“This area feels like it could be a little village in Burgundy,” says Greg Ryan about Los Alamos, where he and his Santa Ynez Valley–raised wife, Daisy Ryan, recently opened the restaurant Bell’s. “And what kind of food is that?” he asks of the French wine country’s regional cuisine. “It’s bistro food.”
That means fresh, seasonal salads, moules-frites, and simple, savory sandwiches for lunch; rotisserie chicken, steak frites, and softly cooked salmon atop potato puree and dill oil for dinner; and, at all hours, wine-friendly nibbles like Bob’s Well Bread with cultured butter, tinned sardines with homemade saltines, and garlic-and-herb-soaked snails. The latter was the best version of escargot I’ve ever eaten, even compared to those that I enjoyed out of their shells last year at L’Estaminet des Meix, a bistro in Puligny-Montrachet, which is a little village in Burgundy.
Quite frankly, given their illustrious culinary résumés, the Ryans could have done any cuisine they wanted and succeeded. After graduating from Dunn, Daisy — whose parents, Brent and Suzi Freitas, own the Eye of the Day Garden Design Center in Carpinteria — moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Greg, who’s a fifth-generation grass-seed farmer from Aurora, Oregon, intended to become a lawyer while studying history at the University of Oregon but wound up attending culinary school instead. He moved to New York in 2006 and found that he had “a knack for engaging with people,” which he flexed at Tribeca Grill, then one of the hotter tables in Manhattan.
They met in 2008 while working at Per Se, the New York City restaurant of Thomas Keller, arguably the world’s most respected chef. Despite Daisy’s culinary training — which also included stints at Gramercy Tavern and Aureole — they both worked front of house in one of the most cutthroat, exacting restaurants on the planet. “It was the closest we got to athletics,” said Greg. Said Daisy, “Leaving Per Se is a shock to the system, but the people we met there are still our closest friends.”
Around 2014, they moved to Los Angeles, where Greg was restaurant director of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Daisy helped Roy Choi open the Line hotel and restaurant complex in Koreatown. After getting married in Santa Ynez, they honeymooned by driving across the country to eat, stopping in cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, Nashville, and Austin, where they had a great meal at a steakhouse called Jeffrey’s.
A little while later, Jeffrey’s owner Larry McGuire was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and he and Greg got to talking about restaurants. When the GM position opened at Jeffrey’s, Greg got the call, and the Ryans moved to Austin, where Daisy was the assistant beverage director for McGuire’s seven restaurants. They stayed for three years.
A year ago, the Ryans had a baby boy named Henry and decided it was time to come back to California and settle near Daisy’s family. Coincidentally, Jamie Gluck was looking to sell Bell Street Farm, the extremely popular gourmet delicatessen and market that had helped make Los Alamos a foodie destination upon opening in 2011. “They set a legacy here for sure,” said Greg, who got the keys for the location on January 20 of this year.
The Ryans lightly remodeled the interior, changed up the decor — the copper pot collection and ladder as magazine rack are nice touches — polished their menus (with the help of Daisy’s fellow Culinary Institute/Per Se alum and pastry whiz Sarah Williams), and opened on March 15, with seated service. “We wanted a place we would spend time in,” said Greg, explaining that the menu is designed to attract people for return visits, not as a chef-driven, one-splurge-per-year formula.
Following the snails I had on a lunch visit — which went well with both the Miller High Life bottle as well as fancier white wine — I gobbled down a French Cuban sandwich, with flower-petal-soft shavings of ham, pickles, gruyère, and honey mustard. I tasted a few interesting and light red wines as well, like the Spanish mencia that I’d tried a couple weeks before during dinner.
That meal began with a vichyssoise-like chilled potato-leek soup, followed by a crisp salad of butter lettuce, aged goat cheese, sunflower seeds, and pickled red onions. Our entrees that night were the King Ora salmon, which was pillowy in texture, and the French gnocchi, served with a light cheese sauce and herbs. My wife, mother-in-law, and two kids loved it all, not least an epic dessert of meringue with rose water, raspberry powder, and pistachios. I’m excited to return for more tastes but will even settle for a rotisserie chicken if I am driving through town, as they sell them to go.
The Ryans seek to create an “emotional connection” to their customers, and that magic is already working, with plenty of familiar faces already coming back. Said Greg, “We want people to say, ‘I like how I felt when I was there.’”
Open Thu.-Sat., 11am-9pm, and Sun.-Mon, 11am-5pm. 406 Bell St., Los Alamos. See bellsrestaurant.com.