“Stick with what you know,” Michael Towbes admonished me over a
weekday lunch at Ca’ Dario. A simple statement, one that reflected
not only his considerable business dealings, but his lunch choices
as well. True to his own advice, Towbes stuck with what he knows,
and he knows Ca’ Dario well. The staff knows him well, too,
greeting him sincerely. He ordered one of his standard dishes, the
Lattu­ghette con Gorgonzola e Noci, which is a fancy way of saying
a mixed green salad with apple, walnut, raisin, and crumbled blue
cheese. I went with Michael’s recommendation of the rigatoni.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Towbes attended Princeton
and MIT, studying structural engineering before enlisting in the
Navy for a three-year tour of duty with the Civil Engineering
Corps. His father, originally from Russia, “possessed a law degree,
though he never practiced law.” Instead Towbes’s father got into
real estate, acquiring a few apartment buildings. “He’d pay off the
mortgage and then go fishing,” Towbes recalled. “He didn’t quite
have the drive that I have.”

But something clicked for Michael and he caught the developer
bug. He would have stayed in D.C. developing properties, were it
not for a woman. “I married a California girl,” he said of his
first wife, Gail. Hence, Michael ended up on the Central Coast,
where he became extraordinarily successful not only developing
residential and commercial properties, but also forming Montecito
Bank & Trust, which holds nearly $600 million in assets. He
insists he’s not a banker, but “just a very experienced

During his nearly 45 years as a developer, he’s built more than
5,500 residential units, an impressive amount of homes. But after
Gail’s passing, he found a new energy in philanthropy. In 2003 he
made a bold move. He gathered 100 local nonprofits together in one
room to give away $1 million between them, and has been doing it
ever since.

But Towbes is never all business. He values good food and enjoys
talking wine. “I’m a modest wine drinker,” he said. “Anne [his new
wife] and I will usually have one glass each night with dinner.” He
strongly supports the local restaurants and wineries and said,
“I’ve been drinking the wines long enough that I have a reasonably
good knowledge of them.” He also subscribes to several wine
magazines to learn more about the industry. During his wedding last
year at the Bacara he served his guests mainly Santa Barbara

“I stay close to home,” he said. “When I go to New York or
Washington, I search the wine list for California wine.” His
favorite California wines? “I don’t think you can find better pinot
noir than Santa Barbara, but if I’m drinking zinfandel, it will be
from Napa or Sonoma.” Though Towbes doesn’t frequent many Santa
Barbara tasting rooms, he did attend this year’s Vintners’ Festival
to check out the goods from the nearly 80 wineries in the

With all that wine, a man needs to eat. Towbes’s culinary tastes
tend to be more adventurous than his wine choices. “I’m perfectly
happy going to the Palace Café for a hamburger as I am going to
Downey’s,” Towbes said. “And I enjoy both. I also love short ribs
and a good steak now and then. Actually, I have pretty broad

His niece — Amy Sweeney, who owns and operates Ammo restaurant
in Hollywood — told me, “I’ve eaten with him many times and I know
he and Anne appreciate fine food.”

In spite of the occasional red meat indulgence, fish is a staple
within his diet because he’s “become more health conscious.”
Halibut is his favorite because of its versatility. And indeed his
choice of a simple salad during lunch with a small amount of bread,
dipped in olive oil, shows that he doesn’t intend on filling up on
useless carbs. “Look, I have a big investment in clothes and I
don’t want to outgrow them,” he laughed. “I like to dress well. I
love ties and I have a big collection of them.” Of course, when he
attended Princeton, that was the dress code and he’s never deviated
from it.

With all of the restaurants coming and going in town, does he
see the fierce competition among them as being detrimental?
“There’s a phenomenon in Santa Barbara, when a new restaurant
opens, everyone goes there at least once,” Towbes said. “This can
give a restaurateur a very biased view that they’ll be enormously
successful based on their first weeks in business.”

He also understands the virtue of not only eating healthily, but
acting that way. He plays tennis about three times a week. “Mostly
doubles,” he said, which he prefers over singles. Perhaps it’s his
age, or perhaps he understands that life is no longer about
individual accomplishment, but collaboration. Perhaps that’s why he
and his wife are so compatible. “Anne and I love doing things
together, but we’re also comfortable doing things on our own.” It
appears he’s met his match.

And when all is said and done, after all the meals and deals
have been concluded, how best to be remembered? As a businessman?
Developer? Owner of a successful bank? “When I cash in my chips I
think I’d like to be remembered as a philanthropist. Being
successful as a developer has allowed me the joy of giving.”


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