“You have never eaten at an Islands?” my friend asked incredulously.
This question, paired with the same disbelieving eyebrow raise, would continue to plague me throughout the day of my first Islands experience. For those like me who are not hip to the popular chain that recently opened at La Cumbre Plaza, Islands Restaurant is known for affordable burgers, tacos, and signature fries smothered in cheese with optional — but in my newly formed opinion, mandatory — bacon.
Islands was founded by Tony DeGrazier, who, in the 1960s, emerged from the Oahu surf with his U.S. Navy buddies, craving a good burger. He turned that vision to reality in May 1982, opening the first Islands Restaurant at Pico and Veteran in West Los Angeles and promising to deliver an “ohana,” or family, vibe. The restaurants proliferated over the decades, with 53 now in California (counting Santa Barbara), and additional locations in Arizona, Nevada, and, yes, Hawai‘i.
Today, Islands still strives to create a beachy, laid-back atmosphere, which is a familiar feel to Santa Barbarans. Manager John Ladd said Islands had been eyeing a location in Santa Barbara for some time and believes that La Cumbre Plaza was the perfect place to set up shop. “We want to cater to a local community rather than a touristy area,” explained Ladd. “Here, we have really hit where we need to be: with families and locals.”
Inside, the walls are decorated with photographs of Goleta Beach, the S.B. Harbor, and other familiar sites. “We want to show that we aren’t different from Santa Barbara; we are part of Santa Barbara,” said Ladd, pointing to a photo of Sands Beach behind me. The restaurant also recently donated money to victims of the Thomas Fire, said Ladd, “to show the community we are a part of the community, rather than just a chain.”
My first taste at Islands was those fries, doused in cheese, bacon, and green onions, which turned out to be an appetizer that fed me from my fridge for a few more days. This may be blasphemy, but I didn’t opt for a burger, even though the “Big Wave” burger seemed like a good antidote to the small waves at Sands. Instead, I chose the fish tacos with a delicious chipotle-laced white sauce. And to wash it all down, I enjoyed their margarita. Altogether, it was as Ladd advertised: a “good and simple” experience, with a variety of crowd-pleasing choices for all.
All that’s missing now is, well, an island.
3825 State St.; (805) 946-0044; islandsrestaurants.com