El Encanto Hotel
Sue De Lapa

The Santa Barbara hotel world took a giant leap higher this week when El Encanto Hotel reopened on its regal Riviera hill overlooking the town.

What we have is a world-class act, thanks to the Orient-Express people who bought the aging hotel in 2004 for $26 million and poured major millions into the old girl.

It officially opens to the public Friday, March 22, but The Santa Barbara Independent went up for an early peek to see how much the place has changed. Verdict: Beautifully done. The Orient-Express folks were smart enough to take full advantage of the views of Santa Barbara, the channel and islands, not only from its expanded terrace but also from the comfy lobby bar and lounge, dining room, relocated pool, and a new expanse of rolling lawn.

Who else can offer that? San Ysidro Ranch, Four Seasons Biltmore, look out. (Ty Warner, come for a look-see.)

The first thing you notice upon entry is how the lobby has opened up to a grand spaciousness, looking out over the huge new terrace, ready for three meals a day under the sky.

To the right is the dining room, which until the hotel closed for rebuilding, won annual awards as the most romantic place in town for a date. It still overlooks the city, and as someone said the other day, “There’s not a bad seat in the place.” In the old days the food seldom won prizes, but now El Encanto folks promise that it will, thanks to the innovation of the new executive chef, French-born Patrice Martineau, who brings rich experience cooking in New York, the Savoy in London, and the Peninsula in Tokyo.

It’s not your average hotel dining room menu, by any means. Martineau has brought along touches of French and Japanese, along with what he calls “California Coastal Cuisine.”

The main menu includes roasted scallops, red wine braised Kobe-style beef cheeks, and lamb loin. In the bar-lounge you can have a half-dozen oysters for $16, tuna pizza for $22, a Cobb salad for $22, or a good old burger for $21. At the pool you can cool off with French lemonade.

I opted for a sunset table in the open-air covered bar section, nibbling on the tuna pizza (cilantro, ginger, ahi tuna, and much more) and poached lobster and chive glazed gnocchi. Meanwhile, a Monet sky signaled sunset. On display in the dining room are some of El Encanto’s 2,800 bottles of wine. “Sixty percent of the wines by the glass are from the Santa Barbara and Napa areas,” said Emre Balli, beverage manager.

There are 92 bungalow rooms and suites, not in some generic tower, but in the same low-slung cottages that have long existed, protected by El Encanto’s strict historic landmark status. But inside they’re as modern as tomorrow, Wi-Fi included. The exterior styles remain: Craftsman and Mission, with porches and patios.

Down below, there’s a luxurious spa and workout room, and a ballroom.

All in all, the new El Encanto is sure to be a hit with Santa Barbarans. (If tourists want to visit, that’s fine, too.) With the Orient-Express brand and international reputation, it’s going to be the de rigueur Santa Barbara places to eat, meet, and mingle.


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