Health Food/Nutrition Store; Gourmet Food Shop
302 Meigs Rd., 564-4410
It really is a comment on this community that the previously disconnected ideas of gourmet and health food should be found now under one roof. We’re pretty sure the voters mean the same items, too. In fact, outside of alcohol, which the French and certain studies deem good for you, nowadays, fresh from the farm and organically grown are to the fine diner’s table what beef Wellington and baked Alaska used to be. And where better to go? To a store that carries a wide selection of international cheeses and wines both domestic and otherwise fancy and has its own bakery and butcher, as well as produce, lots of it organic, including a whole counter of baby veggies (artichokes and those tiny cauliflowers, so cute). Now heading into its third decade as a Mesa hangout, late-night meal-furnisher for bargain hunters (deli prices are seriously reduced after 8 p.m.), place to buy coconut cake, and, oh yeah, of all things, a healthy gourmet food store.
FINALIST: Health Food/Nutrition Store; Gourmet Food Shop: WHOLE FOODS MARKET
Fresh Fish Market
Santa Barbara Fish Market
117 Harbor Wy., #A, 965-9564
“How can you not do well when you’re 20 feet away from the unloading zone?” laughed Brian Colgate, owner of the little fish shop that is indeed a short deep-sea cast from where the fleet of S.B. fishers comes in after a haul to the harbor. “But I really think our secret for winning is that we try to take a neighborly approach, to create an experience. You’re not just going in to buy a piece of fish, but when you come in here, you are becoming part of the harbor.”
FINALIST: KANALOA SEAFOOD
335 S. Milpas St., 965-4558
“This is really exciting: to win in light of all the competition we have — the new grocery stores going up on Milpas Street,” said owner John Dixon, who has co-owned the open-air produce stand for the last 27 years with this father. “I think we are number one for a reason, and that goes back to the slogan that my father made up: ‘If it’s any fresher, it’s still in the fields.’ But we also owe a debt of gratitude to our customers who come in here and buy everything so we keep replacing it with more fresh produce. It’s the community that keeps us going.”
FINALIST: FARMERS MARKET
Ice Cream Shop
McConnell’s Ice Cream
201 W. Mission St., 569-2323
In a way, it’s surprising that a town as dedicated as this one is to summertime beach culture as a year-round way of life should have so few ice cream palaces. Mostly it’s because McConnell’s has had the town justly sewn up since 1949, the dawn of the baby-boomer age. And most of us growing up have kept faith with the little shop of small-batch frozen confections (the flavor names chocolate burnt almond, peach, or Turkish coffee ought to be enough to bring it all back) from the days when the shop graced State Street to its current thriving haunt across from Java Station. Memorable chiefly as the happy ending to many kinds of days, it’s Santa Barbara Iconic in a Cone.
FINALIST: COLD STONE CREAMERY
Frozen Yogurt Shop
621 State St., 564-8680
“We’re ecstatic,” said Yogurtland downtown Santa Barbara owner Eui Oh. “I think the reason we won is that Yogurtland’s proprietary flavors are all made from natural ingredients, the strawberry is made from real strawberry, and when you add that to great customer service and cleanliness, I think that’s what people like.”
FINALIST: MCCONNELL’S ICE CREAM
15 W. Gutierrez St., 965-5956
It’s nice that this brand-new category was won by someone who has been around town a while. Though Maya Schoop-Rutten grew up in Switzerland, she ran the lower State Street fave hangout Comeback Café until 2007, when she decided to go chocolateering. “I’m really happy to win,” she said. “Our chocolates are very good, and we are activists,” she explained, combining her role of making people happy with educating them on the roles of bean-to-bar production, much like the little wine shops that proliferated here in the 1970s when people learned that not all wine came from Gallo. She particularly wants people to try a killer truffle made from rare Peruvian chocolate. “And the tequila with pink sea salt bar is very popular, too,” she said sweetly.
FINALIST: SEE’S CANDIES
Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro
They’re the new kids on the block who have already been here five years. (I know, really?) But this year, the readers are confirming what a lot of the city has been saying for some time: Nicole and Renaud Gonthier’s little Loreto Plaza bakery — and they’re now serving at Arlington Court, too — is très superbe. “We’re really happy about it,” said Renaud. “I think our secret lies only in our commitment to quality. We love our food, and we hope that love comes across to the people who eat it.”
FINALIST: JEANNINE’S RESTAURANT
If there is such a thing as a red flag that doubles as a product endorsement, then it ought to be awarded to the Spudnuts stores. Just think of it superficially — doughnuts made from potatoes, a combo automatically putting this food in the same delicious but scary-sounding genre as hot dogs wrapped in bacon. Yet the end product is surprisingly fluffy — if that’s the right word — and unsurprisingly addictive. A big favorite with the readers since the first store opened two decades ago, Spudnuts — they’re not just for peace officers anymore.
Jack’s Bistro & Famous Bagels
If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and Jack’s is the best bagel, then must we not argue that this is the best food in town? Well, maybe that’s a stretch, but let us agree to never underestimate the peak life pleasures contained within the simple round surface of a first boiled then baked wheaten primarily morning food that nonetheless can be accessorized with the greatest aspects of culinary delights. We’re talking onion, garlic, salt, sesame, and, of course, the aromatic seeds of the poppy. Jack’s menus stretch from simple nosh to advanced delectations like Chinese chicken salad and all manner of hummus. But the philosophical principle is sound. If you don’t know these bagels, friend, then you don’t know Jack.
FINALIST: BAGEL CAFÉ
Blenders in the Grass
It’s funny how everybody just calls this place by its first name, failing to give it the whole musical treatment it deserves based on the Fifth Dimension song, you know, something like: Blenders in the Grass is a gas / baby can you dig it? / Whoo! But it must be more than a catchy title because this is another student-begun-in-Isla Vista entrepreneurial idea that has spread like wildfire (it’s a gas!) with key ingredients like oranges, blueberries, raspberries, and a banana or two, fortified with sherbets and yogurts, healthy additives, and that Samabazon Açaí, which everybody likes but nobody can accurately describe. It’s a fun place, easy and inexpensive for those meals you want to quaff instead of chew (for whatever reason), and routinely beats all the monster chains with our voters every year. Can you dig it?
FINALIST: BACKYARD BOWLS
Hollister Brewing Company
6980 Market Place Dr., Goleta, 968-2810
From the outside, it doesn’t seem promising, a strip-mall restaurant with tables on a patio. Inside, the décor is dominated by big glass windows that open onto gigantic tanks full of brewing beer. Again, not that unusual, even in a mall nowadays. But once you tuck into the food, the realization strikes that this Caesar salad, say, or plateful of sliders is way better than it even needs to be, and you get the main reason people vote for HBC. “I would hope people vote for us because they are very comfortable here,” said general manager Jennifer Rose. “They get excellent food and with very little stress involved. Our whole philosophy developed from the fact that we knew we had a great brewer to make beer. We just wanted to make sure that the food was as good.” It worked.
FINALIST: BEACHSIDE BAR-CAFÉ
686 Linden Ave., Carpinteria, 684-6666
Linden Avenue is a street with old restaurants on it. The Spot is over a half-century old, The Palms is a full 100 years in service. Sly’s, at four years old, is barely a whisper in the Geological Clock that seems to tick around Carpinteria, but it has made a big impression, with a winning combination of American basics and elegance — movie stars, tourists, and everyday neighbors keep the place hopping. Manager Mandy Huffaker Chinn, who has been there since the venerable new place opened, thinks the chef is part of the reason. “But I have a great team all around,” she said. Here’s hoping they stay around for another century or so.
FINALIST: THE PALMS
Isla Vista Restaurant
Freebirds World Burrito
879 Embarcadero Del Norte, Isla Vista, 968-0123
Maybe you know a few S.B. restaurants that get long lines in front of them on a regular basis — Arigato, say, or La Super-Rica. But if you didn’t first think Freebirds when I said “long lines,” then apparently you haven’t been out in Isla Vista on any night when school is in session between the hours of 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. It was once just a riff on an idea that started at UCSB’s student union, a burrito bar. But by now it’s more than an institution: Freebirds is a full-scale phenomenon of late-night dining that any restaurant owner in town would trade a significant body part to duplicate.
1295 Coast Village Rd., Montecito, 969-3392
In this case, the category and the winner are almost a ditto. Montecito Café, however, is no mere shoo-in, operating as it does in a hotbed nexus of fancy places where Hollywood hides on the weekend. Yet MC is a perennial winner with a great combination of reasonable prices, easy access (you don’t need to reserve months ahead), and dishes that everybody seems to love, from the gravlax pancakes to the pepper steak and famed coconut cake. Maybe it sounds a little retro or homey, but the atmosphere is honest, and Santa Barbarans who wander this far south love Montecito all the more because the café is open.
Santa Ynez Valley Restaurant
3867 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez, 688-6899
“It’s a good place to have a restaurant with all the ranches and wineries around,” said Leonardo Curti, who has co-owned the little Italian place in Santa Ynez proper since 1997, serving what he calls country regional Italian cooking. “I think our secret is simple: good fresh simple ingredients and good friendly service, very personal. We try to make it feel like one on one.”
FINALIST: LOS OLIVOS CAFÉ
Milk & Honey
30 W. Anapamu St., 275-4232
Despite the depredations of snooty food critics, small-plates places are still big here. And the remarkable chain of tapas restaurants in town, featuring Milk & Honey downtown, Alcazar on the Mesa, and Meat n’ Potatoes in Noleta, feature delicious little gourmet snacks for those who do not need seven courses and a wafer-thin mint to follow. Vegetarian dishes like grilled romaine with balsamic reductions, Spanish omelets (called tortillas), and shrimp and steak loom large, proving that great things can come in small portionages.
Most of the places where Santa Barbarians flock have some kind of exotic quality, whether it’s Mexican, raw fish, or built for a permanent Mardi Gras. Cajun Kitchen sounds like an ethnic restaurant, and, indeed, it serves Big Easy cuisine like gumbo, red beans and rice, grits, and andouille sausages. But that’s not the main reason this mini-chain has been so successful for four decades in this food-faddy town. Its main claim to fame is consistent, basic what-you-want: a good, solid breakfast or lunch, served by very friendly, hardworking kitchen staff and priced so you can roll with the good times, too. And don’t forget to get a side of cornbread with apple butter.
FINALIST: JEANNINE’S RESTAURANT
Sunday Brunch; Hotel/Motel (Falling in Love category)
The Biltmore Santa Barbara
1260 Channel Dr., 969-2261
“We’re extremely grateful to win these two categories,” said Biltmore public relations person Gena Downey, of the stately Ty Warner–owned icon of a hotel across from the jewel of a Pacific Ocean beach known as Butterfly. “Especially coming off an incredibly busy summer: The staff works so hard to make everything go smoothly; they have a passion for their work, and that’s what makes people like us, and that makes us so grateful to win best hotel.” And Sunday celebrations central, that other icon of growing up in S.B.? “The brunch is still chugging along; we’re so happy that it is still everybody’s favorite. Winning this gives us all another reason to keep working hard.”
FINALISTS: Sunday Brunch: THE BREWHOUSE; Hotel/Motel: FESS PARKER’S DOUBLETREE RESORT
Blue Owl Café
5 W. Canon Perdido St., 705-0991
“I don’t mean to brag, but I’m from Bakersfield,” laughed Blue Moon’s genius, chef, and proprietor Cindy Black by way of explaining how the hipster concept of a pop-up restaurant featuring smoked duck ever came to fruition on lower State Street. But with cred from B-town, she decided to share it in S.B. but realized that the only way she could get a restaurant space in a high-rent area was to ask her friends at Zen Yai to let her run a late-night eatery after they closed for the night, which they did. It was deathly slow at first, but after two years, Black’s business got so good that she opened her own kitchen on Canon Perdido and only does the late-night thing on weekends. “I’m shocked we won,” said Black, “but I’m very happy.” Now she only has to go back to Bakersfield when she wants to have fun.
Chuck’s of Hawaii
3888 State St., 687-4417
Many things from the 1970s seemed like good ideas but didn’t last, really: macramé, Earth Shoes, and the musical stylings of Chuck Mangione, for instance. But one thing born in the Me Decade excesses was eternal: the salad bar, that inexhaustible trough of fresh lettuce tomatoes cucumbers beets sprouts onions and such that you assemble and eat to your heart’s content and nourishment. We don’t know really who invented it, but it’s super cool that Chuck’s keeps winning this category, since they were the ones who brought the concept to town back when LBJ was president. Maybe they aren’t the only salad bar in S.B., but they keep winning our readers’ poll, not because it’s so good for you, we’re guessing, but because it feels so good.
FINALIST: WHOLE FOODS MARKET
1202 Chapala St., 560-6028
Peter Chen’s elegant corner restaurant across from Hungry Cat and feet away from Milk & Honey keeps faith with almost every imagined version of Chinese food. There are plenty of old favorites like chow mein, kung pao, and hot and sour soups. But there is also an extensive Chinese menu (in English, too) where more delectable items like shredded pork belly and spicy basil king crab in a clay pot are offered. But the best, most distinguishing aspect of China Pavilion is the delicious and reasonably priced dim sum served up on weekend late mornings. There is no other place in town to get pinecone fish, but the pot stickers are more perfect here, too.
FINALIST: MADAM LU
Flavor of India
3026 State St., 682-6561
For 21 years, the Joshan family has been serving up Punjabi recipes to customers of the most loyal persuasion. The simple afternoon buffet lives up to the restaurant’s title, giving a good cross-section of popular Indian dishes. But the large lunch and dinner menus are extensive and can serve any appetite from a mogul’s feast to an ascetic’s delicate nibble of subcontinent cuisine, and we hope it will curry favor for decades more.
FINALIST: SPICE AVENUE
37 E. Victoria St., 884-9419
Now in his 15th year in the building that for eons housed Dana’s Toy Town, Dario Furlatti has established his little trattoria as a standard by which other Italian eateries are judged. Offerings run from great execution of the expected like the lunchtime pappardelle alla Bolognese to delicacies like the fusilli tartufati (truffle oil pasta) and great main dishes like ossobuco and roast quail. The rooms are pleasantly packed and convivial, and the food is maybe better than it was a decade and a half ago when most of the good Italian food in this town came on a pizza.
Los Agaves Restaurant
600 N. Milpas St., 564-2626
If there is one untold restaurant story overdue in this town, it’s the inexorable rise of Los Agaves from yuppie fave to genuine popular phenomenon. Don’t believe me? Try dropping by on any night between Wednesday and Sunday or most lunch times. “The quality of the food is what people like,” said Carlos Luna, who was born in our fair town but raised near Guadalajara, Mexico, and opened his Milpas Street eatery just a block away from super-famous La Super-Rica, which may or may not have been an act of hubris. “But besides fresh ingredients, we change the menu every day; we have specials over and above our regular menu, so people can always try new things.” The seafood and the chile en nogada are the popular favorites, according to Luna, who is pleased to see his eatery appreciated. “Thank you very much to those who voted for us,” he said.
FINALIST: LOS ARROYOS MEXICAN RESTAURANT AND TAKE OUT
Seafood Restaurant; Clam Chowder; Bloody Mary (Drinking category)
119 Harbor Wy., 966-4418
As they begin their 26th year crowning the beautiful Santa Barbara Harbor with a breezy, consistently delicious and popular seafood and clam bar, Brophy’s has just added a downstairs snack bar where the old Minnow Café used to be while maintaining its grip on the readers’ love of the fruits of the sea. The Bloody Mary is stiff, spicy, with salt and pepper on the rim; the clam chowder is creamy with a whisper of garlic; and the seafood has been number one in this town for more than a quarter of a century. It’s still fresh from the nearby sea.
FINALISTS: Seafood Restaurant; Clam Chowder: ENTERPRISE FISH CO.; Bloody Mary: TUPELO JUNCTION CAFÉ
1225 State St., 965-6074
People who enthuse over the idea of food as art need look no further. Though a veritable myriad of excellent sushi abounds here, Arigato has always been the one the crowds form around from opening hour until late at night. It’s a lively, occasionally roistering scene. What sets it apart from other fresh fish emporiums is the contemporary spin, innovative yet somehow still traditionally rooted dishes like oysters with quail eggs; mango salsa on raw ahi; bluefin belly (toro) with truffle soy oil — and that’s just the first page of a huge menu. But the best part is the plate, dazzling in the raw and the cooked aspect of it; you might feel guilty digging in until you realize it’s already gone.
FINALIST: SAKANA SUSHI BAR & JAPANESE RESTAURANT
22 N. Milpas St., 966-5151
Thai food made delicious for the masses. It has been the most popular Thai eatery since it first opened in the mid 1980s, holding down the same moody fish tank–decorated space, seemingly unchangeable, and for many of our readers, that consistency of flavor and place makes it their place for over a quarter of a century.
FINALIST: ZEN YAI
Saigon Vietnamese Restaurants
Vietnamese cuisine is a kind of parchment, a crossing-over place where each line leaves a residue on the overall design: native foods combined with flavors from neighbors and colonizers as diverse as Thailand, China, and France. You don’t need to be a gourmand to sort out these flavors at William Lam’s fine, cleanly flavored versions of dishes like pho; rice noodle soup, fragrant with fennel and fish oil, and French in complexity; and beautifully complicated salads that combine unlikely sounding mates like green papaya and mint leaves with thinly-sliced pork. Then there is beef, which Vietnam, like Texas, understands as both flavor and substantial food. The result is a dining experience that crosses exotic and homey and tastes like the best of many worlds.
FINALIST: NOODLE CITY
Holdren’s Steaks & Seafood
Clay Holdren thinks it’s very cool that his family’s restaurant won, and he’s sure that the reason this award is rounding into its 10th consecutive year is something intangible beyond the beloved atmosphere (the downtown restaurant was the original home of Joe’s, the city’s signature haunt) and the fact that they use prime steaks cut from corn-fed midwestern cows. “I’d like to think it’s the staff that people love, the way they get treated.” But Holdren knows for sure where the steak house’s renown derives from. “I want to say thank you to everyone who comes in to visit. We appreciate your business.”
FINALIST: CHUCK’S OF HAWAII
South Coast Deli
“Our ingredients are fresh,” explained manager Erynn Henson, who thinks the two most popular sandwiches they serve are the South Coast Turkey and the chicken and pesto. “We love what we do, and we work hard to make sure that people can taste that.”
FINALIST: THREE PICKLES
5112 Hollister Ave., Goleta, 967-3775
“It’s the great food that makes people vote for us,” said Woody’s co-owner Kim Stabile. “That and good service. People like that we’re very consistent. We have the same recipes all these years, and we don’t change up a lot.” Of all the meaty goodness that the restaurant offers, Stabile puts forward one hefty, popular dish for consideration, a sandwich we couldn’t find on the menu that sounds like a fantasy: “Tri-tip sandwich with bacon, jack cheese, and unrings,” explained Stabile, referring to their take on the onion ring. “It’s very popular.”
FINALIST: KILLER B’S
The Habit Burger Grill
It’s a char burger, which means lots of smoke from a grill, not fat in a pan. It’s not really a fast-food place, though the time from order to serve is usually manageable, even for those with an immediate Jones. It used to be served with chili, but nowadays only the Goleta branch does that, and yet it’s surprising how good the simply grilled with grilled onions, lettuce, and tomato can taste, even without the messy extra deliciousness. The price is right, there are four places spread evenly around town like secret sauce on a toasted bun, and it is a perennial top-of-the-chart with our readers all these years.
FINALIST: IN-N-OUT BURGER
Vegetarians are people, too. That’s why, of course, they not only desire the regular pleasure that carnivores get from eating Wimpy’s favorite meal, but they deserve it. Natural Café’s burger combines the caramelized texture of a cow-based patty and fills the insides with a tender blend of veg, root, and soy-based tasty ingredients and puts the whole thing on a whole-wheat bun so that those of the Healthy Persuasion can chow down and gladly pay us Tuesday for a trip to the Natural Café today.
FINALIST: THE HABIT BURGER GRILL
By Paul Wellman