In late 2019, after a series of disappointments and near-deals for other establishments, John O’Neill suddenly found himself buying the Wine Cask, one of Santa Barbara’s largest and most iconic restaurants.
For insider insight, O’Neill — who was raised in Boston but has lived here for nearly three decades — turned to the two men who’d run the Anacapa Street institution the longest: Doug Margerum, who bought the place in 1981 with his family and turned it into both a fine-dining mecca and a launching pad for the region’s winemakers; and bouchon owner Mitchell Sjerven, who, alongside Margerum, managed the restaurant from 2009 to 2017 following a brief, ill-fated ownership by a different proprietor.
“Not that I needed their blessing, but for me, it was all about paying respect to the past — that’s very important to me,” said O’Neill, a former punk-rock musician whose professional background is in both banking and hospitality, having cofounded Elements Restaurant in 2004 after running La Marina at the Biltmore, Left at Albuquerque, and the Endless Summer. “It was about keeping some of the Wine Cask’s history,” said O’Neill, “but dragging its knuckles into the next millennium.”
Over a bottle of tequila, his friends Margerum and Sjerven agreed that O’Neill was uniquely qualified to link the Wine Cask’s white-table-clothed heyday with a more energized future. That’s what he’s been doing ever since.
“I bought it with the intention to do what exactly we’ve almost completed here,” explained O’Neill, whose large patio and remodeled rooms are packed most nights, even midweek, with the beloved Gold Room expected to finally reopen this summer. He’s even stopped hosting most events, which had become a primary breadwinner prior to his ownership. Said O’Neill, “We’re trying to give the restaurant back to the community so people can come in on a regular basis.”
To carry out his vision, O’Neill assembled a dream team centered on Chef Josh Brown, who came to culinary school at SBCC from the East Bay in the late 1990s. After working at Restaurant Roy, Chad’s, bouchon, and opening Seagrass, Brown left the stressful restaurant business in January 2009 to cook for private clients and raise his family. “There was no one else I wanted involved,” said O’Neill, who pulled the chef out of his semi-retirement life. “It had to be Josh Brown, or I wasn’t gonna do the project.”
Other critical players are wine and beverage director Nuri Monahan, a longtime server and manager with deep ties to Santa Barbara’s wine and fine-dining world; and Diane Garmendia, owner of 33 Jewels retail store, who is leading the redesign of the property. She did the same for O’Neill at Elements nearly 20 years ago, turning a rundown building across from the County Courthouse into one of the hottest restaurants in town for a good spell.
Together, they’re constantly updating the cuisine and renovating the entire property but keeping the vibes casual. “Fine, elevated dining but with vibrant, exciting rock ’n’ roll energy,” is how O’Neill explains it, noting that while the new crowd skews a tad younger, there are still many familiar faces from the Wine Cask of old. “People are digging it.”
Credit: Ashly Othic
For a chef who built his career on fancy fare, Brown is also enthused with the new formula. “Most of my background is in upscale dining, and while I love that business, what I’m finding is that there is less of a draw for that in this world today,” said Brown, who likes to think of Intermezzo as more of a neighborhood eatery but with “super-premium” ingredients. “You could come in for pizza and beer,” he said. “But if you wanted a big blow-out wine dinner, we can do that too.”
With the official menu proclaiming “Intermezzo by Wine Cask,” O’Neill is embracing the front bar’s longtime moniker. Referring to a pause between musical movements, Margerum originally chose the name to mark the pause between walking in from outside and reaching the Wine Cask dining room. O’Neill takes it one step further, employing the tagline: “Press pause. Rock your senses.”
That spirit is empowered by Debbie Harry and the English Beat on the sound system and framed photos of British, New York City, and Boston punk-rock stars of the late ’70s and early ’80s in the front dining room. For the Gold Room, O’Neill engaged the firm DesignARC to bring back the old bar seating and do something along the lines of “sexy Andalusian rock ’n’ roll vibe.”
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I’ve eaten on the patio twice in recent months, both times with winemakers. Each dinner began with cocktails, whose ingredients are as detailed as anything else on the menu, and then ran through substantial amounts of starters, salads, and pizza before hitting the mains and sides. (I wound up with plenty of leftovers each evening.) The housemade pâté de campagne makes a significant starter, a cured meatloaf served with marrow-butter-slathered ciabatta. But the oysters Rockefeller, mezzo meatballs, and roasted beet salad work great for sharing too.
A newer crab Louie dish comes out in a deconstructed display — “We’re doing some kitschy things with classic dishes,” said Monahan — while the pear and taleggio pizza is a great combination of fresh fruit and funky cheese. On the entree front, the panko herb-crusted chicken satisfies in a schnitzel-like manner, and the Manila clams’ well-spiced show of chorizo and saffron potatoes warmed me up on a chillier January evening.
The wine list remains loaded with gems: After a racy riesling by Alzinger, I toasted the recently passed French wine consultant Phillippe Cambie over Clos Saint-Jean with his friend and Beau Marchais winemaking partner Adam Lee. Then we sipped through an herbaceous 2011 pinot noir from Jalama Canyon Ranch and a luxurious 2001 Kracher, considered one of the best dessert wines in the world (and rather affordable on the list).
Of course, for those keeping track of the timeline, this entire iteration of the Wine Cask comes under the veil of COVID-19, which landed on our shores about two months after O’Neill bought the place. He’s taking the positive outlook on all that, though.
“COVID has been the greatest thing that ever happened to me and this facility and this business,” said O’Neill. “It really allowed us the opportunity to step back and take the breath that we needed in order to create the future of Wine Cask.”
As rules for opening and closing shifted back and forth, the Intermezzo team adjusted as required and are constantly taking suggestions from diners. “We’re evolving on it live,” said Brown, who’s still not sure whether they’ll just serve the regular Intermezzo menu in the Gold Room or whether he should offer a tasting menu. Given how flexible most diners are these days, however, he may never have to completely choose.
“We’re just finding a more creative way to present and offer to the community on a varying price scale,” said Brown. “No one would tell you to make a price point everywhere on the menu, but it’s working because of COVID.”
Having started cooking professionally when he was 17, Brown never expected to be 42 years old with two kids at home while opening a “mega-restaurant” in the middle of a pandemic. (At 330 seats, when the Gold Room is done, Brown believes that the Wine Cask complex is the largest Santa Barbara restaurant that’s not in a hotel.) But he remains as fired up as ever.
“This restaurant has a heartbeat,” he said. “I love being here. It’s worth coming to work every day.”
813 Anacapa St.; (805) 966-9463; intermezzosb.com