The steadily growing Bluewater Grill chain may be opening a new outpost every year — there are 10 so far from Catalina Island to Phoenix — but the goal for each restaurant is to stay grounded (or “sea-ed” perhaps?) in its region. The pandemic provided the opportunity to refocus that mission at our own Bluewater on Cabrillo Boulevard, which opened in 2018. Specifically, the restaurant hired new executive chef Alberto Torres, a 30-year Santa Barbara resident formerly at Hollister Brewing Company and Chuck’s Waterfront, as well as a new GM, Autumn Vaughn, a rising star in Bluewater’s ranks.
Vaughn started as a food runner at the Coronado location in 2019, quickly moved up to assistant general manager there, and then in October 2021 took the top position in Santa Barbara. “They always try to promote from within,” she explained. Moving to San Diego from Florida, she quickly valued the employee-focused approach at Bluewater. “You can text the owners, and they will text you back,” she said. “They know about everybody’s lives in the company, and that’s not easy to find.”
That team spirit led her to hire Torres. It was Christmas week of 2021, and he came to an interview ready to work. “He’s very creative, but he also treats his staff really well,” she said. “If he needs to, he’ll jump on the line or even into the dish pit.” Vaughn also values how Torres helps the whole kitchen become more inventive. “On weekends, we do family meals after the shift, and the crew gets to lead,” she explained. “It’s been exciting to watch.”
All this growth behind the scenes means that what shows up on the plates is even better. There’s the luscious house-cured salmon Torres makes for weekend brunch as just one example, or Bluewater’s signature dish: chipotle swordfish harpooned by the restaurant’s dedicated fishing boat. A mouthful of the delicious plate — the fish steak cooked perfectly in its warming-not-intense spice rub, along with some avocado and roasted corn — is everything one could hope from a Pacific land/sea meeting.
Despite coming from Amelia Island on the Atlantic, Vaughn didn’t grow up liking to eat fish, even while working at her grandfather’s seafood shop. “But I fell in love with the swordfish, and now I eat it once a week,” she said. “It’s a dish that has never changed on the menu — if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
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This Bluewater location does its best, however, to fix its dishes with Santa Barbara County wines, beers, and spirits. They particularly like to pair up with their Funk Zone neighbors, like J. Wilkes, Margerum, and Melville, and serve a private beer made especially for Bluewater by Figueroa Mountain. That house-cured salmon on the brunch menu might be paired with a crisp Margerum rosé, for instance, although Vaughn also joked, “Most people still go for the bottomless mimosas.”
The cocktail list takes cues from Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, yet another neighbor. “Ian Cutler did a tasting himself for our team,” she said, explaining that these sort of welcoming vibes remind her of her small hometown. “He’s the name on the label and he’s taking time out of his day to taste with us.”
Connecting with locals is critical for Vaughn, as she knows that the tourist business waxes and wanes over the seasons. When she first arrived in Santa Barbara, Vaughn talked to vendors at the weekend Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show. “I asked them, ‘What would you want from us?’” she recalled, “and many of them didn’t even know what Bluewater was — and they were across the street from us.” That’s one reason she started a Locals Appreciation Day. Now, every Wednesday, residents can enjoy happy hour drinks from noon ‘til 9 p.m.
The whole point is pleasing all sorts of customers, which is quite easy when serving Bluewater’s scrumptious ponzu sashimi sea scallop — bright, briny, and beautiful, with a late hit of ginger that goes great with a Storm sauvignon blanc.
“When people ask about ordering the fresh scallop, I tell them, ‘If you don’t like it, I’ll pay for it,’” she admitted, adding after a brief pause, “I’ve never had to pay for one.”
15 E. Cabrillo Blvd., (805) 845-5121, bluewatergrill.com