The French Press
Julia Mayer and her husband, Todd Stewart, own the places and call the whole thing their “American dream.” Truth is, there were a number of dreamy hipster coffee places over the years with their own lines of beans and sweets, but none of them ever seemed to break big past the bohemians who gathered at their siren coffee cry — places like Borsodi’s or Roma or even (for those with ancient memories) the Noctambulist. The French Press somehow transcends the beatnik Sugar Shack vibe, while maintaining a winsome, cool-guy façade. Mostly it’s the baristas who seem the right combo of unflappable and attentive. The coffee isn’t cheap, especially the namesake drink, but the caffeine is attractively zippy, and the joints have just the right ambience, comfortable and business-y enough so that everybody wants to go there.
Vices & Spices
3558 State St., 687-7196
If you grew up in the Earth Shoe era, prepare yourself for a shock. Vices & Spices is 39 years old. Don’t even calculate what that makes you. Blue Booth can testify to the once-alternative store’s ultimate acceptance by the whole town. “I’m the founder,” he said. But then as now, it wasn’t hippie magic that made the place great. “We have such a variety of teas from all over the place—coffees, too,” said Booth, whose current favorite is a tea called coconut pouchong. “But we always did things a little different, like the gifts we sell. We’re very happy to win, and we don’t take it lightly after all these years,” he said.
FINALIST: THE COFFEE BEAN & TEA LEAF
Blenders in the Grass
Keric Brown, Scott Webber, and Art Tracewell started this place in 1995 in Isla Vista. They have grown to 12 stores now, and all of them seem happy not to take over the world. The shops take all their attention, according to Tracewell, but not because they are overwhelmed. It’s more because they are passionate about doing things right. “Everyday someone comes up to me and says something like, this would be great in Austin. But that’s not what we want,” Tracewell said. “We want to manage, but we also like having time to coach our kids’ soccer teams.” They feel lucky to be working so hard and getting recognition for it, too.
FINALIST: JUICE RANCH
Enterprise Fish Co.
225 State St., 962-3313
“Five times in a row we’ve won this,” enthused general manager Maia Hall, who thinks that one reason the happy hour is so appreciated is because it features great pub-grub snacks like chicken sate and artichoke. “It’s not just fried foods.” The place does serve up a mean oyster or two or dozen, as well, with $1.50 shooters and $4 vodka shooters, drink deals galore, and an hour that lasts for four. “Monday through Thursday it’s 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.,” Hall said. Her only regret? “Some people may not get how much we have to offer.”
Beer Selection on Tap; S.B. County Brewery
Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.
137 Anacapa St., 694-2252
“I like to make people happy when they come in and happy when they leave,” philosophized Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. manager David Esdaile. He’s the first to admit that the beer and big open-air pub have become popular pretty fast. “We first opened in November of 2010, but the whole thing would have gone down the drain if I didn’t have good beer and good people serving it.”
FINALISTS: Z’S TAP HOUSE & GRILL(BEER SELECTION ON TAP)
TELEGRAPH BREWING COMPANY (S.B. COUNTY BREWERY)
Valley Tasting Room
125 N. Refugio Rd., Santa Ynez, 688-9463
“I think it’s the hospitality that people like the most,” said Sunstone owner and winemaker Bion Rice. “I know we have the best servers, highly educated and personable. But besides that, I think it’s the location. You come here, and you’ll feel like you stepped off a plane in Provence,” he said referring to the rustic winery buildings surrounded by growing herbs de Provence. “And then there’s our merlot, which is made like a Pommerol, soft and aged 24 months in oak barrels. I think they like all those things.”
Urban Tasting Room
Corks n’ Crowns
32 Anacapa St., 845-8600
Its name sounds like an English pub, but its true spirit is a lot more boisterous than that. “I think people like us [because] we’re the tasting room that has the most fun,” said assistant general manager Madeleine Smith. “Also because we change our wines and beers constantly, so people don’t know what to expect.” They do boutique wines, garagista and craft beers, and lots of things people won’t sample anywhere else. Right now, Smith said, they just finished a single-hop beer fest served with smokehouse food, and at press time they were putting together a rosé tasting to say good-bye to summer. “It’s totally awesome that we won,” she said.
FINALIST: MUNICIPAL WINEMAKERS
S.B. Wine Tour Company
Sustainable Vine Wine Tours
This may be the most viable start-up business in our changing economy. These guys have watched as the number of wine-country-excursion services—a great way to sample responsibly—grew from a few to 25. But Bryan Hope and Scott Bull won this year. “I think what we did is that we are successful owner/operators. We don’t hire other people to drive, and we care about each tour,” said Hope. They also offer tailor-made excursions. “We ask people what kind of wine they like and plan the trip accordingly,” he said.
FINALIST: CAPTAIN JACK’S
S.B. County Winery White Wine
Santa Barbara Winery
202 Anacapa St., 963-3633
In a way, Santa Barbara Winery is about the whites, but assistant manager Jeanette Gardner thinks the long-lived vintners have a couple of really good tricks up the sleeve. “For one thing, there’s our orange muscat, which most people think is a dessert wine. But ours is dry and really good. They scratch their heads over that. All of the chardonnays are good, clean and crisp, so it may be a tossup, but I think the orange muscat is a nice surprise.”
FINALIST: BRANDER WINERY
S.B. County Winery Red Wine
Margerum Wine Company
Two locations, 845-8435
Doug Margerum from his North County winery couldn’t be clearer: “It was definitely M5,” he said, referring to the most popular wine he makes. It’s not the title of an imaginary intelligence agency; the “M” is for him, but the “5” stands for five grapes it employs — syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, counoise, and cinsault. He was always a Rhône wine buff, beginning with an experience he had drinking there at about the age most other kids are thinking about getting their learner’s permit. “I used to collect Chateauneuf-du-Pape,” he said. Some of these lesser-known grapes would just make you mad if you had wine made exclusively from them. Together, they are magic. It’s a staple at bars like Lucky’s, said Margerum, and he’s thrilled that the readers have such astute collective tastes.
Restaurant Wine List
813 Anacapa St., 966-9463
Again with the Doug Margerum. This time he’s onstage for the amazing wine list at the restaurant he owns, but he’s not going to take credit for this. “All credit for this goes to Branden Bidwell,” said Margerum, referring to his wine director. Though it may seem like the place has every right to the greatest cellar since it began as a wine store in the early 1970s, the truth is that after the restaurant was sold and then bought back by the present owners, it was a new ballgame. “We had to start from scratch, and it was all Branden who made it what it is today.” Most of the wines are local, many are virtually unattainable anywhere, and all of it is great, said Margerum.
3849 State St., 845-5247
Back when Santa Barbara had only one or two wineries, say 1975, there were five great wine stores spread evenly from Montecito to La Cumbre Plaza. Now there are only boutique specialist, and we say this not to glorify the old days but to express how lucky we are that Winehound is around: great variety from domestic to the foreign spheres; terrific range of prices; and, best of all, Bob Wesley at the helm, a man who lives up to his own principles—stock lots of wine but no snobbery.
FINALIST: LES MARCHANDS WINE BAR & MERCHANT
Harry’s Plaza Café
3313-B State St., 687-2800
Cocktail sophistication begins and ends with the martini. Its silver clarity and astringent perfume vaults the combination of gin or vodka with vermouth and olive or lemon into a place where slumming or beginner drinkers really can’t tread. This is the essence of alcohol—one more step in the direction you are headed would equal medicinal product. Yet the artistry involved—shaking, tincturing, cooling, and subtly accessorizing it—makes the idea of medicine melt into the idea of artful escapes. Harry’s makes strong drinks, though it’s hard to imagine how a martini could be stronger. It’s just slung down on the table right, by people sophisticated in the making of drink.
FINALIST: JOE’S CAFÉ
Carlitos Café y Cantina
1324 State St., 962-7117
You have to take the readers at their word. This voting did not split between crushed ice and margs on the rocks. It did not specify fancier twists like the St. Germain–inflected margarita. We even know of an Ur-Margarita that is simply lime juice and cheap tequila. No. This version is made with good Herradura tequila, a lime juice and triple sec concoction poured over rocks into a glass with salt on the rim. It was made famous by Fiesta-goers burned out after the parade and young yups waiting for concerts in the palmy Jackson Browne days of Arlington concerts. We imagine you will make certain modifications, and that is your right, whether living here or touristing. But the readers agree this is the place in town where you go. Word.
Bloody Mary (see Eating); Moscow Mule
Seven Bar & Kitchen
224 Helena Ave., 845-0377
It’s meant to represent the deadly sins, many of which our readers enjoy indulging in—at least the victimless varieties like sloth—without even resorting to bars or Moscow mules. Seven has also become one of the stars of the Funk Zone firmament, and according to our readers, the concoction served in a copper mug with vodka, ginger beer, lime, and mint ought to be rightly credited for their street cred: the occasion to sin sweetly.
FINALIST: ARCH ROCK
536 State St., 966-4638
Joe’s is the real deal, a chop house with Italian in the background—ever notice the salsa and bread is more like bruschetta than nachos? The bar is long and usually occupied. The drinks are so strong you will be cautioned if you order a double, which is a waiter’s way of showing off while protecting you for the rest of the evening. It’s the kind of place where you can fly on one wing.
FINALIST: HARRY’S PLAZA CAFÉ
The Neighborhood Bar & Grill
235 W. Montecito St., 963-7600
It’s a neighborhood without a name, the area surrounding the corner of Montecito and Bath streets. Long ago, it was the ethnic part of town with an Italian place called Luigi’s (really) and great Mexican, and this place was a kid-friendly Greek taverna called The Plaka. Today, it’s an unlikely mix of tourist in hotels and kids living near the City College campus and moving between the nearby brewery and The Neighborhood, which doesn’t just serve drinks and pub grub but also has Ping-Pong, foosball, video games, and sunset bike shows. And it’s won this category five years in a row.
FINALIST: UPTOWN LOUNGE