Santa Barbara is very much a favorite couples destination. Although the county has a decent-size LGBT population, including famous residents and lesbian-and-gay faves Ellen Degeneres, Portia De Rossi, Oprah Winfrey, John Travolta, Katy Perry, Fannie Flagg, there's not really a discernible gay "scene" here, and you're not going to see the pronounced LGBT presence in Santa Barbara restaurants, bars, and hotels that you will in West Hollywood, Palm Springs, or even San Diego. Still, it's a low-keyed, socially liberal part of the world, and the staff at bars and restaurants throughout the region are quite used to seeing same-sex couples.
The region's most energetic nightlife hub is downtown, especially along or within a block of lower State Street. There aren't any specifically gay bars, but you'll see a smattering of lesbians and gay guys at most lounges and dance clubs. A few spots have occasional LGBT nights or parties, especially during Santa Barbara's Pacific Pride Festival held in August. For a musical night out, check the schedule of the Fratelli Men's Chorus, a gay men's chorus that performs throughout the year.
Some of the most charming and atmospheric places to savor drinks are the lounges at upscale Santa Barbara hotels (e.g. at the Four Seasons Biltmore, Canary Hotel, Post Ranch, and others), as well as the many trendy restaurants and wine bars throughout the county. Santa Barbara is a superb culinary destination, a reflection of its long Mediterranean-like growing season, bounty of fresh seafood, and abundance of internationally acclaimed wineries.
Here's a look at some of the top bars (listed first) and also restaurants and cafes that are popular with gay travelers to Santa Barbara and the surrounding Wine Country. Visit SantaBarbaraCA.com for more tips on dining and nightlife throughout the county.
Although Santa Barbara hasn't had a full-time gay bar in years, M8RX (409 State St., 805-957-4111) is a great club for dancing and partying and very much a friend to the region's LGBT community. It's both a sponsor of the annual Santa Barbara Gay Pride festival and an occasional host of Pride and other LGBT-related parties in town. Drawing top DJs and with a giant dance floor and state-of-the-art light and sound system, this glitzy space on lower State Street pulls in big crowds during all four nights of the week that it's open (Wednesday through Saturday), with weekends, naturally, being especially popular.
It's really a little cheery and cozy in here to call Elsie's (117 W. De la Guerra St., 805-963-4503) a true dive bar, but this chill neighborhood hangout on a residential street just on the west edge of downtown has the arty vibe, eclectic clientele (including plenty of GLBT regulars), and vintage decor that's common with that genre. Beyond the intimate main bar, with its pool table and otherwise living-room-esque style, there's an attractive patio in back. Also check the extensive selection of beers on tap. Elsie's is just a short walk from Santa Barbara's most gay-popular hangout, the Wildcat Lounge.
The most recent of Santa Barbara's gay bars closed a few years ago, but downtown's hip Wildcat Lounge (15 W. Ortega St., 805-962-7970) has long cultivated something of an LGBT following, especially on Sunday nights, but this attractive space is mostly hetero most of the time. Still, it's always very gay-friendly (it's a sponsor of Santa Barbara Pride), and the Wildcat has a dance floor, lounge seating, red walls, and top DJs and live bands, and a stellar cocktail menu. Wildcat is just west of State Street, the main drag in this upscale resort city.
Made internationally famous from its appearances in the quirky cinematic ode to Santa Barbara Pinot Noir known as Sideways, the venerable Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton (406 E. Hwy. 246, 1.5 miles east of U.S. 101 Lompoc/Solvang exit, 805-688-0676), just off the U.S. 101 freeway, has been renowned for both its wine list and "cornfed Midwestern beef" steaks for generations. The steaks (as well as chicken, ribs, ostrich, and many other tender meats) are grilled over an open oak-wood fire, a cooking tradition that dates to the Spaniards who first settled the region. The restaurant is also close to the Danish-style village of Solvang, with its many engaging shops and terrific tasting rooms.
The Hitching Post is open nightly for dinner, and because of its considerably reputation, it can be tough to nab a table here on weekends - best to make reservations, which you can make online from the restaurant's website. The restaurant's wine list, though it tilts heavily toward local bottles, also reveals a good number of wines from other parts of California - and there are plenty of bottles on here priced under $30. As food goes, the aforementioned steaks are worth seeking out, especially the filet mignon (available in 5-, 8-, or 12-ounce portions). Also consider the grilled artichoke starter, and the cold-smoked duck breast and Diestel Ranch turkey steaks among the notable fowl entrees.
Ok, let's just get this out of the way: indeed, late Santa Barbara resident and culinary doyenne Julia Child did at variously times praise La Super-Rica Taqueria (622 N. Milpas St., 805-963-4940), a humble Mexican restaurant along a stretch with several-such eateries on downtown's east side. And no, this doesn't mean it's necessarily the best taqueria in California, or even in town. Nor does it mean it deserves the backlash sometimes sent its way, a response to its larger-than-life reputation, sometimes exceedingly long lines out the door, and the blessing from Julia Child.
Sometimes a terrific, affordable taqueria is just that - nothing more, and nothing less. For a happy culinary encounter with this laid-back eatery with an aqua-blue exterior and a semi-open-air dining area with simple wood tables and plastic chairs, follow these steps: if at all possible, arrive around 11 am to beat the lunch-time crowds the restaurant is generally open until about 9 and is closed Wednesdays). Order your food at the window - dishes generally cost under $10, and many go for far less. You really can't go wrong with anything here, but I'm partial to chorizo gorditas, pozole stew, marinated-pork tacos, and guacamole - there's a long list of items, and it's ideal to make a meal of several smaller platters, perhaps sharing with friends. Once you order, do your best to snag a table in the small dining area, and fill a few containers with different types of salsa from the self-serve dispensers. Some tables are communal, and these seats are easier to obtain. If you simply can't deal with the wait for a table or aren't thrilled with the casual ambience, just drive down Milpas Street to East Beach - it's less than a 10-minute drive.
For best results, take the hype - and anti-hype - about this wonderful taqueria with a grain of salt.
Santa Barbara County has no shortage of terrific Italian eateries, but downtown's fashionable Olio e Limone (11 W. Victoria St., 805-899-2699) and adjacent Olio Crudo Bar and Olio Pizzeria all turn out a caliber of food and service that rises above the norm. Operated by the exceptionally gracious husband-and-wife team of Alberto and Elaine Morello, this temple of Sicilian-inspired contemporary Italian fare is the perfect spot for a memorable meal, whether you're seeking romantic night on the town, a hip lounge with superb food and wine, or outstanding thin-crust pizzas with tantalizing toppings (the Umbra, with robiola cheese, crimini mushrooms, and Umbrian black truffles is a standout at the pizzeria).
Olio e Limone is a dapper space that turns out such elegant dishes as eggplant souffle with goat cheese and a fresh-made tomato basil sauce, busiate carbonara (artisanal Sicilian spiral pasta, guanciale egg, parmesan, and black pepper), and veal scaloppine with fresh artichoke hearts and lemon sauce). If you're looking for a less formal, more spur-of-the-moment lounge experience, head to snazzy Olio Crudo Bar, which is also a nice spot to pass the time if you're waiting for your table at the main restaurant. Showcasing both raw and cooked Italian seafood and charcuterie items, the Crudo Bar is a fine place to sample ceviche, yellowfin tuna tartare, grass-fed buffalo tartare, pan-seared foie gras, prosciutto di Parma, and more.
All three spaces have first-rate cocktail and wine lists and offer a great selection of artisanal Italian beers that are quite hard to come by in the United States.
One of the best spots in tiny downtown Los Olivos for hearty gourmet lunch break from all that wine tasting is Panino (2900 Grand Ave., Los Olivos, 805-688-9304), a breezy deli and cafe with several tables on the sidewalk. Order at the counter, and bear in mind that these delicious sandwiches are prodigious. Pictured here is the No. 16: Genoa salami with Kalamata olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, fresh basil, greens, and chevre. The Cobb and curried-chicken sandwiches are similarly impressive, and there are also fine salads, plenty of veggie sandwiches (one has artichoke hearts, sliced tomato, and fresh-made mozzarella), hearty soups, and plenty of natural sodas, seltzers, and accompanying snacks (chips, cookies, etc.). Of course, a sandwich is only as worthy as its ingredients, and Panino uses high-quality, market-fresh meats, artisan breads, and tasty spreads.
The Los Olivos branch of Panino is right in the center of downtown, at "the Flagpole" where Grand Avenue intersects with Alamo Pintado Avenue - it's one of the most scenic of the locations for this regional chain, which has six branches throughout Santa Barbara County. The others are in Goleta, Montecito, Solvang, Santa Ynez, and downtown Santa Barbara. They're all consistently outstanding, and also an excellent source for grabbing picnic supplies for a hike, beach day, or Wine Country outing.