For being a town so associated with sunshine, palm trees, and sea breezes, you’d think that Santa Barbara would be home to countless colorful establishments selling umbrella-tented drinks and island-inspired eats. But for whatever reason — we lean more Mediterranean, perhaps, or maybe it’s hard to make such genres both authentic and fresh — we’ve been weak in that game for decades.
So it feels like a significant culinary and cocktail void was filled in March with the opening of Cubaneo and Shaker Mill, which are serving refined Cuban food and upscale tropical beverages, respectively. This team effort by the Barbareño restaurant and Good Lion bar crews is happening in a large shared space on the 400 block of State Street in the old home of India House, which closed in 2016.
The surprisingly long building, with back and front patios, will soon also be home to Modern Times’ craft beer and vegan comfort food, as well as Gear, a clothing and gift shop run by Amy Cooper of Plum Goods. Called Kim’s Service Depot — a nod to the property’s owner, Kim Hughes, and its long-ago life as an auto shop — the development was overseen by the minds behind the Funk Zone’s Waterline, another shared space project home to beer, wine, food, and crafts purveyors.
“It’s the wave of the future,” said the Shaker Mill’s Brandon Ristaino of this collaborative concept. “With costs rising in every way, this allows new ideas to be explored without being run out of business instantly.”
Of course, Ristaino, his wife/business partner, Misty Orman, and the Cubaneo co-owners Jesse Gaddy, Julian Martinez, and Kristopher Brown have a strong head start, having run successful downtown establishments for almost five years. The latter group opened Barbareño on West Canon Perdido Street on November 1, 2014, applying gastronomic techniques to Central Coast cuisine. Twenty days later, Ristaino and Orman changed the State Street bar scene for good by opening Good Lion next to The Granada Theatre.
“We bonded through that,” said Orman of becoming the new kids on the block at the same time, and young business owners as well. Two years later, Ristaino and Orman also opened Test Pilot, a modernized tiki bar concept, in the Funk Zone.
In 2016, the couple won their third liquor license in the annual lottery and were actively exploring new ideas, one of which on Milpas Street fell through. Then Modern Times requested that the Good Lion team be included in their entry to the Santa Barbara market, which has been rumored for years.
“We swooned,” said Ristaino of being targeted by the respected San Diego County brewery. Aside from many popular and widely available beers, Modern Times is known for its whimsical tasting rooms, such as the Dankness Dojo in downtown Los Angeles and the Fortress of Raditude in San Diego; the State Street location will reportedly be called the Academy of Recreational Sciences.
With the project also needing a restaurant, the Good Lion team demanded that Barbareño fill that slot. “We appreciate good food,” said Orman, “so we had to be associated with them.”
The moderately priced menu ($10-$16.50), developed by Martinez, who has Cuban roots, consists of sandwiches, salads, and plates that combine Cuban traditions with meticulously sourced ingredients, such as Benton’s country ham in the Cubano and Medianoche sandwiches, and Castelvetrano olives and Mama Lil’s goat-horn peppers in the braised-beef-rib-based Ropa Nueva. There are also chicken, shrimp, and mojo-pork-filled sandwiches, a zesty salad with guava vinaigrette and goat cheese croquettes, and plenty of addictive sides ($3-$4.50), like fried yucca and plantains served myriad ways.
“Coming up with the menu was an interesting process — instead of making every single person happy, we did what we wanted to do,” explained Gaddy. “We didn’t want to do traditional Cuban food. We wanted more spice, more flavors, different textures — not just straight outta your Cuban grandma’s kitchen.”
And compared to the haute standards at Barbareño, planning a casual counter-service eatery also presented new service challenges for the owners and GM Jonathan Jarrett, who is also Cuban. “We can’t be poring over every dish,” said Gaddy. But even with the walk-up ordering system, “we give an unexpected amount of hospitality,” said Gaddy, whose servers will deliver the food and follow up with diners, like in a sit-down restaurant. And they serve from lunchtime to way late, 11 to 1 a.m. daily.
To design the cocktail menu, which Ristaino and Orman envisioned as “al fresco patio drinks,” they did exhaustive research, testing more than 50 recipes and taking trips to Miami, where he was raised. “We figured people would gravitate toward light and bright,” said Ristaino of the results, which taste brilliantly unique and thoroughly tropical without being sweet, syrupy, or overly fruity.
The 14 selected drinks ($11-$12) are broken down into three categories: Frozen Cocktails, Punches, Cups, and Sours; Fizzy Drinks; and Stirred and Pinkie Up. There’s also beer, wine, and nonalcoholic options, such the orgeat fizz and seasonal shrub. So far, the formula seems to be catching on: They’re already using exponentially more coconut milk at Shaker Mill than at Test Pilot, whose tiki-bar menu relies on the stuff.
Here are a few best sellers to try:
Cuba Libre: This classic is full of cola flavors, yet no cola is involved. “We tasted that more than any other cocktail — it was brutal,” said Ristaino. “We didn’t give up on it,” added Orman. “But after sampling, sampling, sampling, we love it,” confirmed Ristaino.
Piña Colada: This drink, which is enhanced with crushed coffee beans, Ristaino explained, “was inspired by our R&D trip to Miami,” when they couldn’t get enough of Sweet Liberty’s coladas.
Tequila Sunrise 2.0: “We really dried it out,” said Ristaino of his not-sweet-at-all recipe. “And I fell in love with the crazy idea of garnishing a cocktail with another cocktail.” Yep, it’s topped with a splash of mezcal negroni.
Porto Guava: This refreshing rum-guava-port drink goes great with the Cubano sandwich. “I’m a firm believer in the viability of pairing cocktails with food,” said Ristaino.
House Old Fashioned: “We wanted to involve Cuban tobacco,” said Ristaino, so they figured out how to scorch tea leaves to give that impression in this drink, which is on tap and includes both rum and bourbon.
Mango Lassi: Just like it sounds, this is the South Asian–inspired smoothie-like drink, spiked with pistachio-infused vodka. Said Ristaino, “It’s our homage to the old India House.”