15 W. Ortega St., 962-7970, wildcatlounge.com
The Wildcat is on a roll. With the Bobcat next door attracting its own crowd and everyone flowing seamlessly from one venue to the other via the club’s internal doors, there’s more ways to get happy, get looped, or get your dance on there than ever before. General manager Sharon Stevens reports that the club’s reputation as a great place for a bachelorette party has gotten so big that they are now fielding groups that masquerade as such just for the special attention. One faux-bachelorette even got lucky and ended up marrying a man she met there on the night she pretended to be engaged!
Finalist (Dance Club): SOhO Restaurant & Music Club
Finalist (College Night): Zodo’s Bowling & Beyond
Place to Hear Live Music
Santa Barbara Bowl
1122 N. Milpas St., 962-7411, sbbowl.com
Rick Boller, executive director of the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation, deserves special props from all the music lovers in town for this shout-out: “We take Santa Barbarans’ vote of confidence seriously — especially because there are many other amazing music venues in Santa Barbara.” But that kind of humility and community spirit are typical at the Bowl, where more than 250 volunteers, contractors, and employees come together for every event with the intention of making your concert experience there as memorable as it can be, and where $1 from every ticket sold goes to support performing arts education in Santa Barbara County. On your next visit, check out the new Locals Only Bar that opened this season in the secluded Jerry Garcia Glen.
Finalist: SOhO Restaurant & Music Club
Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery
11 E. Anapamu St., 730-1460, sullivangoss.com
Going strong in its first year under new ownership, Sullivan Goss leads the art field when it comes to breathtaking installations, intelligent curation, and depth of representation across multiple periods and styles. Visionary owner Nathan Vonk hopes the gallery can “continue to raise the profile of our city as a great place to make and buy serious art.” The combination of the gallery’s large and harmonious space and its location on East Anapamu Street across from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art often leads visitors to mistake it for a museum. Vonk cites the fact that “people come in and ask if there is an admission charge” as one of the funniest things that happens on the regular, but this joke has a genial punchline because the gallery is free and open to the public.
Finalist: Waterhouse Gallery
MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
125 State St., 770-5000, moxi.org
Open less than a year, the spectacular MOXI on lower State Street has changed the game for Santa Barbara museums. Focused on providing “families and curious minds of all ages” with hands-on experiences, MOXI is a science center for the new century. With innovative interactive exhibits organized around themes like sound, speed, light, and force, MOXI teaches important scientific principles in an atmosphere that’s as entertaining as any theme park. In addition to offering camps and after-school classes for the kids, MOXI also throws quarterly adults-only “after-parties” that promise “unique flavors” and a place to “let your inner child loose.”
Finalist: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
La Boheme Professional Dance Group
The Summer Solstice Parade has a way of spinning off long-lasting creative enterprises, and with its recognition by readers as number one in 2017’s Dance Company category, La Boheme, which began in the Summer Solstice Parade just three years ago, looks set to become another one. Dressed in risqué but tasteful neo-burlesque costumes, director Teresa Kuskey Nowak, assistant directors Karen Lehman and Susie Subject, and the whole constantly evolving crew of dancers always throw things into high gear whenever they arrive at a party. It’s not too late to participate in their legendary (and well-rehearsed) Halloween performances of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”! If you are so inclined, head to one of their Tuesday-evening sessions at the Brasil Arts Café, and let the dancers teach you steps in slow motion until you can moonwalk just like MJ.
Finalist: State Street Ballet
Ensemble Theatre Company
33 W. Victoria St., 965-5400, ensembletheatre.com
Everyone dreams of combining the wisdom of experience with the physical allure of youth, but Ensemble Theatre Company, with its nearly 40-year history and a sparkling new venue on Victoria Street, actually pulls it off. The company attributes its success in large part to the courage of Santa Barbara audiences, who consistently turn out for risky and adventurous programming. But it’s not just locals who love this intimate theater’s Equity productions, as visitors from as far away as Japan have traveled here to see ETC’s shows. That group from Japan, by the way, crossed the Pacific to catch Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, and they didn’t even speak English. Artistic director Jonathan Fox believes that attracting a growing community of theatergoers is one big aspect of his definition of what it means to be the best.
Music Academy of the West
1070 Fairway Rd., 969-8787, musicacademy.org
Following a blockbuster 70th-anniversary season that included an unprecedented concert at La Playa Stadium featuring the Academy Festival Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and fireworks, it would be hard to imagine how the Music Academy of the West could avoid winning our classical ensemble category. Their extensive and generous Community Access program makes free tickets available to young people ages 7-17 and provides many $10 tickets to concerts and master classes for everyone else. President Scott Reed is recognized internationally as a visionary leader who has used his position to advance not only his own institution but the entire music world.
Finalist: Santa Barbara Symphony
3116 State St., 682-8100
Karaoke fans know that the spot in town for crooning their go-to tunes is the Tiburon Tavern on State Street across from MacKenzie Park. On a recent Saturday night, the room was packed with revelers, some there to celebrate a singing birthday, others to show off their disco moves as they belted out dance-floor anthems of the 1970s. Whatever your favorite era or genre of music, be it country, classic rock, or the best of Broadway, consider the Tib the public equivalent of singing in the shower every Friday and Saturday.
Finalist: The James Joyce
Funk Zone Spot
Restaurant/Bar to Watch Sports
Santa Barbara Brewing Company
501 State St., 730-1040, sbbrewco.com
Whether you need to follow multiple match-ups simultaneously in order to root for your fantasy team, or you just happen to have 10 college buddies in town who would like to watch the alma mater take on their chief rival, SB Brewco is the place on lower State Street to scratch that sports-bar itch. With plenty of good food available and a wide menu of custom-brewed beers, the Brewco knows game time. Head over on Sunday morning when they open at 9 a.m. for NFL breakfast, and tell anyone who asks that you are observing America’s secular Sabbath.
Finalist: Z’s Tap House & Grill
301 W. Cabrillo Blvd., 882-0088, condorexpress.com
Santa Barbarans pay a lot of lip service to “another day in paradise,” but you truly don’t know how lucky you are to live here until you’ve cruised out into the Channel on the Condor and maintained steady eye contact with a friendly whale. It’s called “whale watching” for a reason, and that reason may be that the whales are also watching you. They come out to meet the boat and loll on their sides until you can hear the hiss of their blowholes. Condor Express captains and their crews are more than just chauffeurs on the sea: They know everything there is to know about whales, dolphins, sea lions, and the entire ecosystem of our richly populated slice of the Pacific.
Finalist: Double Dolphin
S.B. Tour Company
Land and Sea Tours: Land Shark
216 Arboleda Rd., 683-7600, out2seasb.com
Yes, it’s the Land Shark. Borrowing the punchline from an early Saturday Night Live sketch for its catchy name, this amphibious party vehicle may be Santa Barbara’s most underrated venue. Seen from afar, as it cruises down State Street loaded to the gills with people loaded to the gills, you may be tempted to dismiss the Land Shark as just another booze cruise. Climb aboard, though, and you are in for an unforgettable experience. Loud music, blinking lights, and proof beverages all contribute to the show, but the star is unquestionably the harbor experience. Wheels up, boat down, and for an hour your cares melt away as you spend all your mental energy admiring the view and wondering how the hell this thing can float. It’s a must for any lover of the everyday surreal.
Finalist: Santa Barbara Adventure Company
Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro Beach)
2981 Cliff Dr., countyofsb.org
Named after an irascible Scottish lima bean farmer who once owned the land, Hendry’s Beach — and no, you do not pronounce the “d” — qualifies as the outdoor equivalent of Santa Barbara’s living room. Dogs are allowed to the east, and on a good day, you’re likely to see some dolphins and maybe a whale or three. Walk in any direction, and you’re liable to bump into some friends. Or you can jump in the water, which is always great and occasionally graced with waves you can actually body surf.
Finalist (Beach): Butterfly Beach
Finalist (Dog Park): Douglas Family Preserve
Place to Watch the Sunset
Butterfly Ln. and Channel Dr., Montecito
Butterfly Beach is where Santa Barbara’s littoral drift bumps into Montecito’s and allows you the psychic space to think you’ve gotten away from it all when you really haven’t. It’s down by the Biltmore Hotel and is exactly the place where you can experience the glitz and glam the rest of the world wants to see when they look at Santa Barbara. In that regard, being at Butterfly Beach is a lot like looking at yourself in between two mirrors facing each other. In other words, if you don’t watch the sun going down at Butterfly Beach, the sun doesn’t set.
Finalist: Hendry’s Beach
Gibraltar Road is a magical corkscrew with delusions of puncturing the cork of heaven. Built during the Depression as part of federal make-work projects to keep idle hands away from the devil’s purposes, it’s one of the greatest gravity-defying public-works projects in Santa Barbara County. One twist of Gibraltar gives you breathtaking views of the ocean; the next offers up backcountry mountain vistas that make you clutch your heart. When the sun goes down, there’s no ambient light pollution to intrude upon the darkness of the night skies punctuated with the Milky Way’s stellar effervescence.
Finalist: East Camino Cielo
Family Fun Spot
Santa Barbara Zoo
500 Niños Dr., 962-5339, sbzoo.org
There’s something about the human reproductive cycle that dictates zoos be visited with great regularity once progeny are hatched. Don’t fight it; embrace it. In this regard, Santa Barbara’s zoo is a certified gem. It doesn’t merely punch above its weight class; it’s a cold-cock knockout. Kids get to run around and wear themselves out. Along the way, they learn they share the planet with other species they won’t bump into anywhere else — crazy-gorgeous birds, distant primates, and beautiful big cats. When all else fails, there’s the mini-train to ride.
Finalist: MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
1317 State St., 963-4408, thearlingtontheatre.com
Built in 1931 as part of the Andalusian architectural dream machine, the Arlington Theatre makes audacious magic both inside and out. Inside, there are the stars on the ceiling and the faux village tableaux on the walls. Outside, there’s the grand spire that even now still defines the Santa Barbara skyline. The Arlington is a good excuse to see a bad movie, a great reason to see a good one, and the best place in the world to catch a concert. With 2,000 seats, the theater manages to be both grand and intimate, passing every Goldilocks test imaginable for being just right.
Finalist: Camino Real Cinemas
Old Spanish Days Fiesta
What’s not to like? Since the 1920s, Santa Barbarans have been dressing up like Fandango cowboys and marching their steeds up State Street every August to collectively exalt a glimmer of the historical past. Fiesta sprawls all over town—from MacKenzie Park to Our Lady of Guadalupe to De la Guerra Plaza right in the middle. Hundreds of young girls dance up a storm, though it feels like thousands. Everywhere you go, someone is belting out “Bésame mucho.” When else can you assault total strangers with confetti-filled eggs without fear of criminal prosecution?
Finalist: Summer Solstice Celebration
Place to Have a Protest
De la Guerra Plaza
Named after the town’s hatchet-faced first mayor, De la Guerra Plaza is where we party and where we protest. After Donald Trump was sworn in, thousands of Santa Barbarans swarmed to De la Guerra Plaza to hear speeches before marching down to the beach and back. Little wonder. Overlooking the plaza is City Hall itself, home away from home for those we elect to represent us. They have to listen. When Santa Barbarans need to shake their fists at the sky, De la Guerra Plaza is where they go to shake it.
Finalist: State Street