Dusk barkeeper John Hardin | Credit: Don Brubaker
Dawn Cafe at 524 State Street | Credit: Don Brubaker

Innovative hospitality is on full display along the bustling 500 block of State Street, at least for those who book a room at Drift Hotel. There’s no physical lobby, the check-in process is totally digital, and the developers’ ability to make the 160-square-foot rooms feel well-equipped while still welcoming — especially considering they were most recently used by the Church of Scientology for who knows what — represents enviable time-saving technology and space-saving design worthy of emulation.

For those who live here, or are otherwise not inclined to pay $270 to $600 for the overnight experience, Drift’s open-to-the-public downstairs embraces efficiency in its own unique ways. On the left-hand side is a sunny coffee shop called Dawn that serves made-to-order, mixology-minded coffee and tea drinks from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. Then, on the right side of what would traditionally be a lobby, comes Dusk, a Baja-inspired, agave-focused, seafood-serving cocktail bar.

“We want to be a destination coffee shop in a destination hotel in a destination city,” head barista Alex Werth told me when I first visited a few months back. The St. Louis native with barista competition experience, who was swept up in Santa Barbara’s coffee culture during the pandemic, called Dawn a “third-wave specialty coffee shop” that prides itself on meticulous, specialized service. “Everything is made to be served right then and there,” he said.

I won’t pretend to be a coffee expert — after years of grinding, pouring over, and French-pressing pricy beans, I’m mostly on loose-leaf green tea these days, though I occasionally spring for an oat-milk dirty chai or blasts of espresso. But I was pretty blown away by Werth’s creations, not realizing that coffee had veered so deeply into cocktail-ish creations: a zippy, slightly herbal espresso with house-made tonic on ice; the ’Spro Fashioned leaning both sweet and spicy like the classic drink; the incredibly creamy, hard-to-put-down orange cardamom latte; and the Fade to Green combination of matcha tea and Ugandan vanilla in a shakerato style.

Dawn Cafe | Credit: Don Brubaker

That matcha is made by Mizuba Tea, just one of the many ingredients with regional ties, like honey from Wylde Works and beans from Coastal Coffee Collective. “We’re using as many local goods as we can,” said Werth, who came to Dawn after working at Dune and Low Pigeon. He hesitated to take the gig at first, requesting, almost as a joke, a reverse osmosis machine to make ice. They said yes. “Oh,” realized Werth, “they’re serious about a great product.”

[Click to enlarge] Dawn’s orange cardamom latte (left) and ‘Fade to Green’: a combination of matcha tea and Ugandan vanilla in a shakerato style. | Credit: Don Brubaker

I was pretty jacked up by the time I got a tour from general manager Nick Gillio, the son of the longtime jeweler on State Street. The San Marcos High grad spent a decade working in San Diego’s hotel industry, becoming a regional manager for Kimpton, then returned to work at El Encanto and Alisal before settling into this job. “It’s a dream come true to open a hotel and be a general manager in Santa Barbara,” said Gillio, “especially on the most happening block in town.”

After showing me where to check out surfboards, yoga mats, and bikes, he took me into a few of the 45 rooms, where the cozy spaces felt like all you needed, especially with a big TV, pour-over coffee, and handwoven robes. “In Santa Barbara, you don’t need to sit in your room,” said Gillio, even more so when you’re right downtown. “The location of the hotel is one of the coolest things.” That said, the mountain views from the rear-facing rooms are about as stunning as you can get downtown.

Drift is the second property opened under that banner by TMC Hospitality. The first was in Cabo, and now there’s one in Palm Springs too, with Nashville on the way. TMC just bought Buttonwood Farm in the Santa Ynez Valley as well, with plans to bring overnight stays there, though that will be a few years out. Back downstairs, Gillio made the case that having a barista and bartender as de facto concierges was better anyway. After all, who’s more updated on the scene than the people living that life?

Dusk Bar | Credit: Don Brubaker

Tending to Dusk is John Hardin, who’s developed an extensive array of fresh juices, tinctures, syrups, seasoned salts, and cocktailing gadgets to accompany the deep list of mezcals, tequilas, and other agave-based spirits on the bar’s back wall. The search for new liquors and mixers never stops for this former food and beverage director at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs, who explained, “We’re constantly looking for new brands and really cool stuff.”

Dusk Bar | Credit: Don Brubaker

‘Sip on This’ | Credit: Don Brubaker

Every drink Hardin shared was a sensory journey: the sweet-smoke-spice combo of mezcal, ginger, honey, and chili de arbol of Smoke ’Em if You Got ’Em, lined with a smoked salt rim; the pink-peppercorned (both in the booze and salt) prickly pear and habanero Picante Amante; the High and Dry, a martini riff with olive-washed vodka, tomato water, and viscous drops of basil oil; and the Sip on This, an Old Fashioned–esque use of two reposados, tamarind demerara, and bitters.

Most eye-popping, however, was Into the Sky, where a fluorescent blue blend of tequila, orgeat, makrut lime, and blue curacao rest below a cloud of smoke suspended in a bubble that the customer pops. “It’s definitely a show-stopper,” said Hardin. “Everyone looks over and wants to try the bubble.”

Dusk’s ‘Into the Sky’ | Credit: Don Brubaker

Balancing all that buzz was a catch-of-the-day ceviche, an avocado tostada with salsa macha, and a plate of oysters, with just the right amount of micro cilantro and shaved serrano to provide added sensation without unnecessary flavor. Coming straight from Jolly Oyster, which farms the oysters near Ensenada and delivers them directly to Dusk, these shellfish are as pristine as they get. “We’re getting oysters that we know are harvested that day,” said Hardin.

No matter the time, there’s plenty to see at 524 State Street right now. Maybe it’s less mysterious than when we used to wonder what went down in the old Scientology building, but there’s a new movement happening within those same walls, and the doors are open to all of us every day and night.

524 State St.; (844) 721-2658; drifthotels.co/santabarbara


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