Toma sets its tone immediately, and not just from the warm welcome from the staff, led by owners Tom and Vicki Dolan, or from the glimmering room, a casually elegant touch of the Mediterranean. It does so with the simplest and cleverest of opening bites — you can’t really call them amuse-bouches as that would be too pretentious — blue-cheese-stuffed green olives, flash-fried after a dip in semolina so the soft fruit gets a bit of crunch. This little treat really wakes up the palate and gets you set for a meal that will walk a fine line between comfortable and notable that few attempt, let alone pull off. Not bad for a spot open only since April.
Of course it’s almost misleading to say Toma has only been open for six months. It’s in the same beachside spot where Emilio’s had been for 21 years, and Tom Dolan says, “I worked at Emilio’s for 20 years as head waiter and manager. So I had a sense of what this restaurant could be and should be.” Emilio’s shut its doors in April 2012, so it took a year to make all the changes Dolan had in mind, including items such as a temperature-controlled wine room, “new tablecloths, tables, Riedel stemware, Fortessa cutlery — we upgraded to a more elegant fashion.” Tom’s wife, Vicki, was a big part of the dining room remodel, having learned much about hospitality after 30 years with the Four Seasons hotel chain. “My wife and I have traveled a lot, have gone to Italy six times,” Dolan says, “and we wanted to bring a lot of that knowledge of restaurants around the world and of Four Seasons around the world to Toma.”
They didn’t look globally to find a chef, turning to Nat Ely, the last chef at Emilio’s, who has also worked at Los Olivos Café and Place Pigalle in Seattle. Dolan and Ely opted to retain “certain dishes that people put to the face of the restaurant, like the ahi tuna cones and the homemade bread from a 20-year-old starter. But we’ve evolved, too, and are trying to keep it as seasonal as we can. I hate to say farm-to-table, as it’s so overused these days, even farm-to-bar seems to be the next big thing. But that push makes for a better dining arena for Santa Barbara. Everyone has to jump on this bandwagon to succeed. We’re getting our vegetables from places like Tutti Frutti and Windrose Farms — all in the area.”
While the menu features pizzas (from guanciale to smoked salmon) and pastas (from black spaghetti and clams to a meaty lasagne), Dolan is hesitant to call Toma an Italian restaurant, fully aware of all the cuisines that nation encompasses. “It’s Italian-Mediterranean influenced; that kind of sums it up,” Dolan says. “In the end, it’s just really good food.” One flipside of that good food, and wine, and cocktails (try The Local: Square One Cucumber Vodka, strawberries, basil leaves, agave nectar, and a drizzle of balsamic reduction) push is spending little on advertising. “We market within,” he explains. “The funds have been put back into the best ingredients we can get, the best service. It’s the best marketing you can do, as a customer who comes in tells three people, who come in, who tell three people ….”
All those people talking have led to Toma landing at the number one ranking on Trip Advisor. “People call and say, ‘You’re number one on Trip Advisor, and you’re down by the harbor?’” Dolan informs. “I just think with our success and the Funk Zone it’s great that people are gravitating back down toward the beach. It’s kind of neat to see the energy come back down this way.”
It’s totally worth a food coma to check out Toma Restaurant & Bar (324 W. Cabrillo Blvd.). Call (805) 962-0777 or visit tomarestaurant.com.