Film directors seeking to shoot an opening scene that captures the essence of Santa Barbara should spend some time on the sun-soaked patio of Carlitos Café y Cantina, across the street from The Arlington Theatre’s red-lettered marquee and towering spire. On any given day, whether the sun is noon-high or settling low into a tangerine-blush sky, the smiling faces of locals and tourists — some in flip-flops, others well-dressed, whether due to downtown business meetings or that evening’s concert — can be found sipping on margaritas, chomping on chips and salsa, and awaiting orders of their classically inspired but modernly made Mexican food.
It’s a formula that found immediate success when Carlitos first opened back in 1978, and today Leslie and Carlos Lopez are reflecting on 40 years of restaurant gold, celebrating with a specially priced menu through this weekend. “What makes me happy is seeing all ages coming into the restaurant,” explains Leslie over a lunch of margaritas, huaraches, mole chicken tacos, and ceviche. “You know you’re hitting your mark when you see people having a good time. If the chips are warm and you have a well-made margarita in hand, everything else just falls into place.”
Raised in Bakersfield but educated at UCSB, Leslie Hollis met Carlos during a summer program in Guadalajara, where the Monterrey-born son of a federal employee spent most of his youth and was then studying architecture. “I knew immediately that I hoped he would be my husband,” said Leslie. “We were married two months later.”
They came to Santa Barbara in 1971, intending to stay a year, but they stuck around after Carlos began working for the county’s architecture division. Leslie found office and real estate jobs, and she opened a retail shop called Holly House on Brinkerhoff Avenue. “We’d been toying with the idea of doing a restaurant,” said Leslie. “We just didn’t see the food that his family and we had been enjoying in Mexico.”
Then the location in Arlington Plaza came on the market, and they took the plunge, with Carlos reworking the building and Leslie, who was pregnant at the time, building the team. “We’ve never cooked, but we both sure do enjoy eating,” she explained, and they based the early “classic, old-school Mexican” recipes on the Lopez family favorites, like enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas, and so forth.
The original concept, which was called Carlitos & Co., was walk-up fast food, but that only lasted a month until a customer suggested sit-down service. That clicked immediately, and Carlos left his county job less than four months later to deal with the busy restaurant. Other early facets that remain Carlitos cornerstones are live music on the patio Thursday through Sunday and a loyal staff.
“Not only has our chef been here almost 40 years,” said Leslie, referring to Jóse Sánchez, who came on board two months after opening, “but 14 people have been here more than 15 years. We feel like we are a family.” They’ve even had employees whose parents met while working at Carlitos. “We’re at that generational stage,” said Leslie.
The greater Lopez-Hollis family is also very involved. The couple’s granddaughter, Elysia Guillen, is the front-of-house manager, and their son, Carlos Lopez-Hollis, owns and operates the two offshoot restaurants: Cava Restaurant and Bar on Coast Village Road, which the family opened in in 1991, blending Spanish and Latin American cuisine; and Dos Carlitos in Santa Ynez, which Carlos the younger opened 11 years ago.
The menu, meanwhile, is always evolving, from the beverages — there’s a new Celebración 1978 margarita to mark the anniversary as well as the Carajillo, a popular after-dinner drink in Spain and Mexico that combines Licor 43 with coffee and ice — to the food, as Carlitos was on the early wave of eateries serving upscale tacos; black beans more so than pinto; and healthier, veggie-laden versions of Mexican dishes like huaraches and pozole. The latter is based on the version made by Carlos’s sister, Lali, and the ceviche is based on a recipe by Carlos’s brother, Jose, who lives in Manzanillo.
When John Travolta ordered a quesadilla with chicken one time, it became a staple. The salsas are all homemade — including the spicy quemada version, which has been copied far and wide — as is the mole, which features more than two dozen ingredients. And some menu items have returned, too, like the churros, now served with two dipping sauces.
“The bottom line is that if we like it, it gets on the menu,” said Carlos, who still comes in every day. Leslie is there multiple times a week, tending to the flowers, among other roles. Said Leslie, “If you don’t stay fresh and try new things, you can get stale.”
They’re quite pleased with how the business worked out so well, aware that they were blessed by the location and supportive landlords over the years. They hope that this restaurant will remain in the family for the decades to come.
“The first seven years seemed like 20 years, but it seems like we just had our 30th anniversary,” said Leslie. For that one, they gave out CDs with a mix of their favorite songs, though that sounds anachronistic now. This time, they’re offering special prices on select menu items and half-price margaritas instead.
“With this wonderful location, a sun-drenched patio, and a fantastic team, it’s ended up working really well,” said Leslie. “I can’t believe that it’s been 40 years.”
1324 State St.; 962-7117; carlitos.com