Our goal was simple: Two days exploring cities around the Santa Barbara region without hitting up any wineries or standard tourist attractions. With the exception of Los Alamos, our spots were fewer than 5 miles apart, thanks to Route 246. We encountered cool accommodations, watering holes and dining rooms, establishing Santa Ynez Valley as a destination all its own.
Housing its brewery and original tasting room in nearby Orcutt, Naughty Oak Brewing’s sister tasting space (3569 Sagunto St., Ste. 101, Santa Ynez; www.naughtyoak.com ) is along the main drag of Santa Ynez, facing the town’s nondescript post office. With enough elbow room to comfortably socialize, the lower ABVs on tap ran the gamut of agreeable tastes. Our favorites were Standard Issue Saison and a barrel-aged, strawberry tripel known as MY JAM! Ask co-owner Emily Kitts if there are any bottles of its first-anniversary beer on hand, and if she responds, “Yes,” take a few back for your private stash.
If you’ve been bitten by the gambling bug, get a quick fix inside the recently remodeled Chumash Casino Resort (3400 E. Hwy. 246, Santa Ynez, 800-248-6274; www.chumashcasino.com ). We spent our time in the tranquil spa, which gave us an opportunity to relax after hoofing it through the streets of Solvang. Only a handful of us were in the facility on a weekday afternoon, so we got cozy by the pool after a sleep-inducing massage.
We backtracked for lunch, cruising down an industrial road in Buellton, winding up in a cul-de-sac housing Bottlest: Winery, Bar and Bistro (35 Industrial Way, Buellton, 805-686-4742; www.bottlestbistro.com ). If you’re into customizing your very own case of wine, this is the facility at which to get it done. Or pull up a chair at the bar and indulge in an upgraded happy hour; the direct view of the lush valley is a bonus. Don’t leave without trying chef Owen Hanavan’s lamb meatballs on potato chips (trust us.), plus a perfect flourless chocolate cake la mode with an oozing midsection. A full bar is at your disposal, yet we let our guard down briefly to sample the more than 50 wine options.
Entering Solvang with an agenda in mind was efficient . . . right up until we realized we arrived on the third Wednesday of the month. We strolled right into the weekly farmers’ market, where, for a small fee, guests could receive a wine glass and a map of participating spots throughout town happily pouring vino. Our initial stop, The Landsby (1576 Mission Dr., Solvang, 805-691-8073; thelandsby.com ), was one of those places. A spacious, boutique property, Landsby’s modern Scandinavian vibe was a balance of cozy and upscale. With a row of rooms opening up into an enclosed courtyard, there were many opportunities to lounge indoors and out. We kicked off happy hour at its Mad & Vin bar before working our way to dinner.
Hotel restaurants are no longer the same as restaurants found within a hotel. Stereotypical, mediocre menus were nowhere to be found at the dining rooms we tried. Root 246 (420 Alisal Rd., Solvang, 805-686-8681; www.root-246.com ), adjacent to Hotel Corque, comforts with amped-up versions of classic fried chicken and ice cream cookie sandwiches, thanks to a team that includes sous chef Frank Hipolito. We prefer the moody, red lounge over the main dining room, allowing us the opportunity to chat with our bartender. Approachable in price, locals are just as welcome here as visitors. In contrast, First & Oak within Mirabelle Inn (409 First St., Solvang, 805-688-1703; firstandoak.com ) is a lesson in customized tasting menus. It featured innovative cuisine that pushes boundaries with dishes such as savory octopus abelskivers and quail-filled pasta sheets twisted in such a way to resemble a blooming rose. Textures, flavors, even colors were all in sync during our thoughtfully paced dinner. This was not the Solvang we were accustomed to.
An after-dinner cocktail was definitely in order. We left it up to Joe, head bartender at Hill Haven Provisions (448 Atterdag Rd., Solvang, 805-691-9025; www.hillhavenprovisions.com ), to assemble our nightcap. Set back from the main road, this modest eatery by Caroline and Robert Boller is a hidden find. The recent addition of a full liquor license made everything taste better. The brisk nighttime air kept us awake long enough to make the short walk back to our room at the Landsby.
The first morning found us seated for brekkie at The Bear and Star (2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos, 805-686-1359), a luxe dining room within Fess Parker Wine Country Inn. Chef/partner John Cox nails the rustic theme, even during our daytime meal. The only thing more impressive than the smoked Wagyu hash (utilizing cattle raised on his farm, less than 10 miles away) with root vegetables and lemon-thyme hollandaise was our tour of the property. Cox’s use of both aquaponics and a massive smoker on wheels made it very clear he wasn’t afraid of trying new techniques.
In comparison, our second morning was spent at a charming diner known as Plenty On Bell (508 Bell St., Los Alamos, 805-344-3020; www.plentyonbell.com ). After eating a ridiculously good sausage-and-avocado breakfast burrito with fire-roasted salsa, our one regret was not staying another day for lunch. Plenty On Bell is the quintessential café, but without any attitude. Chef Jesper Johansson previously cooked for the dining room at Café Quackenbush. However, Quackenbush closed to make way for Pico (458 Bell St., Los Alamos, 805-344-1122; www.losalamosgeneralstore.com ) and its new American cuisine.
When we arrived at Pico, chef Drew Terp was working beside the smoker he built for the meatier portions of the menu. He waved hello, then returned to the task at hand. Pico not only serves dinner, but also offers a private Airbnb cottage, complete with a kitchen and a living/dining room. Guest lodging is scarce in this area, so we relished the bonus option.
A two story, multi-use space, Pico offers retail options, a tasting room, a bar and a restaurant. We appreciated the “Share,” “Small” and “Large” format plates. An umami-packed mushroom salad made way for rich duck-confit risotto. Hospitality was on point, with management efficiently working the upstairs/downstairs space to ensure smooth service.
Adjacent to the Los Alamos off ramp along Highway 101 stood a renovated motel at the top of a hill. The original sign for Skyview (9150 Hwy. 101, Los Alamos, 805-344-0104; www.skyviewlosalamos.com ) remains, but signs of a Mad Men makeover offer a glimpse inside this step back in time. Mid-century modern meets present-day practicality with gas-fueled fire pits, loaner bicycles and private outdoor showers. Offering scenic views and much privacy, we found this unexpected retro hideaway a charming gem in an otherwise quiet neighborhood.
Serving both as an event space and local watering hole, 1880 Union Saloon (362 Bell St., Los Alamos, 805-344-2744) also offers some quality barbecue. Pouring a solid selection of traditional drinks and whiskey specials, it’s no wonder it draws a boisterous crowd nightly. With a motto of “Be nice or go home,” everybody is treated like family. Fun fact: The property is best known for being a backdrop for Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s “Say Say Say” music video.
Our last meal in town was Bell’s (406 Bell St., Los Alamos; www.bellsrestaurant.com ), a French bistro along the main drag. A welcome addition to the area, its kitchen touts alumni from NYC’s Per Se. The polished service matches its polished menu, featuring salmon rillette, steak tartare and rotisserie chicken with fava beans.
Los Olivos Lemons (2971 Grand Ave., Los Alamos, 805-350-9839; www.losolivoslemons.com ) was our final stop before departing for home. Housed in a quirky conversation piece, its oversized lemonade stand serves to refresh all who pass by. Friendly vibes are paired with a simple menu of happiness. We opted for a Great Day, the slushy version of its house specialty. Mix in a house-made syrup, and voila! Instant sunshine in a cup. While you’re there, say “Hey” to Grant and be sure to tip generously; your donations help the owners’ son with cystic fibrosis.
After 48 hours, we understand the allure of Santa Ynez Valley beyond tony Santa Barbara.