Name of Bar: Harry’s Plaza Cafe
Address: 3313 B State Street
Location: Loreto Plaza, at Las Positas and State
Days/Hours: Opens at 11:00 AM every day, closes Sunday at 11:00 PM, Monday through Thursday at 12:00 AM, and Friday and Saturday at 1:00 AM. Kitchen closes an hour before the bar.
Happy Hour: Every hour is happy hour.
Open Since: 1968
Known For: Heavy pours, a rich history, and an all-star cast of servers and regulars. Also, Renee.
Notable Decor: A gallery of photographs from Santa Barbara past
Patrons: Regulars with deep roots
Food?: Good lord, yes. While Harry’s is known for its drinks, it’s first and foremost a restaurant.
Best Kept Secret: Excellent egg breakfasts served all day!
Before you leave, you should…: call a cab.
My experience: The first time I went to Harry’s, I was out with co-workers, and I ordered a Harry’s Hurricane. The rest of the night, well, I can’t remember it all too well. But the second time I walked through those doors, I was applying for a job. They hired me fully aware that I moonlight as a bar reviewer, so they must have been confident either that I would kowtow to my employers or that it would be impossible to write a bad review of Harry’s. The truth is the latter.
“Was this the place?” I remember asking myself as I stood outside the modest threshold, coworkers pushing past to escape the February night. Wasn’t this supposed to be the place to go in Santa Barbara? Everything about the bar, it seemed, was meant to deter the casual stumble-in, the confounded traveler of the Santa Barbara bar-ways. Tucked away between Renaud’s and the preciously named “Golf Klub,” Harry’s was above all unassuming. This tiny doorway, for the bar that defined Santa Barbara? And how in the world could they rationalize calling this a café?
I remember walking in for the first time, seeing the restaurant fan open like a pop-up book. Wallpaper of red and gold flew high up to the ceilings, and rows of booths shot back in all directions. Like most restaurants that specialize in big slabs of meat, the walls were covered with nostalgic artifacts of a disappearing past. But unlike your standard bar and grill, stuffed game and signed portraits and movie posters did not serve to baffle the guest with a barrage of tacky Americana. Harry’s was decorated as though some artful historian had sifted through all the mildewed boxes in Santa Barbara’s collective attic, picked out only the most charming and special of the lot, and displayed them with pride in Santa Barbara’s parlor. Here the decorations were not distractions. They lived and breathed with the restaurant, enriching and fulfilling its purpose, which was most certainly to honor Santa Barbara past. Harry’s is all about history, from the old families who find their surnames in captions below Ranchero Room portraits to the decades-matured regulars whose loyalty the servers have won with all the patience and dedication that a gardener shows her rosebush. In a way, Harry’s serves to take that skim of class and history and lore that Santa Barbara has to offer and pickle it for posterity.
Ah yes. And then the pickling. To the casual observer, an individual hard to find in this den of regulars, this was a nice family restaurant. They served classic American cuisine with a few zany throw-ins like fried pickles and deep-fried ravioli. They even had a kid’s menu, for chrissake. But then, well, you saddle up to the bar. You slouch down into one of those big red leather booths. Your server seductively suggests one of their specialty drinks, and you’re sold. The Spicy Margarita. The Mean Tai. The Hurricane. Huge glasses of liquor with a splash of mixer.
And that, to me, is what makes Harry’s such an interesting place. Not just because you’re smashed half a drink in. (Though, to be fair, things do get interesting at that point.) But because there’s this seedy underbelly lying just below the surface of historical flair and comfort food. Behind the bar, Michael with his slicked-back hair has the look of an old West barkeep equally capable of slinging Old Fashions and physically tossing out a belligerent drunk. Jasmyne’s sweet smile hides a sharp tongue, and Audrey’s dancing eyes know how to smolder. I strike up a conversation with an elderly Belgian man and soon we’re talking film and socialism over neat whiskies.
But of course Harry’s split identity is a secret to few, and for most the thrill of discovering that duality is long gone. To most of its patrons – who have been coming for generations – Harry’s assumes all the regular complexities of life. Family time coexists with patently antisocial behavior, patrons shout and embrace in equal measure and within the same breath. Harry’s contains everything, and I think it’s this aspect that makes Harry’s feel like home to so many. Because that’s what home is, isn’t it? A liquor cabinet is tucked away in the family room. Maybe there’s comfort in those complexities, those dualities, those contradictions. The bumps and jostles rock us to repose. And I think that’s why people keep coming back to Harry’s.