Arlington Tavern executive chef Ron True is a native Santa Barbarian, but his career has cut a winding path, from the kitchens of San Francisco’s Zuni Café and the Gramercy Tavern in New York to La Varenne cooking school in France. That path became a full circle last year, when he opened Arlington Tavern at 21 West Victoria Street, the same space where he got his start back in the day when it was home to SOhO Restaurant. The Tavern opened to feverish enthusiasm and has managed to keep the interest of Santa Barbara’s fickle foodies (even despite the fact that the building is quite literally surrounded by construction). Excellent food, stellar service, and a warm atmosphere have earned it a steady and devoted following, whether bar-side for smaller, more inexpensive bites and the solid wine and beer list or in the restaurant proper for ingredient-driven fare that’s classic in inspiration and fresh in execution. The menu, while not terribly long, covers a lot of ground and changes with the seasons.
True himself is an unassuming guy, happy to geek out with diners about why he only uses jidori chicken for his fried chicken entrée or talk mustard greens with the masses at the Farmers’ Market. Last week, approaching the occasion of Arlington Tavern’s one-year anniversary, True and I sat sipping Flying Goat Pinot Gris to talk inspiration, Ben Affleck, and, well, murder.
If your decision to become a chef could be traced to one food memory, what would it be? The roots stemmed from this very building when it was SOhO, back in ’88 or ’89. I was the new, young sous chef. A couple was eating some fish, Cajun blackening — that was popular back then — something like that. The kitchen’s always been open; I saw one person lean over and say, “Ohhh my god, you have to try this,” and they were sharing it with the other person, and they were so full of that “that’s so fantastic” kind of moment. … As far as food memory, that would be very young when my grandfather would make his own noodles, a beef-and-noodles kind of thing, simpleton stroganoff; I remember him making them and how much I enjoyed them.
Did that inspire that stroganoff special I tasted here recently? There’s a certain lineage to it. Breaking down our meats, we have leftover pieces of really prime filet or New York strip, so it’s constant “what are we going to do with these bits and pieces?” Also, one of my produce reps had some fresh périgord truffles, so I purchased some. … With social media, everybody eats with their eyes, so we Instagrammed and Facebooked the truffles. I figured the best thing to do was turn it all into a nice stroganoff.
You have a guest at home you want to impress; what’s the go-to meal? Most of the time it’s a barbecue session. Fresh greens from the market, whatever catches my eye, wild arugula versus the little gems … some meats or fish, roasted potatoes — market-fresh corn is always a crowd-pleaser.
If somebody can only eat here once, what should they order? How many courses?
They can eat like me; let’s put it that way. Ha! If someone’s gonna eat here for the first and last time, I’d construct a tasting menu. Certainly the mac ’n’ cheese. The asparagus and egg salad, since people aren’t accustomed to getting a deep fried egg, and when the yolk cracks and becomes part of the dressing, that’s new and kind of awe-inspiring for some people. Even our hot dog is phenomenal. We make the dog in-house, fantastic, how a hot dog should taste — thinking about it’s making me salivate — comes with spicy coleslaw and house-made chips. Our fried chicken blows people away. Bouillabaisse is soul nourishing; it’s so warm, such a great flavor. … I’d throw in the short rib, slow-cooked, five, six hours, glazed in the oven. … And we have a new thing: Strawberries are coming in full now in the market, so we do an upside-down cake with that buttery, crystallized crust of the cake, caramel, house-made vanilla ice cream. Phenomenal. I’m blessed to have a gal here that I whisper my ideas to, and then she tinkers and gives me a taste, and I’ll say “a little too much cake” or “too much this,” and second time around we get the exact product I’m looking for. That’s also a year in the making: Your staff gets a sense of what you’re looking for, your style, your expectation level. Mine is extremely high, and I look for ways to challenge them. … Our rye crackers are made in-house, too. … I’m always looking for something I can throw at her and say “I want to do this from scratch.”
What’s the best dining experience to be had in Santa Barbara other than here? Anchor, El Encanto, Bella Vista at the Four Seasons, the [San Ysidro] Ranch; the new chef out there I really like a lot. … Anchor is a great experience, and I like what they’re doing there; just like us, they’re new, getting their systems in place. They’re certainly ahead of the curve, and they have a bevy of talent. But overall, I’d say the Ranch is just a great experience.
What’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever happened here? The Ben Affleck film festival after-party.
Except I heard him order his drink, and he asked for a vodka and Diet Coke. Lame. No, he had Jack Daniels and Diet Coke.
Seriously? I’ve been spreading false rumors! [Sorry, Mr. Affleck.] That’s a little more acceptable. We don’t have a full liquor license yet — it’s in the works! — but we have some whiskey in the freezer that we use in … ice cream and desserts, so we were able to fill the request. But he’s an actor; of course he’s gonna be a little … you know! But certainly that was the most outrageous thing that’s happened here yet, and that’s good outrageous.
You killed your sommelier, or Diego [Barbieri, house wine and beer expert] let’s say, and you’re on death row. What’s your last meal? Certainly I’ve had delusions of …
Murder? [Laughs.] Well, most likely it works the other way, as well. No, I’m kidding. I’d probably go with six to 12 oysters with some nice red-wine cracked-pepper mignonette. Our Caesar salad. A nice foie gras terrine or some seared foie; grilled rib eye with roasted or whipped potato; braised kale with red-wine bordelaise sauce. If I wasn’t going to do the foie gras, then the profiteroles that I had up in Portland, Oregon, at Le Pigeon. They were foie gras ice cream and salted caramel. … It’s worth the plane ticket to go to Portland to get their foie gras profiteroles.
Okay! One ingredient you can’t live without? Salt.
Favorite food city? Having lived in New York for so long and having so much at your fingertips … regretfully I haven’t been to Chicago, and I understand that Chicago has become a head or two above most cities. But I’m still going with New York City. Any time of night, day, morning, you can pretty much get whatever you want.
Fill in the blank: People might be surprised to see me eating ___. Taco Bell.
What’s your order? Nachos BellGrande.
Finally: Bacon — awesome or overrated? Both. But awesome. We sell pork belly as an appetizer, and people are verrrry fond of the pork belly. So, certainly bacon is overdone, but, regardless, it’s still fantastic.
Agreed. And that’s all I have for ya! I just have one question for you: Are you hungry?