Upon opening as a delightful little lounge on Anacapa Street in 2014, Villa Wine Bar quickly amassed a loyal base of customers who come in regularly for their impressive wine list, Italian-inspired bites, and rotating selection of rare beers on tap. But owners Sean and Gabi Larkins were not immune from the “pandemic pivot” most restaurants had to take.
“During the pandemic, we had to innovate and create the best ideas to be able to survive,” explained Gabi, “something different than what we offered in the past.”
The couple turned to Florencio Bartolo, who’d honed his sushi skills at Arigato and Oku and offered to be a pop-up sushi chef for Villa. At first, they could only serve outdoors, which was perfect for summer, and the idea was a hit. The team continued to sling sushi every other Tuesday since, and it’s become so popular that seating is by reservation only and fills up quickly.
The menu is small but mighty, with a selection of changing items including appetizers, carpaccio, nigiri, and rolls. When I visited with a friend on a rainy fall night, Gabi greeted us with a warm smile that immediately melted any chill from the outdoors. As we tucked into our cozy corner table, I couldn’t help but feel that the buzzing excitement of diners throwing off their jackets and diving into a special meal gave the intimate lounge a decidedly N.Y.C. kind of vibe.
The drink menu is filled with options for every palate. The Beachwood Japanese Lager on tap provided a delightful sushi pairing, and my friend greatly enjoyed her sake from their special Tuesday-night list.
Our meal started with possibly my favorite item of the whole night and one I’ve not seen on menus elsewhere: baked mussels, which were filled with crab meat, green onion, and spicy aioli. These overflowing shells were the ideal starter to warm us up and prime our palates for the delicious meal to come.
Another highlight was the delicious yellowtail carpaccio, bathed in a beautiful broth of scallions, red onion, and garlic vinaigrette. With one bite of this succulent and flavorful creation, I could tell why it was Gabi’s favorite dish.
“Because we only do this twice a month, our fish is extremely fresh,” Gabi said. “It melts in your mouth. Some of the fish we get are caught in the Santa Barbara ocean the day before our sushi night. You can definitely taste the freshness. And that’s why the carpaccio is so good.”
Other standouts included the umami-laden dancing eel roll — a California roll topped with eel, avocado, and eel sauce — and, of course, their signature Villa Roll, bursting with yellowtail, ahi, chives, cucumber, and avocado, and layered generously with fresh salmon on top. I could see why the owners had their names on this one. The artful presentation of green, red, and white sauces on either side of the roll provided a playful and tasty nod to the Italian roots of Villa.
As we finished our last roll, looking out at the rainy streets, I didn’t want to leave our super friendly, sushi-filled bunker, but I knew I could look forward to more pop-ups to come.
“My plan is to do pop-ups with different chefs around town on Sundays,” Gabi said. “I am still working on it but thought it would be a good way to get our community together.”
They recently hosted a Brazilian night for the first time, complete with Brazilian drinks, a Brazilian deejay, and Brazilian tapas. “Being from Brazil and knowing that S.B. has such a large Brazilian community, I want to do it once a month,” Gabi explained.
With the influx of holiday parties that Villa hosts, their next sushi night will not be until January 17, and then they will continue on their every-other-Tuesday schedule. In the meantime, Villa’s doors are open for Italian treats, a variety of beverages, and the couple’s ever-present warmth.
“Being a small family business, we like to be very personal and make our customers feel at home,” Gabi said. “We made lots of friends throughout the years at Villa Wine Bar.”
618 Anacapa St.; (805) 770-5283; villawinebar.com