Where there’s good wine, there’s good food. As the heart of Santa Barbara wine country, the Santa Ynez Valley abounds with restaurants that are well worth the drive over the hill. And that fact stands true whether you go for one epic meal or plan a jam-packed day of touring and tasting bookended by breakfast and dinner.
Where to eat in Santa Ynez Valley
The first order of business when planning this delicious day trip is to decide how you’re getting there. If you prefer to let someone else do the driving (ahem, always a grand idea if wine is going to be involved!), consider Uber Wine available through the standard Uber app Fridays through Sundays. This incredibly economical and flexible option allows you to chart your course as you go. If you’re visiting midweek or looking to splurge on something more formal, book a car and driver through a full-service transportation company like Rock Star Transportation or Gold Coast Limousines.
Book Your Stay
Whether you’re letting someone else take the wheel or making the drive DIY style, know that it takes roughly 45-minutes from Santa Barbara proper to most destinations in the Santa Ynez Valley. There are two routes to get there so it’s best to chart your course based on which side of the Valley you intend to start and finish. The San Marcos Pass (a.k.a. Highway 154) cuts through the mountains on a windy two-lane road that passes by Lake Cachuma. If you’re going to Santa Ynez or Los Olivos first, the 154 is usually the most direct way to go. Highway 101 is the higher-speed coastal option that will get you to Buellton and Los Alamos most efficiently.
Now, where to eat and what to see? Here’s a menu of ideas to whet your palate.
For The Early Birds
If you’re hitting the road early enough for breakfast or brunch then beeline to Bob’s Well Bread Bakery in Los Alamos, which has earned the printed praises of tastemakers writing for the likes of Travel+Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. If you happen to fall victim to your snooze button, no worries because the tasty breakfast menu items like Egg-in-a-Jar are served until 3:00 p.m. every day the kitchen is open (Thursdays through Mondays). The hot and cold sandwiches are equally satisfying vehicles for their award-winning breads and you’re definitely going to want to stock up on pastries to go. After carb loading at Bob’s, walk it off with a stroll along Los Alamos’ main drag browsing through the antique stores. The handful of wine tasting rooms might tempt you to linger in this charming pioneer style town for the whole day.
Let’s Do Lunch
If you do stick around Los Alamos, satisfying sandwiches, nourishing salads and hearty rotisserie chicken are on the menu at Bell’s. While the name and ownership has recently changed, formerly Bell Street Farm, the dedication to incredible flavors has not. This gem is open Thursday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m and Sunday through Monday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., providing savory options from lunch through dinner.
Equally charming and a bit more posh and developed than Los Alamos, Los Olivos is a former stagecoach stop dating back to the 1860’s. The historic character of Los Olivos has been preserved in the Victorian buildings now home to dozens of wine tasting rooms, art galleries and upscale boutiques. You could easily spend an entire day here, walking from place to place.
Los Olivos Café & Wine Merchant is a delightful lunch spot that doubles as a wine shop so you know the wine list is solid and super local. Their menu features a variety of farm-fresh salads as well as sandwiches, pastas and burgers. Sides Hardware & Shoes a Brothers Restaurant is another enticing option for a leisurely lunch between wine tastings in Los Olivos. Here you’ll find tacos, salads, burgers and sandwiches—many featuring their house-made Brothers Bacon.
Dinner Is Served
You’re going to want to have a very empty stomach for dinner at Hitching Post II, the family owned and operated steakhouse that was a local favorite long before Sideways made it famous. Hitching Post is equally beloved for its steaks (grilled over an open fire of red oak) as it is for its Hitching Post label pinot noir selection. In traditional, old school steakhouse style, entrees come with ample portions of starters, sides and dessert. You definitely don’t have to be a red meat eater to get in on the savory action at Hitching Post either—fish, pork, chicken and vegetable options are always on the menu and the grilled artichoke is downright addictive thanks to the oak grilled flavor and sprinkling of their signature Magic Stuff.
Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos also works serious magic with fire. The production facility for the Full of Life frozen flatbreads sold in fine grocers on the West Coast opens as a restaurant Thursdays through Sundays. The regularly changing menu of salads, soups and flatbreads showcases ingredients sourced from local farms and ranches and the flatbreads made in the wood burning stone hearth are the star of the show. The buzzing atmosphere and bright flavors make this a divine dinner destination—and you’re likely to be dining alongside many a local winemaker.
Another superior dinner restaurant in the Valley is SY Kitchen. Set in a farmhouse in the Wild Western town of Santa Ynez, SY Kitchen serves elegantly modern Italian fare from salads and pastas to wood fired pizzas and grilled meat and fish. Their cocktail program is a draw in and of itself, with a mixologist dedicated to crafting innovative and seasonal sips. After dinner, head to the legendary local watering hole, the Maverick Saloon, for some country line dancing, live music and a night cap.
All Day Eats
The Bear and Star, the newest mouth-watering eatery to open in Los Olivos, serves up scrumptious plates from breakfast to dinner. Lead by celebrated Chef/Partner John Cox, this is where refined ranch cuisine meets California’s bounty. On property, be sure not to miss the treasured 30′ custom reverse-flow Texas smoker, the source for slow smoking and barbecuing many of the dishes.
Last but definitely not least, Industrial Eats in Buellton should be on your radar for a meal anytime of day. Open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily, Industrial Eats is a casual eatery with serious culinary cred. Known for their comprehensive butcher shop selection—think ribeye, foie gras, oysters, duck, rabbit and sea urchin—Industrial Eats even hosts butchery workshops for those who want to get hands on. With a menu category of “not pizza” populated by salads and sandwiches, you know the pizza is damn good here, too. Pop into their neighbor Alma Rosa Winery for a tasting pre or post feast.