The name Reunion Kitchen + Drink couldn’t be more well-suited for the polished, modern comfort-food spot that recently opened after much anticipation on Cabrillo Boulevard. It’s as if the reincarnation of this space, which was previously occupied by East Beach Grill for more than three decades, is reuniting that once-beloved casual restaurant with updated hopes of what it can be for many years to come.
Reunion is nestled on the beachside ground floor of the City of Santa Barbara’s Cabrillo Pavilion, which just underwent a four-year, $20 million renovation. That project is why East Beach Grill’s lease was not renewed at the end of 2017. The former proprietor, Francisco Aguilera — who worked there for 33 years, bought it in 2008, and also owns the burger and ice cream joints on Stearns Wharf — was not able to reach a deal with the city to continue operating there post-renovation.
The city initially awarded the contract in 2019 to the owners of The Beachcomber in Newport Beach’s Crystal Cove, who were developing the space under the name La Sirena. But when that deal fell through amid lawsuits in 2021, Scott and Rosemary McIntosh stepped in to open their third Reunion Kitchen + Drink, a small but successful chain with restaurants in Anaheim Hills and Laguna Beach.
“We take a lot of pride in connecting well with our guests,” said Scott, who grew up cooking and managing restaurants. “We’re looking for quality and consistency more than anything else. We want people to get hooked on what we’re doing from the experience.”
To do so, they’re walking the sandy line between beachside casual and upscale fine dining. While East Beach Grill was a cruise up from the beach in your bathing suit for a $5 burger on a plastic chair situation, the Reunion experience is much more refined, as the city’s planners desired.
But don’t assume because the fixtures are updated, the vibe is sleek, and the wine list is impressive that the service is snooty. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The servers feel like old friends, happy to gush about their favorite menu items, accommodate special requests, and ensure that you feel welcomed. After an authentically kind greeting from the host, instant assistance with the heater, and a spot-on cocktail recommendation from our server, my dining partner couldn’t help but remark, “I can’t believe how nice everyone is!”
Perhaps that’s because this is a family-owned and -operated business, with the extended McIntosh clan invested in the company’s growth and joyful environment. “We have cousins, aunts, uncles, and brothers-in-law who all work in our business,” McIntosh explained.
Our meal began with a beautiful sunset and handcrafted cocktails, like the Fairmont 1908 (a mix of Empress gin, crème de violette, lemon juice, egg white, and simple syrup) and the Sazerac, which hits better than any I’ve had in the Big Easy. These are best paired with Reunion’s “Snack Plates,” like the Asian crispy ribs with sweet and spicy chili sauce and Thai peanut slaw, or the avocado wontons, which are quite refreshing. Said McIntosh, “There isn’t a single ingredient we buy that comes out of a can or out of a bottle.”
The mains are reasonably priced, especially for such generous portions and that iconic ocean view. The menu offers a bit more seafood than their other locations, with fish & chips, cioppino, roasted salmon, and tequila shrimp as well as a market-priced, miso-glazed sea bass. But there are plenty of meat options as well, particularly Rosemary’s fried chicken, served with a tasty trifecta of sausage gravy-topped mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, and a honey-buttered biscuit.
The dish takes McIntosh back to earlier in his career, when he was working long hours late into the night. Rosemary would have that chicken frying in the skillet when he got home. “I’d put it up against any fried chicken on the planet,” he said.
The hefty menu sprawls into bowls like Thai chicken & noodle and poke, salads like blackened ahi and citrus salmon, and a full lineup of burgers and sandwiches. At a time when many other restaurants are scaling back offerings in response to the pandemic and general efficiencies, Reunion lists nearly 50 separate food items on the menu, ranging in price from the $7.25 “Little” Caesar salad to the $43 weekend prime-rib dinner. If one restaurant can actually please every palate, Reunion is certainly in the running.
Ready to wrangle with such a spread is the wine list, which includes both blue-chip North Coast standards like Silver Oak and Rombauer as well as a solid showing of Santa Barbara brands, including Dragonette, Fiddlehead, Jaffurs, and Stolpman. “We have fan favorites, local favorites, and stuff that’s off the beaten path,” said marketing manager Wyatt North, as I enjoyed a flute of Brick Barn bubbly from Buellton. For a restaurant with Orange County headquarters, the Reunion team seems to have fingers on the pulse of what makes our wine region so special.
Same for the beer. “We saved all of our draft handles for local breweries,” explained North, though he also pours cans and bottles of staples like Modelo Especial and long-neck Coors for those who want what they want.
Desserts shift seasonally, but their butter cake is a heavy hitter for all seasons. In the coming months, Reunion plans to make use of the upstairs for dining and unveil a breakfast menu, but they’ll always be focused on providing an exceptional visit for every guest. “Our priority right now is to deliver on what we do 100 percent,” said McIntosh.
With that mindset, Reunion Kitchen + Drink might just be the consistent, high-quality shoreline respite we’ve been waiting for.
1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; (805) 364-3366; reunionkitchen.net.