For many Santa Barbarans, our region’s culinary offerings are plenty to keep the taste buds entertained all year long: new restaurants open monthly, menus change seasonally, and there’s enough happening from Bell Street in Los Alamos to Linden Avenue in Carpinteria to satisfy most edible urges. But for those who see the modern food movement as akin to world-class art — particularly for those who move here from bigger cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where the restaurant scene is the most happening scene — Santa Barbara still lacks that steady, all-encompassing buzz.
Epicurean Santa Barbara seeks to fill the gaps. Launched last November by alumni of the Santa Barbara Newcomers Club — though now mostly on the shoulders of Amy and Keith Robinson — Epicurean is a food-and-drink society with a jam-packed calendar of monthly events. Members pay an annual fee to gain access to chef’s-table dinners, intimate tastings with renowned winemakers, and so forth. On the calendar for the next couple of months, for instance, are a wine-soaked evening with Jacob Toft from Paso Robles, a Spanish dinner with Chef Peter Lee at Loquita, a pulled-pork barbecue with Bret Urness of Levo Wines, a hands-on cocktail class at M8RX, a ravioli exploration with pasta guru Michael Glazer, and secrets of Thai cooking with Chef Pierre Tremblay.
“Not everyone has been to a chef’s table before, or had a winemaker pour a glass of wine for you and ask what you think about it,” explained Keith Robinson, who’s been offering a handful of events each month and hopes to maintain and even accelerate that clip. “That’s an amount that allows us to have a quality experience every time,” said Amy Robinson. “Everything we do is special, and it’s all in the details.”
Both Robinsons are Californians — Keith from San Diego, Amy from Bakersfield — but they met during grad school in New York City, where they became professional musicians. He makes instrumental sounds that are purchased by producers and composers — Grandmaster Flash is one client — while Amy, under her maiden name Baer, scores everything from lion-chasing-antelope sequences for National Geographic episodes to such films as Spotlight and The Hobbit trilogy. “Living in Manhattan, we fell in love with the foodie culture,” said Keith. “We ate our way through New York City.”
They moved to Santa Barbara in 2015 to be close to Amy’s parents. “We realized one day that we had no friends,” said Amy, to which Keith added, “Other than her parents.” So they joined the S.B. Newcomers Club, met lots of like-minded people, and were soon running the food and drink committees. As their time with that club came to the end — you can only be a Newcomer for two years, although three if you serve on a committee — they wanted to keep the vibe alive.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we did food events all the time?” Keith recalled thinking. “And not just for Newcomers,” continued Amy. So they took the Newcomers model of an annual membership — that money pays for administration, insurance, bookkeeping, marketing, supplies, and more — plus per-event fees and began plotting last summer along with Renee Martin and Leif Pietila, who’ve since taken more of a backseat. Help also came from advisory boardmembers Michelle Isom, Paul Astbury, and Jeremy Allen, a card-carrying oenophile who helps organize the wine events. The Epicurean offerings are much like what’s done in Newcomers, said Allen, “but seriously elevated.”
Their gala launch at Sullivan Goss in November featured musicians planted amid the crowd, as Amy likes to foster the “immersive quality of the arts” and Keith sees food on the same plane as visual and performing arts. Without warning, as people mingled, a violinist and cellist started playing. “The next thing they know,” said Amy, “the person they’re speaking to is singing to them.” Said Allen, “Suddenly, the event becomes memorable.” Explained Keith, “We like to run progressive events, with a first act and a second act and a third act. It keeps people engaged.”
At his stylish home with stunning Goleta-foothills-to-Carpinteria-coast views atop the Mesa, Allen recently hosted a tasting of Turtle Rock wines with vintner Don Burns, who also makes Saxum wines. Amy made excellent appetizers, and Burns spoke openly about his craft, answering questions both basic and probing with honesty and charm.
The wines kept flowing, as did the conversation, and all attendees got to leave with a bottle of their choice, as the ticket price includes a bottle to go. And the club doesn’t ask winemakers to pour for free, as do many tasting events of this sort — they buy all the wines up-front, which winemakers like. (The Turtle Rock post-party dinner at Black Sheep, complete with Allen’s Sine Qua Non and Torbreck bottles, was even more winemaker bait.) “We’ve approached a dozen winemakers, and no one’s turned us down,” said Keith, whose list of wineries so far also includes Booker and L’Aventure.
But aside from the wine and food, Epicurean Santa Barbara is about making connections between people who love good food and drink. “It truly is a club,” said Keith, who wants to grow the membership, currently around 100, to 300. “People become friends. They come from all walks of life. It’s a good mix.” Said Allen, “You want to bond with your tribe, and this facilitates that.”
Epicurean Santa Barbara memberships are $195 for an individual, $295 for individual VIP, $295 for a couple, and $445 for a couple VIP. Events range in price. See epicureansb.com.