Brendan Searls is already well-known in Santa Barbara for his role in such establishments as Video Shmideo, Bogart’s, and Dargan’s, but these days, he is most excited about his latest challenge: Viva Modern Mexican Cuisine, located in the La Arcada spot previously occupied by Cielito. “This is truly a hidden gem — we could be in Barcelona, we could be in Prague, we could be in Mexico City,” said Searls, whose official opening weekend was in August during Fiesta. “Where else in this town can you sit and people watch, watch turtles, and not have to deal with traffic?”
Hoping to create a restaurant that’s “more comfort casual” than Cielito, Searls explained, “We’re looking for the once- or twice-a-week guest, not the once-a-month guest.” The ways to make that transition are myriad, from expanding and simplifying the menu (“I don’t want people to have to ask what something is,” he explains) to “stressing best in class,” from the food to nightly live music to honestly, friendly service. “We don’t have customers; we have guests,” he asserted.
He’s also keenly aware of keeping Viva in line with La Arcada’s ethos. “The owners pride themselves on renting to area businesses,” Searls explained, so he’s supporting regional entrepreneurs himself, giving Pure Order an exclusive on the draft beer and partnering with Caribbean Coffee Company to serve cold-brew and nitro coffees out of the space where Cieilto ran a taco bar. Viva even paired up with Una Mas Tequila, which is based in Santa Barbara. “You can get a shot of Una Mas and a Pure Order beer for $12,” Searls said. “It’s probably the deal of the century.”
Speaking of a century, the menu seems to offer 100 items now, but some of that is just clever repackaging. “We sat down and said, ‘Okay, we have a from-scratch, kitchen-braised short rib,’ so we created a taco, a burrito, a main dish with that, all the time paying homage to the origins of the food while presenting the food so it’s visually stimulating,” explained Searls, who’s also proud of his vegetarian and other health-conscious dishes. “We partner with a company that makes a cauliflower wrap that’s gluten-free as a tortilla substitute,” he said. “Those have really hit home.”
Future plans include a kids-and-parents-friendly coffee lounge, focusing on the turtle fountain’s draw, and he’s already taken over the Encanto retail space next door and converted it into the Cielito Banquet Room. “Because of rents, it’s so difficult to have an event space, but we are so close to the County Courthouse, and they issued 2,600 marriage licenses last year,” he explained. “This space will be a fantastic option for people.”
Viva Modern Mexican is located at La Arcada Plaza, 1114 State Street. Call (805) 965-4770 or see vivasb.com.