Hotel Californian’s Blackbird Is Ready to Fly

Devon Espinosa’s Drinks and Travis Watson’s Food Combine Near Santa Barbara Waterfront

Credit: Courtesy

Forget fine dining, think clubby casual chic. Au courant cocktails and share plates emphasizing global flavors and local produce. That’s what the recently reopened and reimagined Blackbird at Hotel Californian now offers, both in its inviting red-and-black-tiled dining room and its street-side terrace. Although it’s not easy to remain relevant and COVID-19 safety rules compliant, this edition of Blackbird seems ready to fly.

Start with one of Devon Espinosa’s cocktails. Note, his Twitter feed says, “Some call me a mixologist, some call me a libation therapist” — so if you need care, he’s got your back and your taste buds. “I knew I wanted to create drinks that were as vibrant as the area I was building them for,” he said in an email interview. “Color and texture played a huge role in the way I tackled this menu. Aside from seasonality, I wanted to use distillates that are off the beaten path for the average cocktail drinker.”


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So you end up with a Ryes Up, which is either a Manhattan with dry vermouth (Carpano Bianco) or a Rob Roy with Rittenhouse Rye. And also Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur that adds depth and lift. Or sip on a Chareau Me the Money (note, no pun is unturned when Espinosa names his creations), featuring Tito’s Handmade Vodka; a refreshing mix of mint, basil, and lime; and Chareau, an eau de vie made from aloe vera. Added Espinosa, “We also use other proprietary syrups like our bell pepper and smoked paprika as well as a house-made coffee stout syrup to separate Blackbird’s menu from any other in the area.”

The bites menu might be brief, but it travels many a mile for its inspirations, from crispy-yet-tender Memphis-style BBQ chicken wings to a Pacific Rim–inspired delicate citrus-cured kampachi crudo that hides a surprising crunch with a sprinkling of puffed black rice. After early training in Paris and a long stint as executive chef at north San Diego County’s esteemed Rancho Bernardo Inn, Chef Travis Watson brings a career’s worth of wisdom to bear on the menu.

“One of the best things about working in Santa Barbara is our access to great ingredients,” said Watson. “From the local farms to our abundant ocean, Blackbird will always feature the bounty of the local area, which means that our menus have to reflect that.”

Watson also made clear the goal was to offer items “that would be familiar to our guests, but then add a fun, iconoclastic twist on them.” So, say you’re more a Buffalo than a Memphis wing fan; there’s still something for you — Buffalo cauliflower, the sauce peppery and piquant yet cooled a tad with some smoked blue cheese. I’d shuffle off to them again in a peckish second.

36 State St.; (805) 882-0135; hotelcalifornian.com

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