“Imagine you’re having dinner with Loquita,” muses Sherry Villanueva. “What does she look like? What music is she listening to? What does she order?”
Spanish for “a crazy, young, beautiful girl,” Loquita is the name of a new restaurant in Santa Barbara created by Villanueva and her partners at Acme Hospitality, the people who built The Lark, Lucky Penny, Les Marchands, and Helena Avenue Bakery. These are people who seriously know how to open restaurants.
“I imagine Loquita has red curls; she’s fun, the life of the party,” continues Villanueva, giving a glimpse into the mind of Santa Barbara’s most creative restaurateur. It feels like a lifetime ago that this mother of two owned a successful marketing venture called Twist Worldwide, for today Villanueva is knee-deep in cultivating a vibrant and multilayered food and drink scene for the Funk Zone. “I love that I get to be creative and to turn ideas into reality,” she said. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had working.”
Loquita is an ode to Santa Barbara’s love affair with Spain, whose cuisine is innovative and rustic, primal and spontaneous, unpretentious and farm-based, a juxtaposition of the Old World and New, a perfect match for the Central Coast’s casual style. If you’re a frequent traveler to Barcelona or a knowledgeable lover of Spanish cooking, you’ll be impressed with Loquita’s authentic and contemporary aspirations. For those unfamiliar, be prepared to open your mind to new variations on what you’ve sipped and eaten before.
The 120-seat space includes both indoor and outdoor seating, a spacious patio warmed by a fireplace, and quirky, wonderful places to sit by the kitchen and bar. There isn’t a bad seat in the house. There’s also a separate tapas bar named Poquita (“a little bit”), with its own entrance around the corner, that serves pintxos (little bits named after the Basque word for “toothpick”), jamón serrano, manchego cheese, manzanilla olives, and house wine and beer.
Located at 202 State Street on the corner of Yanonali, Loquita’s location is also pivotal for Villanueva. It’s near the site of the ancient Chumash village of Syuxtun, which means “where the two trails run.” Today, Santa Barbara’s two primary commercial corridors in that area lead up State Street or into the Funk Zone, and Villanueva hopes Loquita can tie them together at this intersection, which sits across from the train station and soon-to-open children’s museum.
“We see our business as taking care of people, making them feel great by creating a level of sophistication in design, service, and cuisine,” said Villanueva. “But beyond that, we offer an opportunity for guests to stretch a little bit, have a playful experience, get their brain working, try something new.”
To bring her vision to life, Villanueva hired Chef Peter Lee, most recently of Jöel Robuchon in Las Vegas with earlier stints at Gusto and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. To prepare for Loquita’s-late September opening, Lee and his sous chef Felicia Medina cooked the entire menu at home, making three paellas a day for weeks until they perfected the flavors. Today, they are made fresh each time you order, so request yours early, add a few rounds of tapas, and expect the paella to be the crowning glory of the evening. Prepared in traditional paella pans, they are offered in one of three ways: veggie, chicken and mushrooms, or seafood, the most traditional.
At the expansive walnut-wood bar, enjoy farmers’ market sangria, handcrafted cocktails, and a wide offering of gin and tonics, which are all the rage in Spain right now. The wine list is decidedly Spanish but augmented with select Santa Barbara wines.
Though distinct in most every way, much will be familiar for fans of The Lark. The design was again handled by Doug Washington of San Francisco, with contributions from Santa Barbara’s Stephanie Greene Fuller, and the GM is Skyler Gamble, the colorfully bow-tied front-of-house man who started working at The Lark when it opened three years ago.
Since that time, the entire Funk Zone has matured a bit with more bars and restaurants, and Loquita is continuing that trend toward State Street. “We’re excited about the neighborhood [and] really encouraged by the other establishments and the quality operators, truly great people, who have moved to the Funk Zone, creating a deliberate, diverse, remarkable neighborhood,” said Villanueva.
But right now, her Loquita is the newest girl on that block and is sure to be the center of attention for years to come.
Located at 202 State Street, Loquita is open daily 5–10 p.m. Call (805) 880-3380 or see loquitasb.com.