“People say, ‘Are you a foodie?’” says Sherry Villanueva, principal of the Anacapa Project, “and I’m really not.”
I’m sitting with Villanueva at The Lark’s communal table in the early afternoon two days after the by-any-account astoundingly successful concomitant grand openings of The Lark restaurant and Les Marchands wine bar/retail shop, and I’m having a hard time believing her. After all, the meal I had on opening night is still haunting my palate. (Can we talk about the olives? Deep fried, goat-cheese stuffed, served with chorizo aioli. And the duck liver mousse; dear god, the duck liver mousse …)
I raise an eyebrow.
“I mean, I love good food,” she continues, “but the thing I feel passionate about is the exchange that people have over food — the connection people have with each other, the sharing of holidays and celebrations and life. For me, it’s that part of it.”
And that part of it — restaurant as gathering place and Villanueva’s passion around that idea — has everything to do with how The Lark came into being.
“I kept telling him,” she says, referring to the investor/developer behind the project, Brian Kelly, a man as elusive as his footprint is becoming ubiquitous, “in the center of this development, you need a restaurant. You need a place for people to gather and share food — a restaurant has that ability, unlike a lot of businesses, to really shift a neighborhood because of the communal aspect of what happens in a restaurant. I kept telling him, you need to create this place that has those feelings and is rooted in the history of the neighborhood, a little bit gritty but also a little bit refined.”
What she’s talking about is the 10,000-square-foot chunk of prime Funk Zone real estate on East Yanonali Street, bordered by Helena Avenue and Anacapa Street, that today is home to no fewer than nine businesses (and responsible for more than 100 jobs). Flanking Yanonali are Figueroa Mountain Brewery, Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, Riverbench Winery, Guitar Bar, and another wine project called Area 5.1. Then, in the building that once housed the Bay Café, there’s Avelina winery, run by Christian Garvin, who founded Oreana across the street; Villanueva’s take-away concept Lucky Penny; the wine shop/bar Les Marchands, run by two rising-star sommeliers; and The Lark, centerpiece of this ambitious undertaking — and currently, home to the hottest tables in town.
“They referred to it as ‘ideation’ — coming up with creative ideas for all aspects, product development concepts, strategic partnership concepts, marketing campaigns, whatever,” she says, “just sort of an ideas generator.”
During the “months and months” of these conversations, which Villanueva places about two and a half years ago, she was working with Kelly as a consultant. Her background is in marketing: Most recently, she owned a company called Twist Worldwide, where she was on contract with Target for 14 years. Her job was to have ideas.
“They referred to it as ‘ideation’ — coming up with creative ideas for all aspects, product development concepts, strategic partnership concepts, marketing campaigns, whatever,” she says, “just sort of an ideas generator.” Once generated, she’d hand her ideas off to Target’s team, who’d put them into action.
A mutual friend put Kelly and Villanueva in touch, and Kelly hired her to do the same sort of work for him. They took lots of walks around the property and neighborhood and brainstormed. “Well,” Kelly eventually said to her, “you have such a clear idea on what this is supposed to be, why don’t you just do it?”
“Everybody thought I’d lost my mind,” says Villanueva. “Who, at 51 years old — at the time I guess I was 49 — but who in their right mind leaves a very comfortable career and goes into the restaurant business, and then to open three different restaurants simultaneously and build a building from scratch?” She asks that half-jokingly, but I get the distinct sense this was not the first time she’d asked herself this question and that it wasn’t always a joke. “So the first thing he and I discussed was that in order for a non-restaurateur like me to build a restaurant,” she says, “I needed to find a rock-star team.”
Assembling the Dream Team
Walking into The Lark and Les Marchands — even just looking at the Lucky Penny — it’s impossible not to be struck by the design. Cool and urban, with repurposed pieces used to surprising effect, vintage touches and industrial details, the feel is current and comfortable. But convincing the designer, San Francisco restaurateur Doug Washington (Town Hall, Salt House) to come on board took a bit of tenacity on Villanueva’s part.
Her niece worked at Salt House, so Villanueva had been there a couple of times; when it came time to find a designer, she started there. “So she gave me a ring and asked if I wanted to do one in Santa Barbara,” recalls Washington. “And I said, not a hope in hell!” He was too busy, has three kids, and found Santa Barbara “impossible to get to.” A couple of weeks later, she convinced him to come down and take a peek. Washington came; he saw; again, he said no.
“And then on the way to the airport, I started thinking, goddamn, that’s a beautiful building, and I started thinking of all of these amazing things you could do with that space. It’s the curse!” he says. “So I called her and go, okay, I’ll do it. I remember saying, ‘We’re gonna do something really effing cool here.’”
And eff if they did not do exactly that. Washington spent time walking “concentric circles” around the neighborhood. They had conversations that went on for hours about vibe. Nearly every piece has a story.
The communal table at The Lark was milled from a tree felled in a lightning storm 50 years ago, which had been drying out in the forest outside of Portland, Oregon, ever since. (Fun fact: “Every other table in the dining room is made from the same tree,” says Villanueva. “You can line them all up and see the slab.”)
There’s the penny-covered façade of Lucky Penny. (“[Washington] said, ‘Why don’t you cover it in pennies?’” says Villanueva. “I was like, ‘That’s a great idea!’ and he immediately said, ‘No, you cannot do that.’ And then I became obsessed.”) There are the light fixtures designed by Washington, the mercury-glass lampshades found in a Portland salvage shop, the old washbasins used as planters, the regionally made solid-steel bar tops. There’s The Lark sign, made of vintage movie-theater letters. There’s the antique train bell that hangs outside Lucky Penny, which alludes to the Pullman train for which The Lark was named. And then, of course, there’s the confessional.
“I remember finding this 100-year-old church confessional from Lyon, France; a guy sent me a photo and said, are you interested? And I said yes!” says Washington. “And it fit within one inch into that one corner! Then I had to change the lights, add in power …. I think I really made the general contractor nuts on this job. I think he really wanted to kill me by the end.” (The contractor is likely not the last to be traumatized by the confessional.
I, for example, went to Catholic school. And during a recent meal in this seat, I found myself confessing my sins to my server. Not that I have any.)
Also on the roster is GM Dan Russo, who’s run the floor at Chicago’s Girl & The Goat (Top Chef season-four winner Stephanie Izard’s debut restaurant), and, most recently, Michael Mina’s RN74 in San Francisco. That pedigree is impressive, but, he tells me a week after the grand opening, “I told Sherry last night, this project is the one I’m most proud of. Because it was really hard! The amount of detail; I mean, we’re trying to put a kitchen where it shouldn’t be. Just look; it really shouldn’t be there! Sherry wanted the kitchen there; an open kitchen …. I don’t know how, but they figured it out …. They didn’t make anything easy on themselves. That’s what made it worthwhile.”
There’s a lot of love between the players here, but Washington positively gushed when talking about Russo. “Oh my god, this man is talented!” he says. “I sat pretending I was sanding wood so I could listen to some of his training sessions with service staff. Fuck, I ended up sanding the whole goddamn piece of wood and had to restain it!”
Russo, whose handiwork is in evidence every time someone comments on how smooth the service is (which is often), came onto the project via Eric Railsback, one half of the team behind Les Marchands; they’d worked together at RN74. And Railsback found his way to Villanueva via a bit of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up serendipity. He’d worked at the Wine Cask years ago, and one of his regulars, who had followed him to the Hungry Cat, Gordon Ramsay, and RN, mentioned that a woman in Santa Barbara wanted to talk to him about a pizzeria. “I thought she just wanted someone to consult on a small, 50-item list or something,” says Railsback.
So he met with Villanueva during a grape-harvest visit to Santa Barbara. “She had this building she was trying to fill and was just thinking about different concepts,” says Railsback. The restaurant was definitely happening; she thought Railsback might make a good beverage director. Then she gestured toward the 1,600-square-foot empty space next door; she’d been thinking about a wine store. Or a wine bar. Maybe both.
Unbeknown to Villanueva, Railsback and biz partner Brian McClintic had been cooking up a business plan. They’d been living in San Francisco, Railsback working as the wine buyer at RN74 (and recently named a best new sommelier by Wine & Spirits magazine), McClintic selling wine (and carrying a sizeable expense account) and studying for the gnarly master sommelier exam — chronicled in the film Somm, which played to packed crowds at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival earlier this year. Many conversations with winemakers and collectors led them to conclude that Santa Barbara needed a wine bar and a place to buy serious European wines and extremely small-scale Santa Barbara wines.
Railsback happened to have their business plan in his bag during that meeting with Villanueva, and, when she mentioned her wine shop/bar idea, he recognized his cue and reached into his bag. Many months later, and 10 days after Les Marchands officially opened, Railsback said that the finished form “is pretty much exactly what we pictured.”
Railsback and McClintic developed the wine program for both The Lark and Lucky Penny also, and they’re often seen running from one spot to the next and back again. For Les Marchands, they created a separate menu of composed cheese and charcuterie plates, as well as things like marinated tuna and pork rillettes — modeled after La Crèmerie in Paris — with the help of pop-up restaurant Spare Parts’ chef, Weston Richards. Their wine list is only around 40 to 45 percent Central Coast (heavy on geeky, small-production stuff and back vintages), so there’s always something new to try. “We have no rules. We have a menu, but it’s like, pop something new; throw it on the chalkboard,” says Railsback. “It’s great to rip some fun bottles, sell someone half a bottle. That way you can have 10 extra bottles open that aren’t on the glass list.”
And despite what they could tell you about, say, the hints of fresh grass you’ll find in a Jacquère or the exciting productions coming out of Austria lately, they are all about removing the intimidation factor. “You can have a bunch of grocery-store brands and be intimidating, so the wine almost doesn’t matter,” says McClintic. “We have to work extra hard to be accessible because the wines are off the beaten path a bit. It comes down to personal relationships and caring about people — anyone can get that, no matter how wild the wine list is.”
The Food Dude
No matter how much restaurants are about community for Villanueva, killer food was also clearly rather key, so they interviewed and tasted with nearly 50 chefs. And while the food was obviously critical, Villanueva tells me the first thing she looked for in her new chef was humility.
I chuckle, but she’s completely serious. “When you look at a guy like Jason, he’s an extraordinary chef; he’s very talented, really smart in the kitchen and as it relates to people, but at the end of the day, he’s just a nice guy that you want to hang out with,” says Villanueva. “He’s gentle; he commands respect because of his talent, his professionalism, and his expertise. He doesn’t need to be a bully.”
Indeed, Executive Chef (of both the Lark and Lucky Penny) Jason Paluska, also of RN74 — which, in hindsight, looks a bit like an Anacapa Project incubator — is as down-to-earth as they come. Two seconds into our interview, he’s pretending my voice recorder is his cell phone, until his own rings. “Is it weird if I take this?” he asks.
“I’ll be here. I get a day off in 2015. Oh, you got one off then, too? Let’s hang out, man!”
It’s Wayne, the bread guy. Paluska confirms his order and then says, “I’ll be here. I get a day off in 2015. Oh, you got one off then, too? Let’s hang out, man!” Upon hanging up, he waxes poetic about Wayne, the bread guy: “He has the most insane bread program. When we first got here, we went to every bakery, scouting them out to find the most consistently awesome bread, and he does it. Baker’s Table in the Santa Ynez Valley — he hand-makes it every day and delivers it himself, every day. By far the most underrated, hardworking dude I’ve ever met.”
(And the bread is epic. Equally versatile as a means for sopping up the broth Paluska’s mussels swim in and as a vehicle for that light-as-air yet rich-as-sin duck liver mousse — made, Paluska points out, with neighbor Ian Cutler’s bourbon.)
When crafting the menu, Paluska says, “I stopped doing research [into other restaurants’ menus], because I was like, well, it’s kind of pointless for me to come down here and just try to copy menus; that’s not the way a chef should think. He should look inward and see what comes out. So Nick [Flores, the executive sous/pastry chef] and I started putting flavors together that we liked. There’s a lot of thought in each individual component.”
Sophisticated but thoroughly approachable, his menu is seasonally and locally inspired and constantly evolving. Plates are meant for sharing, which is nice, because you will want to try everything. From the deviled eggs with pancetta and jalapeño to the caramelized cauliflower gratin with Gruyère and Aleppo pepper to the slow-cooked pork shank with bacon-braised chard and ancho-honey cornbread, each dish is an experience.
And his bench in the kitchen is deep — and motivated. “There [are] kids in there cooking that are just coming so far and in such a short amount of time, and they’re responding so well to the standards of excellence that we’re trying to provide,” says Paluska. “They want to be a part of something that’s challenging and creative.”
The Lure of Babylon
For somms Railsback and McClintic, the allure of Santa Barbara is obvious: This is wine country, and they’ve filled a glaring void. But for GM Russo and Chef Paluska (“world-class pros,” Villanueva says, every chance she gets), deciding to move to Santa Barbara — not known as a culinary destination in the way cities like Chicago and San Francisco are — is worth understanding.
“I didn’t know anything about Santa Barbara,” says Russo, but he respected Villanueva’s vision and was jazzed about working again with Paluska and Flores. “In this business, very rarely do you get a chance to start something from scratch and bring really great people in, and that’s what we’ve done. Sherry, Jason, Nick, the wine guys — it’s a really great group of people, and that’s huge.”
People came first for Paluska, too. “Any work environment, you connect with certain people; others are just people you work with,” he says. “But the people you connect with, you want to stay connected with — those people are here for me. Every day, I’m walking into almost a second home with good people who know me, and I know them — all too well.”
“This is like the most ideal place you could land on a map. I’ve wanted this environment my whole life,” Paluska says.
And for a Texas kid who grew up outside and fishing, the Santa Barbara lifestyle proved impossible to refuse. “This is like the most ideal place you could land on a map. I’ve wanted this environment my whole life,” Paluska says. “I just never knew how to get to it.” Also: “The Mexican food here is fantastic.”
And Santa Barbara is equally smitten: The Lark has been booked solid for weeks — but that hasn’t stopped people from showing up and waiting for a spot at the bar or the communal table. Next door, Les Marchands is rapidly becoming the go-to spot for S.B.’s biggest oenophiles, who gathered a couple of weeks ago on-site for the Santa Barbara County Wine Futures tasting. “We keep seeing the faces coming in over and over again already,” says McClintic, “which is important to us.”
Keep It Funky
There’s no denying the impact this project will have — is already having — on the Funk Zone. (Just try to find a parking space.) Longtime area business owner Dana Walters, whose coffee-bar–cum–bar-bar Reds has been around for 12 years and sits diagonally across the street from the development, has had a front-row seat for all the changes those years have brought to her neighborhood. There have been many, and they’ve gained speed in recent years.
But the trajectory was put in motion a long time ago. “When I first rented the place here, everyone was talking about Levy’s La Entrada project,” Walters says of the extremely contentious building proposal that ultimately landed developer Bill Levy in bankruptcy — a reimagined version of which was just approved by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission last week. The area has long had developers’ mouths watering. And those drooling developers have long been met with raised hackles. (And, in Levy’s case, anyway, a major dose of schadenfreude when big plans go bust.)
Community activist Laura Inks frames the tension this way: “I come from the perspective of looking out for the sustainability of artists, so I see that while the project is really great for the neighborhood — it’s great to have a restaurant down there — I’m afraid what it will do now for the rents for the artists.”
Villanueva gets it; that’s why she’s made staying true to the neighborhood’s integrity such a focus. “Change is always hard and rightly so,” says Villanueva. “Like any development, it’s hard because properties are improved, property values go up, rents go up, and that makes it challenging …. It’s just one of those tough things about development, about growth. You look at the Funk Zone: It’s a block away from the beach, a block away from State Street; it’s just not gonna stay a dilapidated industrial zone forever. I just feel grateful about the people who have been coming in to open businesses or develop properties who’ve been committed to keeping as much of that artistic approach, that authenticity and funkiness, so that the character stays in the neighborhood while the buildings are being improved. And that’s what we really tried to do here. [Kelly] is very committed to responsible development so that it’s in keeping with the vibe and the character of the neighborhood. He didn’t want to change it, just really enhance it.”
“If someone would have taken me to State Street — don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with State Street — but if someone said they were doing a restaurant there, I probably would have said no,” says Russo
Indeed, the Funk Zone itself is what inspired so many of the decisions along the way, and the neighborhood played no small part in getting some of that world-class talent to sign on. “If someone would have taken me to State Street — don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with State Street — but if someone said they were doing a restaurant there, I probably would have said no,” says Russo, who took a bicycle tour of the Funk Zone with Villanueva while considering his involvement. “I just didn’t feel the way about that area as I do here, with the old surf shops and the artists.”
Washington had a similar experience. “I always thought of Santa Barbara as very white and very wealthy, and literally every time I came down, I met more and more cool people — really amazing, interesting, fun people,” he says. “There’s a lot of quirkiness down there that I like.”
While rents are an obvious concern for anyone who lives or does business in the area, Walters among them, overall, the Funk Zone veteran is happy about her new neighbors. Whereas for a long time, Reds stood alone as a “destination bar,” now it’s part of a greater “destination area,” Walters says. The foot traffic’s been good (“Sundays used to be my slowest day; now they’re huge”), and she likes that the new crowd is a bit older.
“One thing I’ve been hearing a lot is people saying it reminds them of how State Street used to be 20 or so years ago. It’s nice that it’s all mom-and-pops right now; hopefully we can stay that way,” she says. “And they seem to be really friendly and neighborly — it’s like that neighbor you borrow a cup of sugar from! There’s just some good energy going on; people are having a good time.”
So much so, says Villanueva, “I’m getting emails at one in the morning from servers saying, ‘I’m so grateful to be a part of this team.’ There’s nothing more rewarding than that.”