Four locations

Now it’s official: the Benson family’s
on its way to an empire. With shops in Solvang, Los Olivos,
Montecito, and the ever-popular store across from Our Daily Bread
on Santa Barbara Street, Carter Benson admits they have their eye
on conquering Carpinteria and bigger cities to the south.
Meanwhile, back home, Benson’s overjoyed at being picked by the
readers two years in a row. “I don’t know what our secret is. I
know people dig our honey mustard. They like our consistency; I
know I hear about it if a vendor can’t get us our usual
ingredients. But best of all, we’re locals who hire locals to serve
locals. So I guess what we have to work hardest at is preserving
that essence di Panino,” he said, smiling.

Finalist Italian/Greek Deli and Pizzeria

Restaurant for Dessert; Caesar Salad;

Fresco Café and Bakery

3987 State St., 967-6037; 901 E. Cabrillo Blvd. (Santa Barbara
Inn), 963-0111

Owner Jill Brouillard laughed heartily when we suggested that
Fresco’s in the Five Points shopping center is the moral equivalent
of a chick flick. Look at the daily lunch crowd and you will see a
preponderance of female diners. “All I can say is, thank god for
that gorgonzola walnut salad,” she said. Fresco now has a
full-service restaurant in the Santa Barbara Inn — former home of
Michel Richard’s Citronelle — and Jill and her co-owner and
husband, Mark Brouillard, are perhaps even happier with the cuisine
they are creating there with Jason Banks, chef at Fresco at the
Beach. They are grateful for their customers; all are welcome to
taste the fresh joys of their sandwiches, main courses, and
desserts. “We’re loving it,” said Jill of all the reader

Finalists Restaurant for Dessert: Sojourner
Café; Caesar Salad: Pascucci; Caterer: The Country Meat Market

Restaurant for Eating Alone

Sojourner Café

134 E. Canon Perdido St., 965-7922

Dining out can imply a variety of motivations, from simple
nourishment attainment to complex social interactions like, “Thanks
for being in my wedding” or “How can we end this terrible war
between our crime families?” The Soj, as it is universally known,
has long been more focused on the intake of vitamins, with its
gourmet health food priced to be universally accessible. Maybe
that, added to the warmth emanating from both staff and setting,
makes the place a natural for winning this category, which it has
for at least the past five years. Besides, solitude loves company,
and the readers feel this is the best place in town we can be alone

Finalist Natural Café


Woody’s BBQ

5112 Hollister Ave., Goleta, 967-3775

“We’re everywhere,” explained owner Gino Stabile, as one way to
analyze the perennial popularity of this funky-on-purpose BBQ
restaurant out in Goleta’s netherworld between San Marcos High and
Old Town. The eatery also does concessions at events like company
picnics, sporting events, and Cousin Charlie’s 50th birthday bash
at Tucker’s Grove. Paradoxically, according to Stabile, “A lot of
people in Santa Barbara, where Woody’s started, don’t realize we
have a great place out here.” And by the way, “we have a really
good product. Our ribs and chicken are the best,” he said.

Finalist Cities Barbecue

Restaurant to Be Seen In; Martini; Happy


625 Chapala St., 568-1876

It’s a little place, really, off the beaten path on Chapala,
which is threatening to become a hip neighborhood. If it does,
Chads (and the long-gone Somerset) paved the way. Chads began as a
pioneer of American cuisine, and the food still balances well
between comfortable and flashy; it isn’t a steakhouse, but it’s not
quite a Wine Country New Nouvelle either. One unmistakable quality,
however, is Chads’ friendly throngs, who overspill the place on
Friday nights. The happy hour is legendarily wacky and the crowd
young and professional; the martini is made from the Absolut finest
alcohols. Put it together and it comprises the best hanging Chads
this side of Florida.

Finalists Restaurant to Be Seen In: Lucky’s;
Martini: Harry’s Plaza Café; Happy Hour: The Brew House



Six locations

It’s all about family, according to Manager Alex Noormand, one
of the owners of the Montecito Giovanni’s. His son runs the
Carpinteria place and tutto la famiglia agrees to keep an eye on
the freshness of the ingredients and the aged confidence kept in
the old recipes. “Of course it’s the service that really makes us
popular,” said Noormand. “We get nothing but compliments all the
time. That’s what keeps us going.”

Finalist Rusty’s Pizza Parlors

Isla Vista Restaurant

Freebirds World Burrito

879 Embarcadero del Norte, Isla Vista, 968-0123

Freebirds.jpgIn that forlorn student ghetto to the
north, businesses come and (mostly) go. Among them, only one stands
indifferent to the tides of change — and it houses a burrito bar
that was built, believe it or not, on an idea from the student
union cafeteria, which is also gone. Freebirds, with its funny
typography suggesting a bad jam-band from the late 1980s, succeeds
because it is made-to-order food — you pick the
ingredients — served in a pile that commandingly settles any hunger
urge. It’s good food for the kids, and if you don’t believe us,
come by some weekend — try Halloween — and stand in line for the
most delicious of the bellybombs I.V. ever threw.

Finalist Silvergreens Restaurant

Stellar Service

The Palace Grill

8 E. Cota St., 963-5000

New Orleans cooking is the specialty, and now a second
generation of S.B. twenty-somethings is firmly establishing itself
here and reinforcing the restaurant’s role as a place of big
celebration, from sexy anniversary to still-not-scary birthday. The
food’s always been great. But the service, which has been perfected
from a show-offy panache in the 1980s to a friendly yet ruthlessly
helpful machine in latter years, is why we wait in line. The team
approach ensures that once you’ve sat down ye shall not want until
the good times have fully rolled.

Finalist Opal Restaurant and Bar

Take-Out Chinese

Panda Express

605 Paseo Nuevo, 568-3688; 3849 State St., 569-8800; 131 N.
Fairview Ave., Goleta, 683-1857

As beneficent chain places go, this is one of the most
streamlined for pleasure. You get in line and march down the buffet
where staff members scoop out your pleasure from the orange chicken
to the kung pao beef — with many authentically delicious stops in
between. The prices are reasonable, and it’s rare when you don’t
see Chinese people eating there. So you know it’s an acceptable
path to connect your taste buds swiftly with the heaven of a nice

Finalist China Pavilion

Hot Dog; Place to Get Tires


7095 Marketplace Dr., Goleta, 685‑4461

Ours is not a city founded on street food, though you’d think
its tourist economy would make dogs and slices of pizza as common
as the ubiquitous California Roll. But one place Santa Barbarians
are known to seek frankfurters is on a money-saving visit to the
big-box emporium of northern Goleta. While pulling down the town’s
best deal on tires, eyeglasses, and (now) burial caskets, the
typical South Coaster can’t be blamed for ordering a Hebrew
National on a fluffy bun with a soda for less money than a gallon
of gas.

Finalists Hot Dog: DogHouse; Place to Get
Tires: Big Brand Tire Co.

Pizza Delivery

Rusty’s Pizza Parlors

Eight locations, 564-1111

It gets there fast, and it’s still hot because there are stores
strategically placed near the vital hunger centers of Santa
Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, and Montecito. The readers can choose
from a few options for this kind of efficient meal acquisitioning,
but they keep picking Rusty’s because it’s the fast, hot, and
delicious one they like year after year.

Finalist Pizza Mizza

Japanese Restaurant; Sushi Restaurant

Arigato Sushi

1225 State St., 965-6074

Arigato’s initial popularity has never faded. Any night by
Victoria Court will find people waiting outside, mostly not
complaining, to be admitted into the newer, more spacious Arigato
digs. With two stories of dining pleasure, the place vibrates with
a constant intensity, and the food rewards those who like
traditions (like freshness and intricately subtle flavors), but
lean well toward the contemporary too. A constant victor in reader
polls and demonstrably popular, Arigato is as Santa Barbara now as
the Mission bells.

Finalist Japanese Restaurant; Sushi Restaurant:
Sushi Teri


Super Cuca’s Taqueria

2030 Cliff Dr., 966-3863; 626 W. Micheltorena, 962-4028; 6547
Trigo Rd., Isla Vista, 961-0020

This Mexican dish, which food writers allege was invented in Los
Angeles, compresses many substances of flavor, texture, and
nourishment in an almost delicate floury edible container called a
tortilla (cousin of the Chinese laobing) and maligned by bad usage
as a “wrap.” At Cuca’s, they are made huge and with truly
surprising varieties of flavor, though the chicken and veggie seem
to dominate sales. The place has exceptionally fine (spicy) chile
verde, too, and substantial carnitas (pork cooked tender in lard).
Annual winners of the voter’s award, Cuca’s likes to brag about its
size, but the kids like it because it’s satisfyingly delicious. And
that’s a wrap.

Finalist Los Arroyos Mexican Restaurant

French Restaurant; Bouillabaisse


2700 De la Vina St., 682-2272

Owners Chris and Derrick Melton get all self-effacing every time
they win. And it must be admitted that there is far less French
cooking going on in this town than there was a couple o’ decades
back. But Mimosa has survived for the last 23 years (the Meltons
worked there many of those years and owned it the last six). One of
the little-known secrets of the recently spiffed-up place, beside
the elegant and hardy bouillabaisse recipe? “People don’t realize
we serve reasonably priced food. I mean, it’s great food but not as
expensive as a lot of people think,” said Chris. Are they happy
winning the reader poll? “Yay,” she added.

Finalists French Restaurant: Pacific Crêpes;
Bouillabaisse: Brophy Bros.

Italian Restaurant; Pasta; Tiramisu


729 State St., 963-8123; 6920 Marketplace Dr., Goleta,

This is another one of those places, like Cajun Kitchen and
Arigato, where the reputation seemed to be made immediately and the
lines in front have never shortened. It’s an inexpensive yet
elegant form of Italian cooking, which can be accessed easier than,
say, an eatery just north of Venice. The ingredients are supplied
by Santa Barbara vendors of great reputation like Shalhoob Meats
and Kanaloa fish, and the service is friendly. Even the kids at
UCSB like to mangia downtown for a big plate of their pasta.

Finalists Italian Restaurant: Ca’ Dario; Pasta:
Palazzio Trattoria Italiana; Tiramisu: Via Maestra 42

Indian Restaurant

Flavor of India

3026 State St., 682-6561

It’s all in the family, swears Rajinder Josan. That is to say
that Flavor of India’s secret to success is the consistency of
care. “It’s family all the time, so there is excellent food and
excellent service all the time,” he said. And he should know — he’s
the son of the head chef and the guy with glasses you are likely to
see out front. “Because we are family, we are stable. So if a
customer comes in, they will come back 90 percent of the time,” he
said, laughing. “Maybe the next day, maybe every day. Some of them
even ask if they can rent a room upstairs so they can always eat

Finalist Taj Café

Latin Restaurant

Café Buenos Aires

1316 State St., 963-0242

You enter the courtyard one step off State Street right across
from the glamorous Arlington Theatre. Suddenly, there’s a splashy
fountain, big wrought-iron chairs and tables, and a different kind
of salsa and bread on your table. This is Argentinean gracefulness,
which implies a way with beef dishes and lime-flavored alcoholic
drinks. But there are scads of other dishes and a loyal clientele
who like to sop up some New World elegance before they reenter the
old world elegance of upper State. What a town.

Finalist The Alcazar Restaurant

Mexican Restaurant; Salsa; Take-Out Mexican

Los Arroyos Mexican Restaurant

14 W. Figueroa St., 961-5541; 1280 Coast Village Rd., Montecito,

Like La Super-Rica Taqueria, our most famous Mexican restaurant,
at Los Arroyos you go to the front, order, and pay, then find a
table advantageous to your feng shui. The canny diner will have
stopped and loaded up on cutlery, drinks, and, of course, the wide
variety of salsas. (It’s impossible to know which one the readers
love, but they’re all terrif.) When the food comes, you have
already gotten over all the bad parts of dining out, including the
bill, so it’s hard not to enjoy the food, which may be of
conventional fare from enchiladas to flan. But the readers want you
to know, es la más mejor comida Mexicana — it’s the best of Mexican
food from a town full of great south-of-the-border cuisine.

Finalists Mexican Restaurant: La Super-Rica
Taqueria; Salsa: Rose Café; Take-Out Mexican: Rudy’s Restaurant

Thai Restaurant

Your Place Thai Restaurant

22-A N. Milpas St., 966-5151

These guys have been the perennial favorites since they
introduced the pad thai, red curry, pineapple fried rice, larb,
Thai toast, coconut chicken soup, basil chili beef, and Thai
barbecued chicken to a town that never even knew it was hungry for
all of the above. The citizens, and particularly those who happen
to be our readers, have never forgiven them for introducing their
palates to such delicious addictions.

Finalist Your Choice Thai Restaurant


Italian/Greek Deli and Pizzeria

636 State St., 962-6815

Forty years ago the store was named Johnny’s, but it’s
officially been the Italian/Greek Deli since Johnny Morosin’s
parents bought it from Ezzy Possato in 1971. “But all the
old-timers still call it Johnny’s,” said its namesake. The
continued success is because it’s all familiarity — and family. “We
make a great connection to our customers. We talk to them. We know
their favorite sandwiches — most of the time we start making them
before they order. Are we the best deli in town? I don’t really
think so; there are a lot of really great delis. But we do have an
authentic connection with our customers.”

Finalist South Coast Deli

Restaurant More than 25 Years Old; Neighborhood

Harry’s Plaza Café

3313 State St., 687-2800

It’s been almost five years since John Scott bought this famous
place, and if it was rocky at first — and it was — it’s smoother
now. “I’m thrilled we won. I think what people like is that Harry’s
is the same place that it was when Harry opened it in the 1960s.
People know we pour the most generous drinks in town and they love
our special dishes like the Omaha. It took us a while to get it
back to what it was,” he said. “The only surprise you are likely to
get is how big it is when you walk through the small front

Finalists Restaurant More than 25 Years Old:
Joe’s Café; Neighborhood Bar: Elsie’s

New Restaurant (since Aug. 2005)

Square One

14 E. Cota St., 965-4565

It’s seasonal American cuisine, and if that sounds a little
trendy, just remember: Owners Caitlin Scholle and Justin Tuley got
some back-up. “We have our own farm,” said Chef Tuley. “And though
you can call this seasonally driven, and we change the menu all the
time, I’m still not giving up on summer. I’ve got some great corn
and heritage tomatoes I want to use,” he said. Right now, he’s
proud of a Hawaiian ono pair of dishes: one’s hot and served with
citrus dust, and the other is raw with musk lime gelée and avocado
mousse. His popularity with the readers, we believe, must be

Finalist Le Bon Café

Goleta Restaurant

Beachside Bar-Café

5905 Sandspit Rd., Goleta, 964‑7881

“Good food, good service, good location,” said manager Chris
Martinez, braggin’ on his eatery’s ideal parking lot spot between
UCSB on the right and Goleta pier — gateway to Hope Ranch — on the
left. But Martinez also thinks it’s the chef’s tropical orientation
to seafood that helps differentiate the place from others of the
fish dish persuasion. “He’s also introduced paella this last year,
which is something hardly anybody is doing,” said Martinez. “It’s
unique for this part of town,” he said, still harping on his fine

Finalist Pascucci

Carpinteria Restaurant

The Palms

701 Linden Ave., Carpinteria, 684‑3811

It’s been in Bill Bennett’s family for 50 years, so he should
know. “People like us because we haven’t changed a lot during a
time of great change. The place basically looks like it looked when
my grandfather built it in the 1960s. We have a single concept that
people like, so it’s easy to come in,” said Bennett of the
grill-your-own steak and big horseshoe bar /nightclub combination.
“It’s a nice, fair meal at a decent price. And everybody likes to
party. We’re very happy the readers picked us,” he said.

Finalist Zookers Café and Juice Bar

Montecito Restaurant

Montecito Café

1295 Coast Village Rd., Montecito, 969-3392

It very well could be the coconut cake, the great chicken
breast, or the filet, that, along with the good prices, inspired
the customers’ votes and longtime citywide faithfulness. Mark
Huston, chef and co-owner of the beautiful Montecito Café, confirms
that the restaurant will be opening a second site by the Arlington,
but has no plans to vacate this one, despite rumors. He says he’ll
be there cooking. “Why? Because I own it. I can’t leave even if I
want to,” he laughed.

Finalist Lucky’s


The Alcazar Restaurant

1812 Cliff Dr., 962-0337

Owner Alvaro Castellanos Rojas, who also owns Chilangos, has
been at this almost-tucked-away Cliff Drive location for seven
years. “It’s a destination spot; it’s not down there on State
Street,” he said proudly, also happy that it draws well from the
late 20-, early 30-year-old market he feels is being underserved in
this town. “Where can you go, except to the movies in the early
evening?” The place stays open late for the Mesa, though, and
parties pretty hard for the suburban surroundings. And right now
the spot is hot, with art by locals on the wall and, if Rojas may
suggest, the focaccia bread bowl filled with cheese or the mini
filet mignons. They’re both good enough to make a whole meal. Keep
an eye out for a new hot spot, Milk & Honey, at 30 West Anapamu
Street come mid November of this year.

Finalist Chads


Cajun Kitchen

Six locations

Since time immemorial — or at least the late ’70s — this has
been a place where people actually stand in line for their weekend
brekkie. No scones and fruit compote here. Whether it’s the old
eggs-and-b, or authentic corned-beef hash, or pork chops, or a
hangover-mediating bowl of gumbo, the accent is on big flavors.
Since its first week in business, Cajun Kitchen has been
indisputably the joint where real Barbareños go for real breakfast

Finalist Esau’s Coffee Shop

Sunday Brunch; Buffet

Four Seasons Biltmore

1260 Channel Dr., 969-2261

Ironically, the restaurant portion of this five-star hotel was
closed from last November ’til April. And yet they still won. “We
really appreciate how much these dining experiences mean to the
community,” said Karen Earp, the dulcet-voiced general manager of
Four Season’s S.B. resort. “We’re also very happy with what’s
coming out of Martin Frost’s kitchen,” she said, referring to the
Biltmore’s California wine country-cuisine chef. Meanwhile, they’ve
reopened with the facelift going on through the hotel portions of
the iconic SoCal hotel. “We’re very proud of the honor,” said

Finalists Sunday Brunch: El Paseo Restaurant;
Buffet: Spice Avenue

Late-Night Eats

In-N-Out Burger

4865 Calle Real, Goleta, (800) 786‑1000

Most people lose their chain-store snobbery when entering this
bastion of medium-fast food during the day. But at nighttime, it’s
even better. A nice proximity to freeway flying, the ample variety
of American staples like cheeseburgers, shakes, and fries, the
availability of off-the-menu stipulations (fries well done, burger
animal style), and the plain fact that it’s always open makes it a
ready stop for witching-hour refuels, and — this is a big plus in
this town — a see and be-seen hangout for the kids.

Finalist Roy

Cheap Eats; Sidewalk Café/Patio; Veggie

Natural Café

508 State St., 962-9494; 361 Hitchcock Wy., 563-1163; 5892
Hollister Ave., Goleta, 692-2363

Health food restaurants once ran this town. Sun and Earth, The
Tea House, and The Good Earth used to be where we ate when we were
the way we were. But now, except for the vaunted Sojourner Café and
SpiritLand Bistro, which are all gourmet and stuff, only the
Natural Café is left to feed us when we want healthy but haven’t
got the time to whip up brown rice and veggies at home. Still, it
isn’t that which our readers claim to love about NC. They like the
veggie burger, which is almost a miracle to pull off, the al fresco
dining, and the great prices at this three-store S.B. success
story. So, what we’re saying is, the city likes to eat a cheap,
alternative burger on a patio, and, what’s that you say? It’s
healthy? Good call.

Finalists Cheap Eats: Taco Bell; Sidewalk
Café / Patio: Paradise Café; Veggie Burger: Sojourner Café

Salad Bar; Steakhouse

Chuck’s Steakhouse of Hawaii

3888 State St., 687-4417

It used to be hard to get a steak in this seaside town. Chuck’s
won the award annually, and the owners liked to point out the
dearth of competition. But it’s not true anymore: There are at
least half a dozen great places for good cuts of grilled beef, and
the prices even range from that of celebrity watering hole to
reasonable old Santa Barbara family in the meat biz (cheap). Still,
Chuck’s gets the honors year after year, probably for the simple
elegance of the dining experience and great cuts of meat in a
friendly atmosphere. And the salad bar? It was the first, and,
according to our picky readers, still the best.

Finalists Salad Bar: Savoy Truffles;
Steakhouse: Holdren’s

Chinese Restaurant

China Pavilion

1202 Chapala St., 560-6028; 1070 Coast Village Rd., Montecito,

Since the Chen family took over this downtown haunt, the
cuisinal bar has officially been raised. There is great Chinese
food in town now. Longtime owners of Peking and Szechuan
restaurants in the past, the family just recently took on these, a
fact that seemed to unleash a new precision and daring in the
kitchen. The chef leans toward Shanghai food (try the dim sum
Shanghai noodles), but is quite proficient with commanding spice
assaults like the beef with basil. What’s great is how quickly the
public caught on. While we all mourn the loss of a certain downtown
Cantonese favorite, there is true cause to celebrate the Chen’s
sudden and complete victory here.

Finalist Mandarin Palace

Seafood Restaurant; Restaurant with a View; Cioppino;
Clam Chowder; Bloody Mary

Brophy Bros.

Breakwater, 966-4418

This may be the biggest award sweep ever. (One nearby four-star
hotel took four awards at once a couple of times.) The
accomplishment is increased when you consider how the seafaring
theme should tightly focus the field. It’s a seafood restaurant,
but just because you specialize in fish doesn’t ever imply great
clam chowder, cioppino, and halibut — all at the same time, too.
Then there are the indispensable extras. The view, which famed
designer John Saladino described as one of the most beautiful in
the world, showcases the sky changing colors over a field of masts.
And there’s that famed Bloody Mary in a big glass rimmed with
pepper that can both set hearts aflame and smooth them.
Congratulations to the little place in the harbor that could.

Finalists Seafood Restaurant, Cioppino, and
Clam Chowder: Enterprise Fish Co.; Restaurant with a View: El
Encanto Hotel and Villas; Bloody Mary: Mesa Café & Bar


The Habit

216 S. Milpas, 962-7472; 628 State St., 892-5400; 5735 Hollister
Ave., Goleta, 964-0366

Evolution has shortened the old bizness name from the
alliterative Hamburger Habit to the more ambiguous, and hence
suggestive, name it bears today. The menu has been streamlined a
bit, too. The old chiliburger that once bore the flagship title of
the restaurant is gone. Perhaps I was the only one who ordered it.
The three locations no longer seem like a clone of Tommy’s in Los
Angeles, and the burger holds its head high as being simple,
proudly and deliciously charred, with tomato, onion, a little
lettuce, and no secret sauce. It’s still the one the readers love,
no matter what other habits the establishment wishes to
nurture — what with all this elegant minimalism — and it puts out
great fries to boot.

Finalist In-N-Out Burger


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