That marvelous sailfish on the wall at the new Riviera Bar certainly looks familiar, but it’s not as familiar as you think. Sure, it came from the old Paradise Café, as is the case for many of the people behind this cozy establishment on West Figueroa that opened July 29. But it’s not the fish you stared at over your margarita above the bar — it’s one from an office.
“Paradise was more a general attitude toward customers and building a community,” explains the new bar’s owner, Kevin Boss. “This is Riviera, a new thing.”
While many involved with Riviera are Paradise veterans — along with Boss, there’s manager Oliver Davis, operating partner Jim Mishler, and even office manager Karen Collyer — the boss asserted, “Paradise was a child of the ’80s.” Riviera is after more of a midcentury feel; think Tadich Grill and the Buena Vista in San Francisco or Musso & Frank in Hollywood as comparisons. Said Boss, “We want that same old-school feel, but updated.”
So, while they definitely serve food, note the name is direct and doesn’t add “café” or “tavern,” or anything after an “and” or ampersand, or god forbid, a +. “We definitely want to be perceived as a bar,” he said, “a place people hang out, talk to strangers, tell lies.”
Of course, anyone who has done any carousing in Santa Barbara over the past forever knows there was a bar that used to occupy this space: the beloved-by-boozers Sportsman Lounge (now re-invented on State Street). Turns out that Boss and his group have owned this building for well over a decade, and when the Sportsman’s lease was up, he knew it was time for his project.
“I had a really soft spot for the Sportsman,” he recalled. “Back when I used to work at Chuck’s in the 1970s, we used to come here after we closed down, and there’d be a country and western band playing and you could get a bologna sandwich and a can of beer.”
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The Sportsman, said Boss, enjoys a much longer history than most know: from the late 1930s to the 1960s, it served food, too, more akin to Joe’s or Harry’s of today. “Then in the 1960s, it changed into more of a day bar,” Boss said. “But the kitchen was always here.” Now thoroughly renovated — like the entire establishment — that kitchen provides a short but pleasing menu with vegetable-forward snacks (like tempura green beans and zucchini fritters) and a double cheeseburger Boss admits they nicked from Au Cheval in Chicago. “We’re not trying to be super-elevated with the food,” said Boss, “but we’re not just a burger-and-a-brew place, either.”
Head bartender Chad Nielson, who previously worked at places such as Pearl Social and Somerset, helps to make that true, creating a tasty menu of classic and house cocktails that currently features an on-point Boulevardier and a Sicilian Spritz that gets its bubbles from a classy Sorelle Bronca Prosecco. “So many bars focus on house syrups and tinctures made with seasonal ingredients,” explained Nielson, “so we decided to really focus on the spirits.” Boss believes that some of the more creative cocktail joints in town can get “a little too self-reflexive, a little meta.”
Credit: Carl Perry
So far, Riviera seems the opposite of self-conscious, walking a charming line of being retro and not precious, dark but not dingy, old-school but not shabby, easygoing but not sloppy. You can find that vibe embodied in something like its subtle, sweetly tweaked classic Spanish Manhattan, which features Rittenhouse rye, Bordiga rosso vermouth, and amontillado.
Think of it as a locals’ bar any tourist should be delighted to find. “We never wanted to be on State Street,” said Boss. “We always wanted to be a destination.”
20 W. Figueroa St.; (805) 679-5170; rivierabarsb.com