Behind those mysterious kitchen doors, the real restaurant world is a far cry from the glamorous scenes that dominate today’s shiny magazine spreads and pensive docuseries. Cooking on a busy line is hot, hustled, and even hair-raising at times, while making sure the dining room doesn’t explode into chaos requires more planning, poise, and patience than most can muster. Then there’s management and ownership, whose constant woes range from finding the next busboy in a strangled labor market to taking out yet another loan to repair that busted range.
But from such toil comes edible beauty, whether that’s carefully crafted scones, artfully displayed ribbons of raw fish, or diligently spit-grilled scraps of pork served in steamy tortillas with pineapples on top.
To celebrate how that culinary alchemy enhances our lives, the Santa Barbara Independent launched the annual Foodie Awards in 2010. Since then, we’ve honored more than 100 restaurants, chefs, waiters, and purveyors. Gratefully, with even more exciting restaurants opening this year, Santa Barbara’s epicurean well shows no signs of drying up.
Congratulations to this year’s winners.
By Paul Wellman
The Izzy’ Lifetime Achievement Award: Jeannine’s
After Montecito’s terrible trials by fire, mud, rock, and muck this winter, it ached for a place that could offer the calm of normal. Salvation came in the form of coffee, communion, and the certainty that only a 30-year-old business could bring, as Jeannine’s, the restaurant and bakery on Coast Village Road, became Montecito’s comfort clubhouse.
“We felt the call to give back when our town was most desperate for that community support,” said Alison Hardey, the chief operating officer of Jeannine’s. “We tried to provide small acts of kindness and generosity of spirit, one hot cup of coffee or scone or cookie at a time. We staged our kitchen outside on our patio and brought our food in from the other restaurants where we were not shut down. And even though we did not have water, we somehow knew, no matter what, our door had to be open. We had to be a beacon of hope.”
Of course, all of Jeannine’s locations are Izzy-worthy, as they’ve been delicious for decades, and there will soon be scone sightings in Goleta, too. (The award is named after La Super-Rica’s Isidoro Gonzalez, who received our first lifetime achievement Foodie in 2010.)
“Jeannine’s is about keeping the food fresh and simple and making people feel at home,” said Hardey. “We actually do not know what the mystery is, but we think our scones say something wholesome, something handmade, and we always try to make them each and every day, rain or shine. They, like Jeannine’s, are ‘count-on-able.’”
Real Ranch-to-Table Award: The Bear and Star in Los Olivos
“The term ‘farm-to-table’ is the most exploited and deceptive marketing campaign of our generation” is the blunt claim of Chef John Cox from The Bear and Star. “It threatens not just consumers, but our entire food chain.”
Cox is the first to admit that The Bear and Star is a long way from being 100 percent sustainable in its sourcing, but the Los Olivos restaurant pushes that message deeper than anyone else, with much of the meat and produce coming straight from the home ranch of the Fess Parker family, which co-owns the restaurant inside of its Wine Country Inn. “By inviting guests to experience the ranch and farm and dine at the restaurant, we hope to raise the bar for what ‘farm-to-table’ really means,” said Cox.
That translates to some of Santa Barbara County’s best meals right now, often with 20-plus ingredients from the 714-acre ranch that’s just seven miles away. There are 150 head of wagyu cattle (yep, American wagyu), 100 head of lamb, 100-plus chickens, 120 quail, 30 ducks, and a family of Mangalitsa pigs. And that’s just the animals — there are also a farm, orchard, two large greenhouses with aquaponics, an inland seaweed cultivation tank, a mushroom cave, and bee hives. On top of that, Cox is also bringing in stellar guest chefs (Josiah Citrin! Nancy Silverton!) regularly.
“Most of our recipes circle back to culinary tradition — a perfect deviled egg, a dry-aged wagyu steak roasted in a cast-iron pan, a few slices of heirloom tomato with house-made vinegar and sea salt,” said Cox. “Our goal isn’t to reinvent the wheel. If anything, it’s to better understand the wheel and make it the very best we can.”
From left: Manager Alessia Guehr; her father, Chef Norbert Schulz; and Sous Chef Vicente Torres
Burger with Your Beer Award: The Nook
Santa Barbara finally joined the contemporary food world: One of our tastiest restaurants operates out of a shipping container inside of a beer hall. That’s the Nook, located amid the Lama Dog Tap Room inside the Funk Zone’s Waterline complex. It’s the latest spot from Chef Norbert Schulz, who’s been cooking in town for 35 years.
“Before we opened the Nook, I spent eight months working through recipes, tasting, trial and error, and combining flavors that I thought would be unique and fun for our diners,” said Schulz. “I feel our menu offers items for every palate — vegan, vegetarian, etcetera. I am extremely happy and confident with all that we are able to offer.” So is everyone who dines there.
Schulz and his team — which includes longtime business partner Brigitte Guehr and daughter Alessia Guehr as manager — cook up everything from a duck foie gras burger (complemented with shallot and fig port wine marmalade, melted Manchego cheese, pear, and endive) to a Waterline seafood burger, whose salmon and shrimp patty is topped with avocado, grilled tomato relish, tarragon mayonnaise, and watercress. You’ll taste decades of fine-dining expertise distilled into these happily humble meals.
Dynamic Duo of Dining Award: Elaine and Alberto Morello @ Olio e Limone Ristorante
Olio e Limone Ristorante opened in 1999; then came Olio Pizzeria in 2010 and Olio Crudo Bar in 2014. It’s as if the two-time Foodie Award winners Elaine and Alberto Morello have built their own public market on Victoria Street, all by themselves.
After working in Los Angeles and Orange County restaurants, the couple came to Santa Barbara, which Elaine knew well from her UCSB days. “We definitely planned to be in this for the long haul,” she said, crediting a focus on quality, consistency, and authenticity of their Italian cuisine as well as hospitable service for their staying power. “We know there’s always room for improvement and strive every day to make it the best we can. It’s still a daily labor of love.”
All three spots offer all sorts of brilliance, from what they make — thin-crust pizza, fresh pasta, creative carpaccio, and even their own olive oil from Alberto’s home region of Sicily — to what they source, including artisanal Italian craft beers and obscure ingredients for barrel-aged cocktails.
“Guests realize, and appreciate, that we have optimal ingredients,” Elaine explained. “Italian cuisine has been farm-to-table for centuries.” But it rarely offers this much variety with such wonderful service.
Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but upper De la Vina Street is quite the scene these days, and its beating heart is Yellow Belly. A happening happy hour, blissful brunch, comfortable patios, cool combos playing some nights — this spot has it all. But as good as that mighty mushroom burger is (and you can get it veggie), and as adventurous (Mikkeller Windy Hill) and homespun (M.Special) as the short but neat tap list is, it’s really all about the crowd.
“The people are key,” explained owners and longtime friends Tracy Clark and Alex Noormand. “We’ve done our best to surround ourselves with good people, staff and customers alike. We lead with a lighthearted approach, laugh, and have fun with our customers and employees. Turns out, it’s contagious! It’s what makes being at Yellow Belly feel like home.”
Okay, your home might not provide grilled peaches with ricotta, arugula, and white balsamic drizzle, like one of the recent oh-so-summery specials (and always consider those specials), but then that’s why you go out. Plus, the people.
When Japanese restaurants open in the United States, the menu usually gets an American twist, like cream cheese in sushi rolls and spicy peppers on sashimi. The opposite is true at Yoichi’s, the humble house of kaiseki food on East Victoria Street where authentic Japanese cuisine is served in seven contemplative courses each night.
“Everyone wanted to know what real Japanese food is, so that’s why I did this,” explained Yoichi Kawabata, as his wife, Mogi Kawabata, translated from his whisper-soft Japanese. “I knew that if we introduced this traditional kaiseki food, people would like it. I have confidence in what I am doing.”
Yoichi learned how to make the clean, healthy, and seasonally dependent kaiseki cuisines in the temples of his native Yokohama and then cooked in Tokyo and San Francisco before coming to Santa Barbara. A typical evening will feature vegetables, meats, and, of course, raw fish prepared in myriad styles. “I want people to enjoy the different styles of cooking techniques from Japan,” he explained.
They’ve been embraced by Santa Barbara foodies, as well as many who now come from Los Angeles and the Bay Area to experience the meticulous meal. “If you let people try what Japanese people are eating,” said Mogi of the unique ingredients that find their way into the food, “they like it here too.”
Uni for All Award: Stephanie Mutz, Sea Stephanie Fish
Bright orange, foamy in texture, tastes like seawater, technically a gonad — getting Americans to fall in love with sea urchin, or uni, should be an uphill battle, but Stephanie Mutz is converting the masses with glee. The Newport Beach–raised, UCSB-educated biology teacher shifted to urchin diving when she lost her teaching gig during the economic doldrums of 2008. She quickly became the poster child/megaphone for the Santa Barbara Channel’s world-class uni.
When she’s not being interviewed by magazines and television producers from around the globe, Mutz spends two to four days a week on Abre Ojos, the fishing vessel she shares with business partner Harry Liquornik. Instead of selling her catch to a larger processing company, Mutz sells directly to restaurants, including such Los Angeles hotspots as Providence, Maude, Vespertine, n/naka, and Guerrilla Tacos, as well as to Loquita, Convivo, Bluewater Grill, and elsewhere in Santa Barbara.
“My direct-to-consumer marketing gives me a lot more purpose and makes this more community oriented,” said Mutz. “That’s really important to me. I probably wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t selling direct and knowing that the product is not being wasted and that everything is being appreciated.”
She believes people have become more adventurous in eating thanks to TV cooking shows but also realizes that consumers’ desire to truly know their food is key to her success. “People are a lot more interested in wanting to know their purveyors, which is fantastic,” said Mutz. “We’re not as salty and scary as they think we are!”
When Convivo opened in the renovated Santa Barbara Inn near East Beach in the summer of 2016, the restaurant touted a menu of “Nomad Italian” food. Curious eaters quickly learned that meant a wide-ranging yet always delicious exploration of the entire Mediterranean Sea, as interpreted through the masterful mind of Chef Peter McNee.
The concept “allows us to let the menu wander,” said McNee. “Italy has always been a melting pot, so we’re not confusing Italian food — we’re just exploring other cuisines within Italian cooking. We just want to have food that people enjoy, food that’s going to be in someone’s mind when they’re planning where to eat.”
He’s especially proud of his chicken, which is rubbed with harissa, roasted on a spit for 90 minutes, and then served with golden raisins, olives, almonds, and roasted cauliflower. “It’s the best chicken in town,” McNee claimed. But he also loves the “Agricole” part of his menu, which showcases vegetables, from charcoal avocado to beets and burrata to carrots agrodolce.
Raised in Minnesota, McNee worked primarily in the Bay Area, with a year stint in Italy, before he and his wife took a liking to Santa Barbara. With a handful of partners, McNee was able to open Convivo and start raising his family here.
“To be able to open a restaurant across the street from the beach is a dream come true,” said McNee. “We love being here, and we hope we have continued success for the next 20 years.”
From left: Elizabeth Salinas, Adriana Virrueta, and Conny Caza
Tucked-Away Taqueria Award: Cuernavaca
Unassumingly located in a small commercial complex on Carrillo Street — with Mel’s Lounge on one side and Jiffy Lube across the street — Cuernavaca Taqueria serves up some of the best Mexican food in town. The menu is full of can’t-go-wrong items, but one of the standouts is the alambres, a hefty dish of grilled meat, bell pepper, onion, and melted cheese, served next to a pile of freshly made corn tortillas. Think fajitas, but better. There are protein medleys like the Parrillada Mixta, with steak, marinated pork, shredded chicken, pork chop, ham, and chorizo, or pared-down options such as Taco Azteca, with grilled chicken breast, mushrooms, and jalapeños.
Tacos, quesadillas, sopes, tortas, gorditas, and burritos are all there too, but made with crisp ingredients seasoned and flamed so perfectly that the dishes stand heads above the competition. Cuernavaca, whose name comes from the Nahuatl phrase cuauhnāhuac, which means “surrounded by trees,” operates locations in Ventura and Oxnard and offers plates you might have a hard time finding anywhere else, including a white pozole made with vegetables, pork, and hominy or nixtamal, dried corn treated with an alkali.
There are even chicken nuggets for adventure-shy kids. Their menudo is one of the best anywhere on the South Coast. And the service is always lickety-split, with plates flying back and forth through the ordering window next to a beautifully muraled main dining room with a soccer game always playing softly on the TV.
Though we’ve long enjoyed a fair share of Asian restaurants, from Chinese and Japanese to Thai and Vietnamese, there’s never been much authentic Korean food in Santa Barbara. That gap closed about three years ago, when Choi’s Oriental Market in Goleta started serving classic Korean dishes like bibimbap and soondubu jjigae from morning until night.
Choi’s was opened in 2004 by Bruce Lee, who moved to the United States 46 years ago. He ran teriyaki and other Asian-style restaurants in Houston, Hawai‘i, and Guam before settling in Santa Barbara 23 years ago. He’s owned such establishments as Sushi Go Go in the S.B. Harbor and New China Restaurant in Old Town Goleta but now focuses on Choi’s alone. “This is the one I kept,” he said.
When his wife, Sue Lee, started preparing small to-go Korean foods for their deli case, customers demanded they open a restaurant. About $80,000 in new kitchen costs later, Sue is the star chef, and now there’s a steady flow of dedicated fans from all walks of life, hungry for the spicy, fermented ingredients that power the cuisine.
“I’ve been eating kimchi for 68 years, and I’m still strong!” said Bruce, who is 75 years old. So what’s his favorite? “The galbi,” he said, pointing to the barbecue short-rib combo. “It’s expensive for here ($22.95). I love it, though!”