Health Food Store Gourmet Food Shop
Lazy Acres Market
302 Meigs Rd., 564-4410
In our brave new world, there are numerous stores where the feckless health pilgrim can score some spirulina, dandelion kale smoothies, and gluten-free pasta dishes. Likewise, the ardent gourmand might in any town you name be able to purchase quail eggs, truffle oil, or even a bottle of Grand Cru burgundy on a sudden whim. But not many stores offer both in a seamless and ultimately forgiving package like Lazy Acres does. (The clerks won’t laugh at either the vegan or the carnivore.) Since 1992, the gigantic Mesa hangout and emporium has been a one-stop shop for people who want exotic flavors mixed with holistic dreams, a place where acai and asparagus breathe the same sea air.
FINALIST: WHOLE FOODS MARKET
Fresh Fish Market
Santa Barbara Fish Market
117 Harbor Wy., 965-9564
“I would say that people vote for us primarily because of the connection we have with the fishing community,” said S.B. Fish Market owner Brian Colgate, who always hopes that people realize that even though they are in the harbor, his small busy store is not synonymous with the Santa Barbara Fisherman’s Market that takes place every Saturday morning. They do offer a lot of the same catch, as well as fresh fish from outside these waters, too. “I would say that most people don’t know that we deliver fresh fish overnight; it’s just a click away. You can have seafood that was swimming in the ocean just 36 hours ago delivered to any doorstep.”
FINALIST: KANALOA SEAFOOD
335 S. Milpas, 965-4558
There’s a great paradox that haunts this 60-year-old, open-to-the-elements store — like the smell of fresh-squeezed orange juice that floats around the cashiers in front. Nothing seems to have changed here in the last half century when hippie kids and other health-food nuts mixed with the likes of Julia Child shopping for food as the store motto says, any fresher and it would still be in the fields. But obviously, if the freshness part is true — and nobody doubts that — nearly every item in the store bins has to change nearly every day. It’s big, friendly, and much cheaper than the boutique health markets in town — with fresh juice, bulk staples, and a whole lot more: a sweet permanence of variety.
FINALIST: SANTA BARBARA FARMERS MARKET
Ice Cream Shop
McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams
Growing up Santa Barbaran means a lot of seemingly incidental magical things: the Zoo train, the Kernohan’s bear, and, especially, McConnell’s Ice Cream. Of course, now the old State Street store with its sticky round of fine-art postcards is forgotten, and the Mission Street big-windowed room (no-nonsense but still full of the sugary smell of ice cream and chocolate sprinkles) is more likely the stuff that ice-cream dreams and headaches are made of. A new shop on lower on State Street will probably create a new source of Santa Barbara iconic pleasure.
FINALIST: RORI’S ARTISANAL CREAMERY
Frozen Yogurt Shop
Maybe it’s a franchise, but who wouldn’t want to wake up in Yogurtland? It has definite advantages over that hipster fro-yo place that started in Los Angeles, including better pricing and the clear superiority of self-serve on the toppings. It’s real yogurt, it’s real clean and nice inside, and it’s won this category since the year it opened across the street and down from the hipster place.
FINALIST: MCCONNELL’S FINE ICE CREAMS
15 W. Gutierrez, 965-5956
“I think it’s because we are authentic. We’re not just selling chocolate foo-foo,” giggled Maya Schoop-Rutten, who was the on the phone from Hawaii where she swears she was giving a class on chocolate making. ”We’re very educational. We talk about the farmers and the process. And also walk people into the store while I’m actually making chocolate. They love that, and they know this is my passion.”
FINALIST: SEE’S CANDIES
Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro
This was just a little storefront next door to Harry’s Plaza Café in the Loreto Plaza. (Which, by the way is a magical address for winning Best Of awards — four firsts and a second within an easy walk.) Today, the French patisserie began by Renaud and Nicole Gonthier is in three locations, including the corner of the fancy Gelson’s (also in Loreto Plaza, naturally.) “I think people like us because they like anyone who is committed to doing something well, and we are committed to this,” said Gonthier.
If it’s made from potato flour, is it gluten free? Did I hear a billion voices groan at the ridiculousness of that question? It doesn’t matter what gimmick is observed, as long as the outside is lightly crunchy and the innards are more like a cloud than a cake. If it’s fry bread, a cronut or a beignet, this is food that kick-starts you without supplying your RDA with anything besides deliciousness. Spudnuts has been the readers’ choice for over a decade now, and if it’s just a gimmick, or even if it’s good for you, it’s still holy American cuisine.
Jack’s Bistro & Famous Bagels
This being California, the toasted bagel with cream cheese and a regular-coffee diet peculiar to urban East Coasters was soon and widely found inadequate. Somehow, the schmears became more elaborate — jalapeño migrated onto the mix — but more importantly, the bagel itself became a platform instead of an end product. There are bagel pizzas and bagel sandwiches and even bagel Benedict. This small chain restaurant offers a perfect California adaptation of the boiled and then baked chewy delight, featuring elaborate omeletes with bagels in lieu of English muffins. Yet with all of this distraction, the voters still eye the basics and approve — voted best bagel plain and simple for over 12 years. If you want, they should add Benedict, it’s a free country.
FINALIST: BAGEL CAFE
Blenders in the Grass
It took us years to realize that the name of this place was a Wordsworth reference and not a drug joke. This reflects badly on us, we know, though the sense of the work alluded to (“Intimations of Immortality”) initially threw us since that poem mainly complains about losing “the hour / Of splendor in the Grass.” This Santa Barbara-bred chain of healthy liquid-refreshment stands can never be lost: There are 12 locations between Orcutt and Santa Maria, and half of them are in S.B. So we get hours of splendor (8 a.m. to 9 p.m.), full of fruits, vegetables, supplements, and even coffee and ice cream blended to splendid flavor, anytime and almost everywhere. So sing ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song.
FINALIST: JUICE RANCH
5905 Sandspit Road, 964-7881
Real ocean-view dining is a lot more scarce than most of us want to admit. This is seafood with a sunset over the ocean from a heated patio with a couple of very convincing side dishes. For starters, there’s a great happy hour. For more of a main reason, consider this: It’s off the beaten track, so even when tourists are around, they aren’t usually there. And best of all, it’s the perfect place to enjoy nice food just before a UCSB show, or of you have to wait for Uncle Fred’s flight in from Des Moines. Just don’t take him there, so we can keep having the Beachside to ourselves.
FINALIST: HOLLISTER BREWING CO.
686 Linden Ave., 684-6666
James Sly has, as he puts it, been around. A long time ago there was a place called the Reindeer Room, infamous in its scene-y blisses, then sometime later he was the first chef at Lucky’s Montecito. Now, he seems to be home in Carpinteria, holding down Linden Street with crafted comfort cuisine. “Or as I call it, tired old favorites,” laughed the mustachioed one. Don’t believe it for a second — the food is American done right, from steaks to abalone, meatloaf to sand dabs, and everything good in between. ”We’ll cook something for anybody,” said Sly slyly, recalling a woman who comes annually bringing ducks hunted from somewhere back home. He made them delicious for her. “I don’t think of myself as an artist, but a craftsman.”
FINALIST: THE PALMS
Isla Vista Restaurant
Freebirds World Burrito
879 Embarcadero del Norte, 968-0123
Say what you will about the burrito bar in Isla Vista, but there is no other restaurant in the county that has half-block-long lines at 2 a.m. Spending its days silently feeding the supercasual I.V. student in between classes or waves, the versatile Mexican fast-food stand becomes a center of the community, a rallying point, and a late-night provision to the equally studied and partied-out crowds who turn to it in hours of need. It’s not particularly cheap fast food, but it is hearty, delicious, and surprisingly authentic.
1279 Coast Village Rd., 565-7540
Since it first opened, Lucky’s has held its place at the pinnacle for restaurants in which to be seen and to see are as important as the fine eating. There are movie stars and otherwise famous people often, there are circles of attainment like the old Casa Sevilla, and to be seated next to the fireplace in the inner room is an unstated indicator of arrival. General manager and executive chef Leonard Schwartz believes it’s much simpler than that though. “It’s very flattering we won this award, and I think the reason we did is that we’ve tried very hard to make sure that people are happy here.” People don’t know that Lucky’s has as great a selection of fresh fish and seafood as they do famous steaks, he said. But the crucial part is the overall experience. “My goal is that when people leave here, they leave happy,” he said.
FINALIST: MONTECITO CAFÉ
Santa Ynez Valley Restaurant
3687 Sagunto St., 688-6899
“People are always surprised to find such authentic Italian cooking in such a small town,” explained Grappolo’s event coordinator and manager Elisa Arriaga. Maybe it’s true, but the Santa Ynez Valley in the last 10 years has evolved rapidly from wine-and-cow town to gourmet central with restaurants, tasting rooms, and boutiques that almost shame the bigger beach city to the south. Even in those circumstances, Grappolo keeps winning this honor. “It’s probably the exceptional food and personal service. When people come in here, they feel like they are at home,” said Arriaga.
FINALIST: LOS OLIVOS CAFÉ
milk & honey
30 W. Anapumu St., 275-4232
Some illusion of elegance mixed with a lot of pleasure principle, perfect for this place, the idea of Spain haunts a California beach town reality. Date w/a Pig, for instance, is bacon-wrapped dates. There are Brussels sprouts roasted in olive oil with bacon (always with the bacon?). How about lamb served on a Hawaiian roll with raisins? The Corazon Verde is grilled hearts of romaine with a balsamic reduction over blue cheese and shallot sauce. There’s drunk mushrooms and tuna tartare with jalapeño. This is bar food worth a ginger whisky-sour chaser. You can have Pabst Blue Ribbon and pretzels at home.
The funny thing about this place is how pretentious it isn’t. Sure, there is gumbo, Andouille sausages, and jambalaya, too. But nobody will ever urge your bon temps to rouler. More likely, they’ll ask if you need more coffee and how crisp you want the hash browns. Or was it home fries this week? Grits? Well, of course you can have them, and if you don’t want whole-wheat toast, corn bread with homemade apple butter is guar-an-teed delicious. The Bourbon Street Chili is good with eggs. A town favorite for over 30 years.
Late Night Eats
The Blue Owl
5 W. Canon Perdido St., 705-0991
Maybe foodie magazines will declare that fusion food is over. The real reason we love Cindy Black’s revelation of storefront affordable and hedonistic imagination is her righteous refusal to abandon the twaining of East and West. A duck-and-pork sausage topped with kimchi in a homemade puff pastry? A green-curry burger with peanut-tamarind sauce and cilantro curry? Pulled pork with black-bean sauce and chili paste? At two in the morning, just when you thought the day’s pleasures were done? “I’m so grateful to win,” said Black. “This next year, though, I’m going to concentrate on my day menu, a lot more organic foods and salads and stuff that’s ready to eat,” she promised. We love Black’s Blue Owl place because it has vision.
Savoy Café & Deli
24 W. Figueroa St., 962-6611
Forget the fad for gluten-free food for a second and just consider the millions of people with diabetic conditions in this country. For them, lunch — sandwiches, pizza, and more sandwiches — is always a problem, and great salad bars are one of the best answers. This one takes up half of a wall of the restaurant, and along with the usual suspects — peas, radishes, and red onions — offers complements like perfectly-cooked chicken, candy-like beets, and artichoke. America, they say, is more like a salad bar than a melting pot. But it’s probably also true that if America ate more salad, a lot of waistlines, gluten obsessions, and diabetes might melt away, too.
FINALIST: CHUCK’S OF HAWAII
1202 Chapala St., 560-6028
Ever since Peter Chen devoted himself to improving the lot of those who like to dine authentically Chinese, this restaurant has proven itself an invaluable asset. Let’s just thank the universe we don’t need to drive to Los Angeles for a weekend dim sum fix. Chen’s is reasonably priced and thoroughly delicious. His Chinese menu — available in English — offers dishes like twice-cooked pork made of pork belly the way it’s supposed to be. And finally, the old bastion of self-reward, Peking duck, which was big in the 1970s with even non-Chinese diners but disappeared from most restaurant menus. Chen offers it in all its pancake-and-plum-sauce glory. Life is better served in a Pavilion.
FINALIST: MADAME LU
Flavor of India
3026 State St., 682-6561
Pride of place is second to pride of taste and flavors for the Joshan family, who have held down this corner of Santa Barbara’s ethnic row for 22 years. (On this part of State Street you can walk from their Punjabi-influenced cuisine to two Japanese places, a Korean BBQ, and an East-German joint.) A steadfast exemplar of why family-owned places last so long in this city — the chefs are more or less constant — the family takes particular pride in the freshness of their ingredients and the longevity of their customer base. A long way from touristy Santa Barbara, Taste is one of those Best Of categories that never seem to change flavor.
FINALIST: THE INDIA CLUB
37 E. Victoria St., 884-9419
Dario Furlatti’s continuing success in this category is all the more impressive if you’ve ever sampled the fare of his competition. This is a town, for some reason, long on elegant Italian food. (You have to go way uptown for the red sauce and red-checkered-tablecloth kind of place that used to reign here.) Ca’ Dario has proven itself steadfast in serving something as hearty as a Bolognese, but as delicate as immaculately roasted chicken or homemade pastas with truffle. The room is lively and usually full, but the waitstaff never seems annoyed by requests. And now with its own pizza place nearby, the Furlatti dynasty may prove itself unbeatable.
Mexican Restaurant; Salsa
“I think the reason people like us is the way we change our menus all the time,” said Los Agaves’ owner Carlos Luna, whose commanding Milpas Street success allowed him to open a second place on De la Vina Street this year. The salsa bar ranges from timid to roaring. “We always have different things whenever people come in. That is, we always have our regular menu, so people can have their favorites, but we always have something new. Plus, this year we began improving the quality of the ingredients,” said Luna, who is using organic food whenever possible. “We are very happy that we won.”
FINALIST: LOS ARROYOS
Seafood Restaurant; Clam Chowder; Bloody Mary
119 Harbor Way, 966-4418
This awesome trifecta of seafood, clam chowder (New England, naturally), and Bloody Mary wins seems like the pinnacle of human accomplishment for those rooted in a fishing village. Well, maybe we’re a little more diverse of economy than a real sea town, but when you’re in the harbor sitting in this perfectly picturesque and thrummingly lively upstairs room, the illusion of seafaring pleasures only needs a snippet of “Red Sails in the Sunset” on the jukebox to seem more perfect. This is also a trio of first-place prizes that Brophys has managed to win every year for at least a decade, thereby proving that our voting readers must be hooked.
FINALIST: ENTERPRISE FISH CO. (SEAFOOD RESTAURANT, CLAM CHOWDER); TUPELO JUNCTION CAFÉ (BLOODY MARY)
1225 State St., 965-6074
Truth be told, this is more of a fusion restaurant than a sushi bar, but that doesn’t make it less than spectacular. Arigato is a scene; it’s crowded and not for those desiring intimate whispery evenings. On the other hand, you might find words failing you over the fresh and delectable tuna rolls or yellowtail. The sashimi starts getting more adventurous with mustards, jalapeños, and yuzu juice. But wait, there’s more! Eel salad, clam miso soup, and something called a spicy thruster lifts you into realms where experimental endeavors pay off in foodie pleasure. Or you can have raw salmon on perfect rice with a dot of super fresh wasabi. A perennial winner with much to offer.
FINALIST: SUSHI TERI
22 N. Milpas St., 966-5151
It makes sense, even if it sounds like the logic is reversed. “Maybe people like us because we cook so fresh,” said Kris Lertchareonyong, whose parents opened this restaurant in the early 1980s. (They’ve won this award since it began in the Santa Barbara News & Review.) “And because we’re so busy, we have to keep buying more ingredients, which are fresh. It’s my mom and dad’s recipes, and we haven’t changed anything very much.”
FINALIST: ZEN YAI
Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant
Certain restaurants cross over from an immediate and strict ethnic audience into mass-market approval. Vietnamese food, unbelievably, is still exotic in our town, and there are fierce debates about why some little diner in Goleta offers a more “authentic” brand of pho (a complex broth and noodle soup, often featuring rare beef), rice paper spring rolls, or the many curry and noodle dishes that most people think of as Vietnamese cuisine. The Lam family brought a very fresh, herby taste to their cooking; the pho has lots of fennel and basil tastes while the green-papaya salad refreshes the mouth with a combo of mint, cilantro, and basil. To each her own, but for the collective readers’ taste, this is the Vietnamese they vote pho.
FINALIST: NOODLE CITY
Holdren’s Steaks & Seafood
For oldsters, one of the subliminal joys of eating at Holdren’s downtown is its location, the storefront for the original Joe’s; thankfully, the family has had the decency to preserve the atmosphere and the strong drinks to keep them subconsciously happy. The rest is an honest menu full of prime bovine cuts cooked remarkably well and served with dramatically delicious sauces. It’s what you want from a steak house, no cut corners or fancy-pants celebrity gawking to come between the cut and the knife. It’s what’s for dinner, though they do serve lunches, too.
FINALIST: CHUCK’S OF HAWAII
South Coast Deli
“I do believe that customers can sense that we are always striving for perfection,” said South Coast Deli operations manager Dorian Ulmer. The restaurant, which grew from a Goleta outpost to a citywide (and Isla Vista) takeover features a number of big sandwiches, but in all truth, is equally prized for its ridiculously big and affordable salads. “One of the things that people may not realize about us,” said Ulmer, “is that we make great coffee. It’s one of the things that we take a lot of time doing for our customers. We’re very happy that they voted for us,” he said.
FINALIST: THREE PICKLES
5112 Hollister Ave., 967-3775
Woody’s is another one of The Indy perennial winners that puts a lot of stock in their winning and credits the customers for nearly everything. “We win because of our consistency and loyalty,” explained owner Gino Stabile, who bought the place from its original owners in 1992 and has made very few changes to the menu or cuisine, which he describes as a cross between Texas and California barbecue, and thus winning the customers’ hearts. “The people of Santa Barbara are not inclined toward change,” he said. “We’re absolutely glad we won.”
FINALIST: KILLER B’S BBQ
The Habit Burger Grill
One of the oddest incarnations of this Goleta-bred chain is its reappearance in Isla Vista directly across the street from the original site. (Then the Hamburger Habit, the restaurant, which featured chili-smothered burgers and unreasonably cheap pitchers of beer, opened quickly after the Hollister Avenue store where it all began.) Now, I.V. lines up for the satisfying sandwiches made of fried burgers with caramelized onions on a toasted bun that pump out of windows all over town and now in Los Angeles, too. Maybe the chili doesn’t drool onto your shirt anymore, but the one hamburger that successfully challenges In-N-Out in this town is still the same as it ever was — delicious.
The Natural Café
Maybe one reason this burger wins is because there are three of them, suggests general manager Sara Clements. There are the tempeh burger, your basic soy burger, and something they call the Zen Burger, which makes more than one hand clap according to veg and vegan sources. “Something cool that people don’t know about us is that we make our own salad dressings fresh. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but a lot of places get their dressings in a jar,” she said. The place is just getting ready to celebrate 17 years in town, and the meatless hamburgers have been a hit the whole time — they’re naturals.
FINALIST: THE HABIT BURGER GRILL
It’s not just for lunch anymore. In the last decade, the phenomenal, obvious spread of the breakfast burrito has made this proto-version of what the Anglo kitchens call “a wrap” part of every menu in town. But Cucas was a pioneer of the art of burrito enormity since it first opened. There is more of everything in their version, whether it’s rice, beans, eggs, chorizo, carnitas, pollo, steak, or al pastor. The stores are part of growing up here, and with the recent development of breakfast takeover, they may soon be the preferred method of sustenance for every meal. A great place to wrap.
FINALIST: FREEBIRDS WORLD BURRITO
310 Chapala St., 966-9180
Everybody knows by now how great this little tucked-away place is. The art of the taco is simplicity, a type of meat wrapped in a corn tortilla and garnished with sauces, onions, and cilantro. (Actually, Lilly’s now has veggie tacos, too.) These tacos are small, but that’s the whole point. Prices well under $2 allows for great improvisation and taste testing. The exotic variety of cuts, including cheeks, tongue, and eyes (actually meat near the eye) further enhances the opportunity to indulge possibilities. Steamed meats are a nice twist on usual taqueria fare. Hungry folk can always order five or six and then get back in line if that’s not enough. Taste a cuisine that’s rare even in California — the joy of Mexican street food in a comfy friendly sheltered place.
FINALIST: RUDY’S MEXICAN RESTAURANTS
Unless you count white walls and red tiles, this town isn’t big on vernacular architecture. Moby Dick’s is not shaped like a whale. But Rusty’s restaurants are — there’s a lighthouse at the beach, an authentic English pub downtown, and a bank out in Goleta — you can eat in the vault if you call ahead. Whatever spirit of fun and disrespect for norms this may suggest — the franchise began in Isla Vista in the year of the uprisings, 1969 — it sheds rather quickly at the menu sites. This is really classic American pizza. The crusts are thin, but not trattoria-style. Okay, they offer chorizo and hamburgers, but the cheese and pepperoni is what people get whether it’s inside a bank vault or in the comfort of your home.
FINALIST: OLIO PIZZERIA
Restaurant for Dessert
134 E. Canon Perdido St., 965-7922
Let philosophers divine why this place, known as S.B.’s classic healthy food restaurant, perennially gets awarded in our polls for its sweets. General manager Donna Mudge thinks she knows. “I think it’s because we have more variety than anyone else. We have our consistent sellers, they are like the baseline, but we’re also always doing different things.” Mudge credits baker Ashleigh Carracino for all this variegated delectation. “People come in, and they get a wider variety of things to choose from. Plus, we are trying harder to make more vegan, gluten-free, and raw desserts, but you always indulge your decadent full-bore desserts, too.”
FINALIST: FRESCO CAFÉ
Restaurant with a View
Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach
2981 Cliff Dr., 898-2628
Some codgers remember when this place was a burger stand, then a breakfast joint with a nice bar. Now the Boathouse, it’s prettier than ever, though the stunning remained the same. Primarily seafood with an emphasis on small plates, this is the perfect place to sit, sip, nosh, and gaze into fair eyes when not watching the seas crash on the strand. Either out on the heated patio or safe and warm behind ample plate glass windows, the view is beachy.
FINALIST: BROPHY BROS.
The Palace Grill
8 E. Cota St., 963-5000
They call it “Team Service,” and what it means is that any server walking by and seeing a perplexed look or a dipping level of content will stop and ask to rectify the situation, whether or not he or she is your server. Somehow, you might expect help like that to be intrusive, but the Palace has been pulling off this award for over two decades and they know the difference — when to top off an ice water and when to let customers chill. A good place to eat if you enjoy pleasures.
Sunday Brunch; Hotel/Motel
Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore
1260 Channel Dr., 969-2261
The oldest of the luxury hotels still standing, the Biltmore has been a favorite place for over 50 years. The beautiful locale across from Butterfly Beach might be enough to sell it alone, but the Biltmore is like an elegant Spanish-flavored mansion that is open to the public. The brunch has been a place of celebration since the mid-1970s, and it’s still going strong in popular imagination today, despite a lot of competition. Staying in the hotel implies celebration or escape with its hushed décor, fantastic restaurants, and European-style spa. You don’t need to go to Beverly Hills to class-jump and be pampered. Lots of those folks come up here for a taste of SoCal sublime.
FINALIST: THE BREWHOUSE (SUNDAY BRUNCH); THE CANARY HOTEL (HOTEL/MOTEL)