For aficionados of Santa Barbara's ever-evolving culinary scene, The Restaurant Guy has been required reading ever since a tech geek named John Dickson started blogging about openings, closings, and assorted in-betweens on his SantaBarbara.com website six years ago. Earlier this year, Dickson brought his restaurant reporting talents to the print edition of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he's published weekly alongside the Dining Guide. We figured it was about time that everyone got to learn a little bit more about the man himself, so we asked The Restaurant Guy some questions via email, and this is what he had to say.
Did you grow up in S.B.? If not, when did you come and why?
Though I have run the SantaBarbara.com visitors guide for 17 years, encouraging others to come to our fine city, I have never actually lived in Santa Barbara myself. I grew up in Montecito (back when it was relatively affordable), graduated from Santa Barbara High School (go Dons!), and then moved to Goleta (go Costco!). The South Coast is a magic place, and I have never had a desire to leave it. When I reached my teens and discovered that the rest of the world didn't have humidity-free summers, and couldn't spend Christmas Day suntanning at the beach, I was shocked.
You've been involved in a number of creative enterprises in town and beyond, from the Accidental Santa Claus to annual lake photos with friends that have been featured as national news. Can you give us a list of your extracurricular fun?
In 2006, I obtained the business phone number 1 (800) SantaBarbara. As it turns out, it is just one digit off from 1 (800) SantaClaus, and during December, lots of children call me by mistake. Rather than just hang up, I played along and started the "Accidental Santa" call center, where local volunteers help answer calls from kids all across the nation. The rest of the year, I enjoy hiking, running on the beach, camping, field trips with Santa Barbara City College, traveling to visit friends, gardening, getting married…
How did you get into restaurants?
Completely by accident. Back in 1995, there were no websites dedicated to providing information about Santa Barbara. Yelp didn't exist. Google didn't even exist. It was a tough time for the general public to try to find information online.
I was a pocket-protector computer geek and software developer who loved this new thing called the World Wide Web and decided to create dozens of guides about our beloved home, including a lodging guide, beaches guide, parks guide, wedding guide, winery guide, and others. When I officially launched SantaBarbara.com, a restaurant guide and review system was a natural thing to include. Unknown to me at the time, each of these dedicated guides was the first created for the Santa Barbara area.
Then one fateful day I ran some software that could analyze website visitor traffic, and, much to my surprise, I discovered that one of the most popular parts of the site was the restaurant guide. I soon started receiving a large volume of email from people all across the South Coast asking me to improve and expand my dining guide. Though I had no special knowledge of, or particular interest in, restaurants, I had unofficially been drafted.
You don't drink, and you don't particularly consider yourself a food expert. How did you rise to the top of Santa Barbara's food world?
I don't think there really is a "top" of the local food world. There are lots of gals and guys contributing to our collective culinary knowledge, and I enjoy being one of them. With no food background at all, I'm the last person in the world who should be doing this. Mine is kind of a fish-out-of-water story, and perhaps that is part of the fun — this all sort of just dropped in my lap.
In late 2006, after more than a decade of running my dining guide, I launched a blog called The Restaurant Guy to share all the local food news that naturally comes my way. Before it went live, I sent an email to Independent columnist Barney Brantingham asking him to take a look. His thumbs-up gave me the confidence that I might not make a complete fool of myself embarking into such unknown territory.
After it went live on SantaBarbara.com, it seemed to get a decent following pretty quickly, and the next thing I know, to my complete surprise, the Santa Barbara Daily Sound newspaper asked me to be their restaurant columnist. Saying yes to them was actually very scary for me because I didn't know how to write and, as you say, I'm not a food expert. And, when you put something in print, you can't just hit a delete key when your news is wrong, like you can with a blog. As it turned out, I had a lot of fun writing for the Sound over the next five years, though I did receive a few well-deserved bruises along the way.
Over the years, the column has really become a community effort because the majority of my news is now generated from tips received from my readers, and I try to give them credit for it in each story I write. I am really happy my network of food news contributors can now share their collective knowledge with The Santa Barbara Independent's audience.
Does SantaBarbara.com pay your bills, or do you have other work, too?
In addition to SantaBarbara.com, I run a regional network of advertising sites, including Ventura.com, Oxnard.com, Camarillo.com, Carpinteria.com, and SantaYnez.com. The majority of my company revenue comes from this network. I also have been running a global environmental organization directory (webdirectory.com) for over 17 years that helps pay the bills.
How much traffic to the site is for restaurants, percentage-wise?
Traffic to SantaBarbara.com has grown every year for the last decade and a half, and today, about 25 percent is for restaurants. Believe it or not, most of my time is spent working on (and most of the revenue comes from) parts of the sites that have nothing to do with restaurants. If SantaBarbara.com ever becomes more than a one-man show, I hope to have the time to explore a lot of untapped opportunity to give enhanced, targeted exposure to local restaurants.
What have been the most promising trends since you've started covering food in S.B.? How about most troubling trends?
One promising trend is that more restaurants with stable finances and proven popularity have started calling the South Coast their home. These eateries, known as "chains," might also be considered our most troubling trend.
What's your favorite go-to restaurant in town?
Backyard Bowls. I also frequent Arigato, Brophy's, Café del Sol, Cajun Kitchen, Cold Spring Tavern, Fresco Café in S.B., Galanga, Kahuna Grill, Palace Grill, Pascucci, Pollo Fino, Silvergreens, South Coast Deli, and Tee-Off, to name a few.
Do you ever cook at home?
Because I don't review restaurants (and instead focus on food news), like many people, I primarily eat at home. I have simple tastes, and tacos is what I cooked more than anything else. Because I got married recently to a lady who is an amazing cook, my culinary standard of living has increased dramatically.
How did you and your wife meet? Is she a foodie?
At a restaurant, of course. Exactly three days after I launched The Restaurant Guy food news blog nearly 6 years ago, I was dining at a hole-in-the wall in Santa Monica when one of the sweetest, kindest ladies I have ever met suddenly walked through the door. She is indeed a foodie. In my column, I refer to her as "The Restaurant Gal."
What is Santa Barbara missing in terms of restaurants? What would you recommend someone open?
Santa Barbara remains a city of great restaurants. Without them, we would possess a cultural landscape not much different from hundreds of other cities across the nation. But I think we can use a few more great yet affordable restaurants in the downtown area, to shore up against the rising tide of mediocrity. For example, farm-fresh establishments where the cooks have trained for much of their lives to prepare food for people like you, and that educate service staff to instantly understand the needs of a patron.
With respect to a specific cuisine, I think Santa Barbara could use a few more high-quality yet affordable sushi restaurants, like Fusion Sushi in Manhattan Beach or Asanebo in Studio City.
What do we have too much of?
The common response to your question is probably "Mexican restaurants." I don't necessarily believe that. A typical eatery would go under pretty quickly if there was no interest in their product. So even though there are a lot of restaurants serving cuisine from south of the border, there clearly is huge demand for them, or they wouldn't be here. There is a similar situation with coffee shops. They're everywhere because people love them.
So, to answer your question, I don't think we have too much of anything. Competition along with limited dining dollars takes care of that issue.
Read John Dickson's The Restaurant Guy column every week in the Dining Guide of The Santa Barbara Independent, or keep up with the news daily at http://santabarbara.com/dining/news/.