Or as wacky alterna-feast, the staff could set up a croquet game and picnic on the grounds, according to Kirsten Vanbrunt, director of catering and conferences. Better yet, get the family to rent a suite of adjoining cottages and take dinner in the magical world of Biltmore patios. BBQ like the movie stars do.
But for my kind of money, I would stick with any kind of exquisite meal that’s served family style, for raucous connections about to be made. Since there are no Italian places working that end of the spectrum right now, how about eating at a place that gets my vote as most-improved S.B. restaurant of all time? China Pavilion on Anapamu and Chapala streets, now under the sway of owner/chef Peter Chen, will cook you a five-course meal on big plates you can pass around. Depending on the level of daring, Chen will tailor a meal, go off the regular menu and onto the one Chinese people consult, or go all the way into stellar, seldom unexplored regions. I prefer some of the dishes that distantly evoke comfort food, like the scallion pancakes, fiery-spiced steamed dumplings, a mash of fava beans Chen makes, an impeccably tender breaded squid, chicken cooked with chestnuts in clay pots, and a lovely Chinese version of beef stew I ate once and remember in fine detail to this day. You can discuss it with him (call him at 560-6028), or let him surprise you.
Remember, nothing unites families more reliably than a meal (croquet and inebriated games of Twister naturally are exceptions). Just remember that everybody’s nervous, but probably all want this new marriage thing to work out in the end, too. The pundits always say luck favors the prepared. And if that means tucking into a diver scallop served on red-pepper risotto or an orange crème brûlée as sacrifice to preparedness, then I think a lot of rehearsal would be very worth it.