A consummate entrepreneur, Brendan Searls knows more than most about running a successful business in Santa Barbara. Location, of course, is critical.
“I’ve coveted this corner for a long time,” Searls explained recently on the patio of Mizza, the Italian restaurant he just opened on the edge of State Street’s La Arcada Court. The sidewalk-adjacent spot was previously home to a string of cafés, though Barcliff & Bair, which closed in 2010, was the most enduring. “We’re serving elevated cuisine in a pub-style environment,” said Searls of his latest venture, which takes foundations from his Pizza Mizza, like freshly made dough and pasta, and turns them upscale. “I want everyone to be happy.”
The Searls journey begins in Cork, Ireland, which he left in 1985 to work construction jobs in Boston. He then headed west to Santa Barbara and took over Video Shmideo in Victoria Court in 1990, arguably the last great video rental shop anywhere. In 1993, he opened Bogart’s in La Arcada Plaza, which became a beloved spot for coffee and Guinness. (That’s where Petit Valentien is now.) In 1997, after spending too much cash at The James Joyce pub after weekly soccer games, he and three Irish friends opened Dargan’s Irish Pub on East Ortega Street. Then came another Dargan’s and a sports bar called Rookees in Ventura, a brief stint owning the Padaro Beach Grill in Carpinteria, and then a mini-chain of bar-restaurants called Brendan’s in Camarillo, Newbury Park, and Agoura Hills.
He’s since sold his interest in all of those ventures but retains ownership of Pizza Mizza, which he started on Milpas Street in 2003 and moved to La Cumbre Plaza about a dozen years ago. “We were ahead of the curve,” said Searls of Pizza Mizza’s inventive topping combinations, like chicken and barbecue sauce and goat cheese, which were new for Santa Barbara 15 years ago although de rigueur today. “And we’ve made it work with community outreach and involvement,” he explained of his support of numerous causes and fundraisers. A pizza parlor won’t make you rich, he advised, but it will pay the bills.
About two years ago, the landlord of La Arcada gave Searls a ring, explaining that Cielito was closing and wondering if he’d be interested in trying a new concept. “I like a challenge,” said Searls, so he went into the Cielito kitchen and asked the cooks to make dishes that they’d proudly serve to their wives, moms, and grandmothers. That led to Viva Modern Mexican, which serves classic dishes with contemporary flair next to the turtle pond in the heart of the plaza.
When La Arcada Bistro closed on that coveted corner spot last year, Searls jumped at the opportunity to have a sister restaurant to Viva and to build on Pizza Mizza’s success. He’d already signed the lease for the space when the Thomas Fire broke out in December — his hillside Ventura home was one of the first to burn. Searls; his wife, Kourtney Searls; and their teenage son, Ben, only had 15 minutes to escape with what they could grab and lost everything else. They moved temporarily into Bonnymede on the Montecito coastline, only to awake on January 9 to the mudslide disaster, which deposited a dead body outside their condo. “It was definitely a hard three to four months,” said Searls.
As life returns to normal and they work on rebuilding their home, Searls spends most of his time at Mizza, as does Kourtney, both commuting from their rented home in Saugus. She’s passionate about Italian food and working directly with the kitchen staff over the next few months to dial in the dishes. Searls’s longtime corporate chef, David Raigoza, and sous chef, Amado Garcia, are also big on Italian food, and Michael De Paola, longtime owner of now-shuttered Emilio’s, serves as a consultant.
“These are his meatballs,” said Searls of the gluten-free pork-and-beef nuggets that he serves in a rich, spicy tomato broth; the menu also features Emilio’s famed endive salad and butternut squash ravioli. Other highlights of a recent tasting including a tangy carpaccio with lemon, arugula, and capers; a savory, free-range chicken marsala; and a house-made, pillow-soft gnocchi in a spinach, ricotta, and foie gras sauce. “This is one of those dishes that I don’t want to share when I have it,” said Kourtney, who’s also helped enhance the pizza menu with options like smoked salmon and spinach, arugula and prosciutto, and pesto shrimp.
Competing with the fairly priced food, though, is that corner setting: the shaded, heater-lined, wraparound patio provides the best people watching in town, and Searls is fine with customers posting up for a while, as long as the orders keep coming. “This is really going to be an inside-outside dining room all year long,” he said.
He sees Mizza as the symbol of his career coming full circle, a doubling down on the same plaza where he started Bogart’s a quarter century ago. “I don’t have a specialized body of knowledge, except about opening restaurants. My skill is bringing people together and creating synergy and making a package that appeals to everybody,” he explained, referring to customers as well as employees and the landlord. “I’m like the conductor of an orchestra. I can’t play any instruments, but I do like the sound of good music.”
1112 State St.; 883-3935; mizzasb.com