Already the most anticipated gourmet food development in Santa Barbara history, the Santa Barbara Public Market, which opened this week after nearly six years of planning and two years of construction, may one day go down as the singular most game-changing moment for the dining scene of our American Riviera. If all goes as hoped — and that will remain a big “if” for at least a couple of years, as the city tests the exciting foodie-court-meets-all-you-need-grocery-store concept’s staying power — the Public Market will play a leading role in changing Santa Barbara from a great place to visit with a nice food scene into a nice place to visit but a great place to eat.
“Santa Barbara is a city that has a very rich tradition of agriculture, farming, and wine and is really becoming known for all of these great artisan producers,” explained Marge Cafarelli last week, two days before Saturday’s invite-only soft opening. “We wanted to do a full grocery experience that represented this time.” As she took a quick lap around the 15,200-square-foot space, which is a collection of small individual businesses, from pasta makers and bread bakers to seafood slingers, boutique butchers, and even a wine-and-beer bar, Cafarelli explained, “What Eataly [in New York City] is to Italian, this place will be to Santa Barbara’s regional fare. We’re gonna have everything.” That includes, via the Foragers Pantry, the largest tenant at 2,200 square feet, such household needs as toilet paper and toothpaste.
Cafarelli, who purchased the old Vons grocery story building in 2008 and broke ground in June 2012 on the entire Alma del Pueblo development — which includes 37 luxury condos and a few other retail shops that are yet to open, including, she said, Full of Life Flatbread — is modeling the Public Market part of the project on San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Pike Place Market in Seattle. The result, as seen on Sunday evening, is a heady buzz of aromas, options, and energy, from the head-down noodle slurpers at Empty Bowls to the ice cream lickers at Rori’s Artisanal Creamery. There are oysters at Santa Monica Seafood; pork lard, skinned rabbits, and hamburgers at Belcampo Meats; and fresh loaves at Crazy Good Bread Company, among the 15 different purveyors now open for business.
But, opening excitement aside, will our fairly small town of Santa Barbara be able to sustain such an enterprise through the slow weekdays of winter? Or, alternately, will the Public Market compete too strongly against existing restaurants and markets, destabilizing the recent years of steady foodie-biz growth? Cafarelli, who splits her time between here and San Francisco, is confident that her dream will be a benefit for all, providing a slightly more uptown anchor to the waterfront epicurean explosion of the Funk Zone.
“This place is going to be swarming with people,” she said, believing that the metropolitan area’s nearly quarter-million people are enough to keep the place going, and noting that she’s already fielding calls from tourists who scheduled their vacations around the market’s opening. Pointing to all of the restaurant options on Victoria Street, including Olio e Limone’s new Crudo Bar, Arlington Tavern’s sidewalk table expansion, bouchon’s newly redone patio, and, of course, the remodeled Victoria Theatre, Cafarelli sees only a bright future, pledging, “It’s going to create such synergy.”
Santa Barbara Public Market is located at the corner of Chapala and West Victoria streets and is open every day 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. See sbpublicmarket.com.