The big news in the regional restaurant world this week was that Sea Legs Santa Barbara will be the next restaurant at Goleta Beach, having won the bid over three other competitors. They’ll be taking the place of the Beachside Bar-Café, which operated in that county-owned location for nearly 37 years but shut down in January due primarily to pandemic-related challenges, a year before their lease was up.
For those who want more of the straight story, with details, comments, and so forth — but minus my own direct opinions — I wrote a news-ish story about the decision here.
I was able to pre-write the story last week and publish it right after the vote came through on Tuesday, because the proprietors, Joe “Diggs” Dies (pictured below) and Omar Khashen, reached out directly to me a week in advance to tell me their story. When such strategic outreach comes my way, I’m always on the lookout for becoming an agent of advanced spin, of having my voice be co-opted to get ahead of and perhaps shape community reaction.
So I proceed cautiously, but I also welcome the chance to hear people out. It gives me a privileged opportunity to make some early judgment calls based on my healthy knowledge of the regional hospitality scene and my 26 years of experience living here, from when I was an 18-year-old Gaucho until now, as a father of two living in the ‘burbs near Goleta.
With quick web research revealing that Omar and Joe were not already in the Santa Barbara scene, living in Orange County and Arizona respectively, I went into our phone call like any proud local: curious of whether they were run-of-the-mill carpetbaggers or, instead, had genuine intentions to do Goleta Beach right. A sparkly gem of an address, Santa Barbara can be a feather in much larger hospitality hats, but we’re a tough market to crack, and I’ve seen plenty of restaurant roadkill laid by otherwise experts.
I go to Goleta Beach a lot. I used to bike through there multiple times a week on my roundtrip ride from home to Campus Point and back. Recently, it’s been mostly to walk my puppy, which I’ve been doing a few times a week.
I also ate at the Beachside countless times under numerous circumstances: college dinners with my parents, lunch meetings with politicians, jovial happy hours with friends, last-minute dinners with kids, and to cash in those shrimp fest coupons from time to time. It was a solid spot, but I wasn’t crying in my salty popcorn when they closed. When I interviewed them last January, the owners seemed ready to move on — they’d moved out of town a while before — and it felt like the classic vibe had run its course.
From a culinary perspective, the food was fine (and not particularly cheap) and the drink list was just standard, despite being surrounded by so much great wine, beer, and a humming cocktail culture. Even though the Beachside was usually busy (and seemed to pay the bills just fine), you could sense that there was potential for so much more.
When I took the call from Joe and Omar, they quickly went into their local ties. They are substantial, especially for Joe, who played soccer for UCSB and then worked State Street bars for seven years during the booming early 2000s. With impressive hospitality and business development chops, they are going into business together for the first time, and both said how much they saw this as their chance to call Santa Barbara home.
They were convincing, likable as much as one can be on the phone, and intently serious about the plans, which have been very well considered. They were also very professional in follow-up correspondence. The county thinks so too.
When I spoke to Jeff Lindgren, the assistant director of County Parks, he felt that this concept could be “transformational” for Goleta Beach. I agree. While Goleta Beach serves a lot of different purposes and demographics now, it could be much more of an epicenter for seaside celebration.
A great restaurant, bar, and event space can do that. And with the potential for some outdoor entertainment waiting in the wings (I caught that more from Jeff than the duo, but Sea Legs down south does do that), we could be talking about a coastal California icon.
No doubt there will be grumblings about them not being “true locals.” Of the four applicants, only one fit that definition, from what I heard. I didn’t even ask the names of the other bidders, because it doesn’t matter unless they speak up. That can be found in the public record, I imagine, but I’m not interested in promoting forced-controversy journalism to no one’s benefit. Plenty of others can handle that.
Sign up to get Matt Kettmann’s Full Belly Files, which serves up multiple courses of food & drink coverage every Friday, going off-menu from our regularly published content to deliver tasty nuggets of restaurant, recipe, and refreshment wisdom to your inbox.
And locals don’t necessarily mean perfect tenants. Fresh perspectives can be good, especially when the demographics and demands of this location are unlike anywhere else in town: seaside property on county land; with both fine and casual seafood-leaning fare; serving college kids, their parents, tourists, business travelers, people cruising through town, and, most importantly, permanent residents who live nearby (a k a, me!).
Joe and Omar readily recognize the requirement of being community-focused. Omar was house-hunting when we talked, and Joe said he plans to move here with his family after Sea Legs opens. The excitement in their voices was genuine, and it wasn’t the money-hungry version. This place will require a ridiculous amount of investment and acumen to turn a profit, and yet they’re diving in headfirst as the only partners on their first venture together ever.
So, yeah, I’m down with Sea Legs Santa Barbara as it’s been presented to me. Let’s give these dudes a chance. Goleta Beach needs it.
Sushi | Bar for Me
Let me just implicate in some journalistic version of insider trading right away: I got an embargoed press release the day before the Michelin Guide’s latest round of awards were announced telling me that Sushi | Bar in Montecito had earned a star, which would be Santa Barbara’s first.
So I did two things: One, I readied myself for the official announcement that would be coming the next morning, because I’d have to drop everything to report the news and hopefully add some Santa Barbara County names to the starred list (go, Bell’s in Los Alamos!); and two, I went on the Sushi | Bar website and made a reservation, fearing that they’d stack up quickly once news got out.
The soft crime was worth it. We enjoyed 17 courses of amazing sushi, paired with sake, wine, cocktails, and beer. Best of all was the banter with the chefs and other patrons, one couple in from Seoul, one chef a Giants fan (like me), the rest of the kitchen Dodger lovers, like my buddy seated next to me. (It was game five of the series that night. Yes, we wore competing ball caps to a fancy dinner.)
The bill, with a healthy tip, was about $540 for my wife and I. I’d do it again in a flash — not every week or month or even year, but it would certainly be worth a buy-out scenario with the right group of friends.
I came away realizing that a big chunk of what you pay for on nights like that is to be surrounded by people who love to learn about food and drink as much as you do. I’ve always found high-level dining experiences such as that — where you are seated right in front of the chefs, or at least they make their presence known frequently — to be more about education and culinary camaraderie than anything else. And you get to eat the study materials, and they are otherworldly delicious.
Oh, I also figured out how to use my Instagram Highlighted Story function that night. Check out my highlights here.