Best of Santa Barbara® 2021
by Charles Donelan
Dance Club • College Night
The team at the Wildcat Lounge has experienced a vivid resurgence of nightlife since reopening. They write that their favorite thing about being the Best Dance Club and hosting the Best College Night is “just seeing people laugh and socialize together and DANCE!” They add that “we’ve all been through so much. So many of our customers work multiple jobs. When they don’t need to be up the next morning at 7 a.m. for work or school, they need a night to let loose and have some fun. We all do!”
Runner-Up (Dance Club): SOhO Restaurant & Music Club
Runner-Up (College Night): Zodo’s Bowling & Beyond
Place to Hear Live Music
Santa Barbara Bowl
Eric Shiflett of the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation writes that “we are touched and awed by the heartfelt support the entire County of Santa Barbara has shown while we have been dark and inoperable.” With considerable upgrades to the facility and an amazing lineup of shows, the Bowl has come back stronger than ever as the Best Place to Hear Live Music not just in Santa Barbara, but quite possibly anywhere.
Runner-Up: SOhO Restaurant & Music Club
Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery
Owner and curator Nathan Vonk says that Santa Barbara is a great place to run an art gallery because it’s “a community of art lovers, who are curious, genuine, and engaged.” He feels that the best part about what he does is “connecting with people over a love of art,” and that even includes the out-of-town customer who was so busy he flew to the Santa Barbara Airport, had the Sullivan Goss staff meet him there with a painting he was interested in, decided he didn’t want it, and got back on a flight less than an hour later without leaving the airport.
Runner-Up: Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
The Museum of Natural History “seeks to connect people to nature for the betterment of both,” and it does so not only through hosting visitors of all ages to the museum and the Sea Center, but also by providing a platform for scientific research. Santa Barbara is a marvel of biodiversity, and as a result, the Museum of Natural History “is dedicated to studying and teaching about the unique ecosystems found in the Santa Barbara region.” This means that, just as nature never stands still, the museum also moves forward with new programs and approaches, thus acknowledging that “the needs of the community will also change as the environment around us changes.” One important aspect of this effort is “working with other museums to do more climate change education in the community.”
Runner-Up: MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
Ensemble Theatre Company
Thanks to actor John Tufts and a Greek writer named Homer, Ensemble Theatre Company’s artistic director Jonathan Fox scored one of the biggest hits of the pandemic’s digital-only theater drought with An Iliad. Even better news arrived this fall, when post-vaccine COVID case levels in Santa Barbara fell to the point that it was possible to return to live theater. An exciting lineup of live plays awaits at the New Vic, where Santa Barbara’s only Equity theater continues to provide top-quality productions of great plays.
Santa Barbara Symphony
After putting on an outstanding digital season featuring some of the best, most thoughtful and engaging content of any classical ensemble in the country, the Santa Barbara Symphony is overjoyed to be back in the Granada. In response to the question “what does being the best mean to you?” the Symphony supplied us with one of the best answers: “ ‘Best’ means that the Santa Barbara community recognizes our impact, that our leadership and community collaborations are valued, and that we are an indispensable part of the fabric of Santa Barbara.” Don’t miss their spectacular season-opening collaboration with State Street Ballet on Kismet, coming up on October 23 and 24.
Runner-Up: UCSB Middle East Ensemble
Funk Zone Spot
Restaurant/Bar to Watch Sports
Finney’s Crafthouse provides the ideal environment for watching sports. Multiple flat screens tuned to all the big games, plenty of comfortable seating with great sightlines, excellent food, and a menu big enough to satisfy everyone. And did we mention the “craft beer spoken here” policy? Well, it’s in full effect. Owner Greg Finefrock wants everyone to know that Finney’s intends to keep winning this category, saying, “We are thrilled to be recognized as a destination spot to view sporting events.” Did I hear someone say, “World Series”?
Runner-Up: Press Room
The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the few places in the world where whale watching is in season all year round. Thanks to the extraordinarily dynamic feeding area, passengers on the Condor Express can expect to see dozens of whales at virtually any time of the year, including summer and winter. Condor Express Captain Dave Beezer loves his work, citing the great enthusiasm of the people who come out to whale watch with him. In particular, he wants to thank everyone who voted for the Condor Express in this category, and “the regulars,” those who, like Dave, have gotten to know such friendly cetacean celebrities as Scarlet over the years.
Runner-Up: The Double Dolphin, Santa Barbara Sailing Center
S.B. Tour Company
Land & Sea Tours: Land Shark
Land & Sea Tours office manager Dany Levine writes that after the long and tense quarantine period, it was great to hear the phone ring again and to field calls from “the many familiar voices” looking to book the Land Shark, adding that what was “best of all” was “to be included once again in the many weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, and team-building events that had been postponed during the long shutdown.” If your only experience of the Land Shark is hearing it before you see it, the time has come to get on board. Pirate costumes are encouraged.
Runner-Up: Santa Barbara Adventure Company
Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro Beach)
With so many great beaches to choose from, our readers singled out Hendry’s Beach for it’s unsurpassed scenic beauty, dog-friendliness, and general vibe of carefree California bliss. Seldom called by its proper name, Arroyo Burro Beach Park, Hendry’s is owned and operated by the County of Santa Barbara, which keeps it in pristine condition. Locals who go back far enough might know it as “the Pit,” but whatever you call it, make sure you appreciate it — there aren’t many beaches anywhere that are this great. If you’re tired of not being able to park, consider this fun fact: the MTD Mesa/La Cumbre #5 bus stops right there more than a dozen times a day.
Runner-Up: Butterfly Beach
Place to Watch the Sunset
Thanks to the unusual transverse orientation of the California coast here in Santa Barbara, Butterfly Beach can claim to be a good place to watch the sunrise or sunset. Top that, Malibu or La Jolla! Add to the magnificent view a charming promenade that leads from the Coral Casino to the spectacular bluff bicycle trail, and “scenic” doesn’t begin to describe it. Whether you get there early or stay late, Butterfly will lift your spirits.
Runner-Up: Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro Beach)
Family Fun Spot
Santa Barbara Zoo
The Santa Barbara Zoo does its best to provide its guests with everything they need, including internet access. That’s the only way to explain the fact that the response I received to the news they had won the Family Fun Spot category came from Pauline, an 11-month-old African lion cub. Pauline says that the best part of her job is “Sleeping. And pouncing. And playing with my dad!” Pauline goes on to say thanks to all the people who voted for the zoo, adding that, in her words, “I’m not ‘lion’ when I say all of my animal friends and I appreciate you!”
Runner-Up: MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
The Arlington Theatre
Arlington General Manager Karen Killingsworth says that, coming as it does after the long shutdown, this award “reassures us that our visitors were positively impacted by their experience at the Arlington. That is the best we can hope for, and of course that they’ll want to come back for another visit. Our doors are always open for them!” Looking ahead, she cites the renovation of the Arlington Courtyard as part of a long-term strategy designed to offer more ways to enjoy this historic venue in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara.
Runner-Up: SBIFF Riviera Theatre
Old Spanish Days Fiesta
Closing in on a century of Fiestas, Old Spanish Days shows no sign of yielding pride of place among our city’s many grand annual events. For five days in August, Santa Barbara transforms into a dream of New Spain, a dream reflected in the eyes and appetites of Fiesta-goers young and old alike. From the steps of the Mission to the Courthouse Sunken Gardens, the sounds of revelry rise up to proclaim the completion of another year. Whether you can’t wait to witness the equestrian parade again or just want to score a churro and chill, Fiesta represents a time when we can all slow down and appreciate the special place we call home.
Runner-Up: Summer Solstice Parade