There are three goals when one embarks on Erin O’Rourke’s four-hour, sipping-swallowing-stepping jaunt through seven meaningful spots across our town’s extremely edible landscape: One, get entertained; two, get educated on both the food you’re eating and the Santa Barbara you’re seeing; and three, get, in O’Rourke’s words, “moderately and pleasantly full.”
Had my experience on the Savor Santa Barbara Food Tour ended after our first stop at Rudy’s Mexican Restaurant on West Montecito Street, that triumvirate would have been tackled: One, I’m easily entertained, and O’Rourke spins a good yarn; two, I didn’t know the eatery was founded at that location in 1976 by an immigrant from Michoacán named Rudy Alvaro, whose kids now run all five locations; and three, the crispy beef taco, handful of handmade tortilla chips, and gaggle of salsas blended that morning were quite satiating.
But there is no dillydallying allowed on the 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. crawl, which happened to turn one year old on the August 29 morning I joined. “We like to keep our hot food hot and our cold food cold,” said O’Rourke, who aids her tight schedule by warning the next participating establishment on the tour with cell-phone calls and text messages.
So we were off to The Brewhouse to sample a couple of taster-sized beers and hear that lore, which was mainly that since they don’t really keg or bottle beer, “you have to come here to get it,” said O’Rourke. While there’s also a stop at Santa Barbara Winery — whose extensive tasting list smartly includes a few sweet wines that out-of-town tourists often prefer — O’Rourke explained that the tour is really about food, not booze. That’s mostly welcome, as food tours have “started to become a thing in this country,” she explained, noting that some tourists have opted to come to Santa Barbara solely because of her tour. For the few who are surprised or frustrated by the drinks-second regimen, they appreciate the firsthand look at where to return for happy hour.
A walk past the famous Moreton Bay fig tree led us to the rich and wonderful lobster bisque at Enterprise Fish Company. It’s smaller than the usual cup, which is nice, though other places make their dishes a bit bigger for the Savor S.B. tourists, whose $75 ticket covers all the food. O’Rourke and her cofounder cousin, Sara Dill, spent quite a bit of time investigating which businesses to feature and selected the seven based on local ownership, how they fit into the Santa Barbara story, and walkability. All get paid for their food, and all offer coupons to lure return visits. “We get absolutely nothing for free,” said O’Rourke, whose tour was the second in town after the Funk Zone–focused Eat This! Shoot That!, though a couple of others have also popped up recently.
The tour then hit S.B. Winery (along with O’Rourke’s brief Funk Zone explanation) and headed under the freeway for a perfectly sized serving of açaí ice at Backyard Bowls. “How do you get that size?” one mom asked as we spooned it down across from Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners, whose red-tiled roof O’Rourke used to explain the El Pueblo Viejo architectural rules. From there, it’s through the back-alley paseos to C’est Cheese for a plate of Ewephoria, Seascape, and d’Affinois cheeses, over which I got to tell O’Rourke about living in the green-and-yellow house across the street for seven years, slugging beers on the porch while the cheese shop was being built.
Altogether, it’s an eye-opening, modestly decadent way to spend the middle of any day, certainly recommendable for the tourists, and worth a stroll for locals, too, especially those new to town or with visitors. In her first year, O’Rourke — a Cayucos native and former scuba instructor who also works as an occupational therapist at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital — ran more than 400 people through 100 tours and hopes to expand her menu of routes and hire more guides in the near future. “It’s really picking up,” she said. “People are into the food, but they’re really into the education.”
See savorsantabarbarafoodtours.com or call (800) 656-0713.