All weddings have the same underlying
rhythm: They move inexorably, like a wind-up toy, from great
tension to big relief. Even a quickie Justice of the Peace ceremony
involves some performance anxiety before the I Do’s, and your big
church weddings are often stiff mannered followed by champagne
toasts and cake-mashed-in-the-face feasts. A microcosm of that
scary fun is the wedding rehearsal dinner. Here we have the first
twining of the clans — your crazy mom meets my anal-retentive papa,
which often happily ends in a big boozy dinner after the tense mock
ceremony. A G-rated bachelor/bachelorette bash, though usually sans

The best wedding rehearsal I ever attended took place in the
pre-Sideways Santa Ynez Valley. Dragooned
into driving a small busload of newly interlaced family through a
few choice wineries, I enjoyed watching the barriers slip as the
late-harvest zinfandels took hold of my passengers. But I also
enjoyed that glorious valley; each winery seemed more bucolic and
memorable, even though I was strictly not partaking. Their
appetites whetted by three rounds of sophisticated bevs, we dined
like European plutocrats at a winery picnic, whilst a few napped
unceremoniously in nearby woods.

Want formal? Many of the vintners, like
Sunstone and Firestone, will
arrange long-table feasts in their aromatic cellars, according to
culinary genius and food critic Brigitte Guehr, who has recently
added hotelier to her sparkling list of résumé successes. Owner of
the charming Meadowlark Inn and the
Storybook Inn (both in Solvang), Guehr herself
does rehearsal dinners at her hotels (call her at 688-1703), and is
currently tinkering with a whole gestalt wedding package (“With
everything. You just bring the dress.”) done for somewhere on the
affordable end of five figures.

But your vinous version could conclude at the Ballard
Inn & Restaurant
where Chef Budi Kazali’s consummate
mastery of the cuisines of both East and West represents a unity of
adventure and sumptuous flavor worlds. There’s The Hitching
(classic, dude) for great steaks and a fine bar.
Restaurant Nu’s Dave Cecchini runs The Ballard
, and the Brothers, as they are always called, of
Mattei’s Tavern, routinely instill delight into
comestibles. All these people need a long lead time if we’re
talking about Saturday nights. The wineries are always there.

Quintessential Santa Barbara weddings orbit the
Biltmore, though. One good reason, besides the
elegant SoCal feel of the beachfront luxury digs, is the
adaptability of forums. Parties of about 10 could fit nicely into
the Bella Vista room, which features a seaside terrace and a
fireplace. Larger parties, say 90 people (and, hey, this is getting
a little crazy for just a rehearsal), might be accommodated in the
Del Mar room, with banquet stations ands chefs in attendance. (All
this will be endlessly assisted if the daddy footing the bill is
surnamed Warbucks.) Or as wacky alterna-feast, the staff could set
up a croquet game and picnic on the grounds, according to Kirsten
Vanbrunt, director of catering and conferences. Better yet, get the
family to rent a suite of adjoining cottages and take dinner in the
magical world of Biltmore patios. BBQ like the movie stars do.

But for my kind of money, I would stick with any kind of
exquisite meal that’s served family style, for raucous connections
about to be made. Since there are no Italian places working that
end of the spectrum right now, how about eating at a place that
gets my vote as most-improved S.B. restaurant of all time?
China Pavilion on Anapamu and Chapala streets, now
under the sway of owner/chef Peter Chen, will cook you a
five-course meal on big plates you can pass around. Depending on
the level of daring, Chen will tailor a meal, go off the regular
menu and onto the one Chinese people consult, or go all the way
into stellar, seldom unexplored regions. I prefer some of the
dishes that distantly evoke comfort food, like the scallion
pancakes, fiery-spiced steamed dumplings, a mash of fava beans Chen
makes, an impeccably tender breaded squid, chicken cooked with
chestnuts in clay pots, and a lovely Chinese version of beef stew I
ate once and remember in fine detail to this day. You can discuss
it with him (call him at 560-6028), or let him surprise you.

Remember, nothing unites families more reliably than a meal
(croquet and inebriated games of Twister naturally are exceptions).
Just remember that everybody’s nervous, but probably all want this
new marriage thing to work out in the end, too. The pundits always
say luck favors the prepared. And if that means tucking into a
diver scallop served on red-pepper risotto or an orange crème
brûlée as sacrifice to preparedness, then I think a lot of
rehearsal would be very worth it.


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