When I get hungry for old Santa Barbara, I drive a kind of lost highway out to the Dutch Garden. You’ll find it (not them) on a stretch of road at the bottom of San Marcos Pass, the delta of automobiles washing down from Lake Cachuma, where State Street turns without fanfare or notice into Hollister Avenue, that tipping point of consciousness between S.B. and greater Goleta-land completely off tourist itinerary.
The neighborhood in question brims with oddities: a trailer park, Eller’s Donuts (an old timers’ hangout that now sells Thai food, too), a stained-glass store, and a Mexican seafood place where a proud A&W Root Beer stand once stood. Hope Ranch is very nearby; the street has pool supplies and golf pros to prove it. But the strip that time forgot is nicely seamy, too. It hosted an adult store for decades. In the 1960s, there was a topless (not tapas) bar there, which a friend of mine won in a poker game. Being an affable hippie type, he didn’t hold onto it long. Later, it turned into the Chili Factory, a biker haunt that morphed into a post-punk band scene.
It’s strictly Tweensville today, from El Mercado’s American Indian Health & Services altruism to Ye Olde Butcher Shop’s long, blue-collar lineup for sandwiches; and, in its mongrel heart, lies the Dutch Garden, a shaded, unplanted place without anything remotely from Holland.
Dutch Garden Restaurant opened in 1925, before The Big Earthquake, according to current proprietor Ken Luetjen, who’s owned the place with his wife, Laura, since 1985. “It was called the Poppy Cafe back then; it was an English counter,” he said. “In fact, the lunch counter in the front is the same one they built.” The road it faced, now State Street and the 101, was once a sylvan country highway stretching from Fillmore to San Luis Obispo, according to Ken, and the Poppy Cafe was an auto stop back in the day of flivver and brougham. There were tomato fields within eyeshot back then.
In 1945, the place changed hands and the new owners originally wanted to call it the German Gardens. In those days of WWII, however, this was not a particularly popular ethnicity in America, and so the euphemistic name Dutch Garden was struck, like freedom fries and French Toast-though I always assumed it was an on-purpose misspelling of Deutsch Garden, which would make sense.
There are three worlds in this tree-shaded haven: the counter, the gardens, and a dining room covered with corrugated steel and plastic. Each has its considerable charm. The counter is mostly male-dominated lunch trade. Easygoing with tons of camaraderie, this is a perfect place to enjoy the hamburger, which is one of S.B.’s best-kept culinary secrets. “We do it all here,” explained Luetjen. “Grind the meat, form the patties, everything.” The gardens are a fine place to eat, or to imbibe a brew, which, of course, a German restaurant stocks with authority. My favorite area is the dining room, however, with its antiquated electric space heaters, dark ambience, friendly staff, and intoxicating smells drifting in from the kitchen. I like to come in late in the week but early in the day, getting there right after opening, ordering food, and then watching as the place fills with people of all ages, though many considerably older than myself.
German food used to be plentiful in this town: The Little Hofbrau, Werner’s Deli, the German Deli in Goleta, and the Heidelberg Inn. Now there is only the Dutch Garden. It’s substantive fare, a notch heavier than that generic marker known as “comfort food”-ground meats, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. Though some of the most delicate wines possible-trockenberenauslese and eiswein-come from this world, beer defines it, surrounds it, perfumes the wursts and the sauerkrauts and the mustards with warmth and effervescence. It’s coziness beyond any of winter’s rages. In summer, a beer garden is cool breezes on your face.
My favorite meal here is the schnitzel, which here is a pounded piece of pork breaded beautifully and fried to precise mouth-feel specifications. It has a buttery finish to the taste and the crunch of the breading contrasts with the chewy smoothness of the thin pork. With a wedge of lemon squeezed over it, it’s a pure pleasure. The carrots are cooked soft crisp and delicately incensed with cumin. The potato salad is the best I have ever had in town: It’s a dish where balance is more important than drama. The rest of the menu is also refreshingly sinful, full of robust flavors and beguilingly rich combinations of meat, root vegetables, and whispers of autumn glories like oregano, nutmeg, and freshly ground white pepper.
I first ate there many years ago: sitting under the corrugated roof while dark skies dropped rain, the room was lit by the coils of an old-fashioned space heater; or roistering outside, drinking beer back then with friends, probably courting obnoxiousness. There were many years when I didn’t go there at all, but in the 1990s, I met a tough-guy novelist who invited me to have lunch in the gardens on a very hot day. We talked about traveling across America, and writers we liked, and I liked his unwritten adventures more than the book he had written to sell. And then I wondered why I never visited Dutch Garden anymore. It was private and open, it was exotic and homey. After lunch, as we stepped out into the blazing sun of State Street, I thanked him for reminding me of a familiar place I had forgotten. The writer had only been in town for a year. “It’s the last best place in town,” he said, misquoting another tough-guy novelist. But back then, there was a Mom’s, a La Tolteca, Casa Blanca, and even a Copper Coffee Pot. Twenty years later, he’s still right.