An Ode to Santa Barbara’s Rose Café

A Musician Recalls Good Times, and Zappa, at the Mexican Restaurant on East Haley Street

Rose Cafe | Credit: Jen Villa

Dedicated to Theresa

It was quiet and sunny; the light was crisp. Haley Street shined like the golden road to unlimited devotion. It was a beautiful Sunday in Santa Barbara and time for brunch.

I pulled up to the Rose Café, got out of my car, and stepped through the double screen doors. The café was painted warmish green with a tin ceiling. The counter was ancient. Beautiful, large paintings of Aztec mythology hung on the walls. The floor was made of linoleum.

The smells were tempting. The food was amazing.

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It was the 1970s, and Haley Street was virtually dormant. There were no coffeehouses, breweries, or wine rooms. There was no deluge of contemporary businesses flooding the street. Instead of cool hipsters, there were blue-collar folks working in the area — hip in a prewar kind of way.

Haley was the main drag in the industrial part of town. Its addresses were populated with businesses that mainly had to do with building things. There were craftsmen hidden in small spaces and large businesses devoted to the construction arts. No software; all hardware.

In the middle of it all was the Rose Café, which had been providing sustenance to the neighborhood since 1924.

The food was incomparable there. They featured chile verde, chile colorado, chilaquiles, enchiladas, chile rellenos, carne asada, menudo, and the best salsa in town. But what really made this place amazing were the frijoles refritos: creamy, tender, and toned with subtle flavors.

For bean and cheese burritos, fresh, tangy white cheese was added, wrapped in the tastiest tortillas imaginable.They were flavor perfect, small, handheld, and delicious — my Sunday brunch.

The big stuff was cooked in a little house across the street. It was common to see Tony crossing the street with a big pot of beans, rice, or stew. The cooks would prepare the individual dishes in the café’s kitchen.

There were two cooks working the kitchen. We never said much to each other, but over the years, I could tell by the size of my burritos and warm smiles that they loved the tall gringo.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were made from home recipes, prepared with love — real California food.

At one time, the Rose was an after-hours joint, staying open until two in the morning. That wasn’t uncommon, as bars were typically full of people until one.

One late night I decided to go down after a gig to have a meal. The place was empty except two guys.

I was a little peeved because they were sitting at my corner table. One dude was sitting outward, facing the door and not eating. He was wearing a tan sport coat and had a bald, strongman-from-the-circus build. He was huge.

The other guy was Zappa.


I sat at the counter, ordered my food, got my plate, and ate silently. Afterward I got to thinking.

How was it that I ran into Frank Zappa and his bodyguard in a Mexican restaurant called the Rose Café on Haley Street in Santa Barbara at 1:30 in the morning?

That’s an easy answer. Good food is a necessity, and the situation was a mother of invention.

I’ve recently heard my home away from home is closed permanently due to the pandemic.

Necessities change.

Gratefully, we’ve had almost a century of amazing food, loving hearts, and true Santa Barbara spirit and style.

¡Gracias, amigos! ¡Vaya con Dios! 

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