Editor’s Note: Due to substantial changes at the restaurant after this article was published, this original version has been updated to a new story, which you can find here.
It took a nightmare for Berkeley “Augie” Johnson to turn his “childhood dream” of owning a restaurant into reality. The night was January 9, 2018, when the wildfire-scorched mountains above his Montecito home liquefied under torrential downpours, crushing hundreds of homes and killing nearly two dozen residents.
“We lost everything that morning,” said Johnson. “We came out of the mud and we had no house, no wallets, no passports, no photos, no computers, nothing. Our whole family was literally muddy.”
The Johnsons knew tragedy, having already lost their son, Nick, to a drowning accident during water polo training in 2014. This was different.
“You start rebuilding your life — you get passports, you get driver’s licenses, you just start collecting the debris of life again,” said Johnson, who’s been a financial executive at engineering companies for most of his career. “It gave me a new perspective on the last part of my life. Why not do things that are interesting and creative? In some way, it liberated me.”
The Agave Opening
While attending wildfire planning meetings, Johnson learned that agave — the succulent-like species of lily traditionally used to make tequila, mezcal, and alcoholic beverages in Mexico — was considered an excellent firebreak. He offered to plant agave in anyone’s yard for free. “People raised their hands,” explained Johnson, who’s since planted thousands of agaves in backyards from Carpinteria to Buellton.
Naturally, Johnson became fascinated with the plant’s cultivation and uses, traveling to the Mexican states of Oaxaca (the epicenter of mezcal) and Jalisco (home of tequila). After visiting countless distilleries, Johnson’s engineering experience made him realize that there was an opportunity for more stringent quality control in the tequila-making process. He partnered with a like-minded distillery called Casa Aceves and began producing a reposado called Augie’s Tequila.
That was the easy part. Now he had to sell it, and he thought that opening a bar or restaurant would be the most direct strategy.
Johnson took baby steps in that direction, first backing Los Agaves founder Carlos Luna as a silent partner on Flor de Maiz in 2019. “That was an easy opportunity to get my feet in the restaurant business,” said Johnson, who then invested in the operations of Chris Chiarappa, owner of Mesa Burger, Lighthouse Coffee, and Corner Tap.
“Those guys have been mentoring me over the last couple years,” he said. By 2021, Johnson was ready, explaining, “I finally thought that I had enough understanding to open a restaurant under my name and have it be what I envisioned a restaurant to be.”
A native of Stowe, Vermont, David Peszek was “one of the last generations to grow up in a ski town but be poor.” That meant working in hospitality in between hitting the slopes, but the latter is where he carved out his first career, as a ski coach for elite alpine race teams and salesman/brand manager for gear companies like Rossignol and Uvex.
A knee injury knocked him off the outdoor sports cycle in 2011, and he eventually settled back into hospitality while living in Aspen, where he worked for global restaurateur Richard Sandoval. “He took a chance on me,” said Peszek, who found that running a restaurant correlated directly to his brand management work.
Burnout came quickly, so Peszek moved to Puerto Vallarta to pursue a mellower life in 2017. When the pandemic cut his Westin job short, he came back north to consult for a sushi spot in Flagstaff and on a refresh of La Cosecha in Paso Robles. While seeking steady employment and residential stability in Southern California, he learned about Johnson’s dream restaurant and signed on to run the show in September 2021.
Explaining that Johnson simply wanted a “great place to go with his friends,” Peszek has worked 16-hour days for the past year bringing that to life in Augie’s of Santa Barbara, which finally opened at the corner of State and Ortega streets in October. Their shared goal, said Peszek, is quality cuisine, “depth of dining experience,” and solid service, which is why he spent so much time recruiting a “superb” staff in the months before Augie’s opened. Explained Johnson, “The number-one thing that was important to me is to have friendly service so that the locals feel comfortable.”
The spirit selection was another priority, as evidenced by a bottom-lit bar of hundreds of bottles that nearly scratch the ceiling. This is Johnson’s ode to the old-school San Francisco bars that he frequented as a Berkeley-raised, fake-ID-toting teenager, where a knowledgeable barman would access the shelves by ladder.
“It was important to have a biblioteca feel to the place, where people could come in and learn about agave spirits that maybe they never knew about,” he explained. “But it can be overwhelming when they see that wall. Our challenge is to break that down and get people to share the passion we have for learning about new products and new agave and new ideas.”
The selections, which can be explored in flights, extend past tequila and mezcal into more obscure spirits like sotol, raicilla, bacanora, and, of course, the emerging class of California-grown agave beverages. Curious customers can ask to peruse “the bible,” a one-foot-thick collection of tasting notes that dwarves the already daunting menu of agave options, many of which are very difficult to find anywhere else in the country.
Within the next few years, Johnson plans to turn his own agaves into pulque, a slightly sweet, somewhat funky beer-like fermentation that must be served fresh. “It’s something the Maya drank thousands of years ago,” said Johnson, who wants to hoist a white flag outside of Augie’s to announce when the latest batch is being poured, like is done in Mexico. “I want to find a horse and buggy and bring pulque in from the field in a ceremony coming down one of the side streets if I can.”
But Augie’s isn’t just about agave, as the bar curates rare, top-shelf bottlings from across the distilled universe. “If your buddy is a Scotch lover, they’ll find something too,” said Peszek, who’s also proud of the classic-with-riffs cocktail program. As much as it looks like a tequila place, he explained, “We want everyone.” [Editor’s Note: Pezsek is no longer with Augie’s, as of December 21.]
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Born Here, Raised There
Though not so bibliographic as the beverages, the food at Augie’s is equally well considered under the direction of Chef Eduardo Gonzalez, who was born in Santa Barbara but raised in Guadalajara. The grandson of a seafood restaurant owner, Gonzalez instantly realized he loved the business while working as a dishwasher in his teenage years, so he attended culinary school and then ran his own Italian establishment in that Mexican metropolis for two years.
Seeking a more promising place to raise a family — which includes his wife and two daughters, one born just as Augie’s opened — Gonzalez returned to Santa Barbara a few years ago and found work at Honor Bar, the Four Seasons Biltmore, and Caruso’s. When he saw that Augie’s was looking for someone to run the kitchen, he realized, “I’m Mexican; I’m a chef; I am the person for this restaurant.”
His résumé and charisma were immediately impressive. “He’s operating at another level,” said Peszek, who felt a similar buzz when scouting for elite alpine racers.
Anyone familiar with global dining trends realizes that Mexico is home to many of the world’s most celebrated chefs and restaurants, including places like Pujol in Mexico City and Alcalde in Guadalajara, which compete for international standing against the finest establishments of Paris and New York City. But the concept of elevated Mexican cuisine remains foreign for many Americans, so Gonzalez wants to change that.
“Many Californians are more familiar with burritos and tacos, or plates with beans and rice and salsa,” said Gonzalez. “But we can have fine dining with Mexican food. My goal is for people in Santa Barbara to know that it’s possible.”
To do so, Gonzalez is melding traditional Mexican preparations and heirloom varieties of corn and beans with the seasonal produce of California. “We’re in the heart of America’s bread basket, so what’s local here?” explained Peszek of their thinking. “We’re eating what’s local, but we’re doing it with Mexican flavors.”
The best way to appreciate that intention is through the restaurant’s $75, four-course tasting menu. Though some scoff at the price, that’s a bargain in the lofty prix-fixe galaxy. And compared to much more expensive, tweezer-ized versions, you won’t leave hungry.
[Editor’s Note: Much of the menu was also changed after this article was published. The $75 tasting option is no longer offered, though there are plans for a three-course, $55 menu in the works. The taco plates now feature two tacos. ]
My own Augie’s experience began with a Hemingway cocktail, a mezcal-powered riff on the author’s beloved daiquiri, and then shifted to the extensive array of Mexican wines — which are trending wildly but hard to find here — as my dishes arrived. First up was a truly palate-refreshing amuse bouche of guanaba sorbet with mango and papaya followed by tuna tiradito, in which firm, rectangular cuts of belly were awash in a ginger soda-like mousse alongside crispy plantain chips.
For my second course — “I call this the taco course,” said my informed, attentive server, Carina Rivas — I opted for the pastor negro, as Augie’s is one of the only places I’ve seen with this black sauce. It’s only one taco, but substantial, served on a thick, just-made tortilla and topped with a sweetly herbal mix of epazote, pineapple, avocado cream, onion, and radish. (I’ll be back to try the duck carnitas and the pulpo macho, both highly regarded by the staff.)
My entree of tres moles featured three tiny pork chops, one in the familiar mole poblano, one in more a nuttier pipian verde, and the third in a bright pink mole rosa, which sported unique peppercorn and cinnamon flavors. I couldn’t come close to eating it all, in part because those hearty tortillas on the side were so fulfilling.
Dessert was Gonzalez’s ode to his former home with the jericalla, but he takes the flan-esque custard to gastronomic extremes, serving it beneath a sugar globe that melted when Rivas poured the accompanying sauce atop the glassy sphere. As I polished that off, Peszek wanted to show off his end-of-evening beverages, including a clay-pot-aged sticky wine from Villa Creek, an herby agave liqueur called Xila made in Mexico City, the coffee-agave sipper Cantera Negra, and the traditional Mexican coffee cocktail called carajillo, which I opted for shaken in the Guadalajara way. I’m not sure I want to finish a big meal with anything else now.
Adjusting All the Time
Opening in a long-vacant downtown building that opinionated Santa Barbarans have watched for years like bloodthirsty hawks, Augie’s prominent perch on the corner of State and Ortega streets was destined to draw an initial wave of complaints, even with the look handled by design darling Jeff Shelton. It’s too expensive, say some, or hard to get a table, say others, or there have been mid-meal periods where booze is readily served but not food.
Johnson and Peszek continue to correct what they can. Brunch is now served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the weekends, and the 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. happy hour offers a slightly more affordable means of appreciating what they’ve created. They’re playing the goodwill game as well, supporting a nonprofit each month with $1 donated per guacamole and margarita, plus a day that dedicates 10 percent to the same charity.
But they won’t shy away from being an upscale establishment with a world-class agave spirit selection that serves seasonally shifting dishes prepared by a chef worthy of celebrating. “How do you deliver high-quality dining at a price that doesn’t choke people?” asked Johnson, a quandary faced by restaurateurs across town these days.
Peszek’s hope is to please everyone, from tourists passing by to locals who return regularly. He explained, “We want everyone who comes in to say, ‘That’s awesome,’” he explained, “whether you come in every day or once a year.”
700 State St.; (805) 664-0516; augiessb.com