For being one of the wealthiest sports — in which every player requires about eight specially bred and expertly trained horses — polo proves quite accessible to most everyone else. At least that’s true down at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, where there’s never been a fee to watch the Friday afternoon matches during the May to October season and seats for the Sunday finals start at just $20.
Now the club, which is the third oldest in the country and considered the global hotspot for top-tier polo during the summer months, is opening its doors even wider through the Fieldside Grill. The restaurant, which opened in May, is now serving lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Saturday amid constant equestrian activity, decades of memorabilia, and an al fresco atmosphere that’s so coveted right now.
“You can come into a historic polo club, see the trophies, see the photos on the wall, and have a beautiful lunch or dinner sitting on a polo field — it’s just a very unique setting,” explains David Sigman, a hospitality veteran who took over as general manager of the club in 2016. “There’s always something to see, and it’s great for people watching.”
I took him up on his invitation a couple of weeks ago, braving the 101 traffic with my son and a few friends for the Friday matches, when the Fieldside operates a happy hour. That was also Sigman’s idea, as there was no service for the public on Fridays when he arrived five years ago. “What are you doing?” he remembers thinking, recognizing the easy revenue and appeal. “Open the bar!”
We settled into one of the, yes, fieldside tables (reservable by members; first-come, first-seated otherwise), and dove into the happy hour menu: barbecue-flavored salmon cakes, coconut shrimp, chicken wings, a hummus plate, and freshly fried tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole, plus blood orange margaritas and a bucket of Modelo cans. Strapping chaps on horseback zoomed past repeatedly during the Silver Cup semifinals, our heads on a swivel tracking the goals and occasionally cowering a bit when the action veered mere feet away.
I hadn’t been to a polo match in years — I covered the club a few times more than a decade ago for this paper and Sunset Magazine — but immediately recalled that the sheer power and skill exhibited by both man and beast on the massive grass field are captivating, not to mention visceral, like when that stampede rumbles your way. And while the official list of rules is complex, the basics are simple: human on horse uses stick to hit ball through goalposts. Any age or sports comprehension level can get that, and the best times to visit are these coming weekends, as the Pacific Coast Open runs now through finals on August 29. “That’s the biggest day of the year,” said Sigman.
Following the match, Sigman took us on a full tour, past the Spanish-style condo complex, where some of the 139 units are rented by Argentinian polo players in the summer; the extensive rows of stables, where more than a dozen teams might house their horses at any given time during the season; and onto the tennis club, which Sigman just put through an extensive remodel, improving the clubhouse, eight courts, family-friendly lap pool, and, just in time for COVID, the outdoor fitness center. “It’s the pride and joy of our club,” he said of this year-round facility, whose monthly dues range from $150 to $200, although the initiation fees keep rising.
Along the way, Sigman waved to almost everyone we saw, so much that I joked he was like the don of the club. So how’d this guy — whom I previously knew through his restaurant and hotel jobs at bouchon, the Wine Cask, the Bacara, and El Encanto — wind up running a club full of sleek ponies, bouncing balls, fancy hats, and divot stomps?
While on his third stint at the Bacara (under his third set of resort owners), he took a call from the polo club’s outgoing GM. “I came up to the club, and I just saw a ton of potential — I was like, ‘Wow, this is a gem,’” said Sigman. “I didn’t even know how to spell ‘equestrian.’ I was so far from horses and polo. It just wasn’t my wheelhouse. But I knew hotels. I knew food and beverage. I knew hospitality.”
He quickly learned that the club’s president, John Muse, was also interested in better utilizing the facility. “We felt that this club was set perfectly to do large-scale events: sporting events, music festivals, car shows, horse shows,” said Sigman, who’s moved away from weddings and small social events. “We like annual events, so you know they’re coming back the next year.”
Along came happy hour, cabanas and tent rentals, and ticketing for Sunday seats, because Sigman felt that giving away those tickets for free undercut their value. “That’s proven to not only be a great revenue source, but just a great way to get the word out to the public,” he explained.
The food situation remained perplexing, though, as the only regular service prior to the Fieldside Grill was a big, members-only brunch every Sunday. “How do you execute quality food and beverage and great service when only open one day a week?” asked Sigman, explaining that the food and labor costs also never penciled out.
So he brought in a third-party operator called Best Beverage Catering, which runs food and beverage at venues nationwide, including the Empire Polo Club in Indio, as well as for festivals like Coachella and Outside Lands. They launched Fieldside Grill under BBC’s Chef Peter Zimowski and now run five days a week, including the Sunday barbecue, with offerings such as pulled pork, grilled chicken, and bratwurst.
“You just have a better-running machine,” said Sigman of this setup, which serves a tight rather than sprawling menu. “I’d rather execute something flawlessly 1,000 times in a row than try to jump out of our lane and do something we can’t repeat 1,000 times in a row.”
Barbecued eats from the Fieldside Grill. | Credit: Michelle Lauren
As we pulled back into the Fieldside, I shook hands with Glen Holden, our former ambassador to Jamaica and the namesake of the championship field. Then we sat down for dinner, sipping on Pimm’s cups, palomas, and a Roark red over braised short-rib grilled cheese, New York strip, Caesar salad, mac ’n’ cheese, and chicken fingers as kids played with dented polo balls on the lawn and the day’s last horses sauntered by.
Sigman is working hard to make sure that this experience remains open for all to enjoy, especially since the outdoor tables offer a very COVID-safe environment. “I call it behind-the-hedge syndrome: People can drive past this club 1,000 times and not even know we’re here,” said Sigman of the trouble in getting the word out. “We live in this town that has this super unique thing going on: We have the third-oldest polo club in the country playing the highest-level polo, with matches being streamed worldwide. And we really need the community’s support. We want to keep this open.”
3375 Foothill Rd., #1200, Carpinteria; (805) 684-6683; sbpolo.com
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