Esau’s Cafe hasn’t just moved over from State Street to Chapala Street, it’s moving up. As owner Scott Stanley said, “We hired a chef [Wes Dichtel] to bring the flair to dinner. You need to be at the next level.” While people have flocked at breakfast to the reopened diner since the end of August for its famous Benedicts, omelets, and loco moco (a Hawaiian specialty of ground beef, sticky rice, eggs, onions, and gravy), many don’t realize there’s a whole new dinner menu. As I dug into some luscious fish tacos recently, Stanley lamented, “There probably are 20,000 people over there on State Street right now, even on a Monday.” Meanwhile, his spiffy new spot has maybe 10 tables busy.
No doubt that will change once the word gets out. Not only does the day menu come printed with a sun and the night one with a moon, but the entire restaurant can shift gears. “We go from paper napkins to linen, the lights dim, we light candles,” Stanley said. “We even went for darker colors to get the right feel.” Not that the place is dim and clubby; instead, it’s as bright and colorful as one might expect a beach town spot to be, especially when owned by a surf enthusiast who can get a signed Kelly Slater board and hang it as part of the decor. The walls feature transparent prints from famed graphic artist Rick Sharp, known for his vintage stylings for Hawaiian Airlines. At Esau’s, the effect is of giant postcards warmly glowing. “This is all about Santa Barbara, from her surf to her people,” Stanley explained, surveying the room and imagining the clientele on a busier night: “There could be two surfers here, and the mayor there, and a millionaire there. : We’re all just people who have to eat.”
Eat we will, as the evening menu features a wide range of food, from typical cafe favorites like the French dip to the Costa Azul salad decked out with grilled asparagus, smoked gouda, candied walnuts, dried apricots, and blueberry vinaigrette. Chef Dichtel specializes in Cajun and Creole cuisine, so one knowledgeable server rightfully recommended fried green tomatoes to every patron. As for the fish tacos, my biggest complaint is they’re so large you have to eat them with a knife and fork. The halibut was moist and fresh; the breading crisp and not at all greasy. And if you judge a place by its beans, the ones that accompany the tacos will please-plump, juicy, and not runny, sparked with oregano and chile.
It’s little surprise that the new Esau’s has hit the ground running, since Stanley and his wife, Arti, have been part of Santa Barbara’s fixture restaurants for decades. He worked at Chuck’s as a waiter for seven years, the same time Arti worked at Harry’s. One day, they drove by the old Esau’s and, Stanley recalled, “Arti said, ‘That’s supposed to be good,’ and I said, ‘I’m not going into that piece of shit,’ but one day we did and we started going all the time.” The Stanleys wound up buying the place in 1978 from owner Tom Esau, who’d already run it for decades. “I worked with him for three weeks for free,” Stanley said, “and he worked with me for three months. I did everything by the book. The place was his recipes, his life passion.” Though Esau has since passed on, Stanley even insisted that some dishwashers saw his ghost at the old location from time to time.
Still, Stanley called the old spot “worn out” (it’s been vacant since Esau’s left in October 2006) and prefers the Chapala location: “It just has a feel that’s so nice, so easy on the eyes.” There’s still plenty of continuity, especially in the kitchen where cooks Stanley has worked with for as many as 25 years returned for this go around. “It’s like it’s been going for 10 years,” he explained. “Everyone just gives me their hearts-they want it to be so good. How could I do everything to make Esau’s what I want it to be without my employees?”
Stanley also is amazed at the reception he received after the nearly two-year break between locations. “When I closed, people hugged me crying-it almost brought me to tears,” he remembered. “People since the opening have been hugging me and thanking me. I should be thanking them. Without the support of the people I couldn’t do it.”
Sure enough, after the interview he went and worked the room, taking in much praise for the food, the service. Patrons can’t wait to offer their testimonials when they hear I’m interviewing him for The Independent. That’s the kind of community a place like Esau’s engenders.
Esau’s Cafe is located at 721 Chapala Street. Call 965-4416 or see esauscafe.com.