Three blocks of a buzzy development of food, drink and strolls - all al fresco in Santa Barbara.
California’s chefs have the natural advantage of an abundance of fresh produce from the Central Valley, a robust wine industry and a nearly perfect climate. These attributes have lured restaurateurs from San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles to its thriving dining scene, but natives tend to prefer spots with deep roots in the community. Some of the most innovative and popular places have cropped up in and around the “Funk Zone”, a buzzy development of wine bars, breweries, restaurants, warehouses and shops between Highway 101 and the beach off lower State Street. Within that three-block radius, visitors can dine and drink al fresco with time for a stroll.

At a breakfast spot, you’re usually lucky if you get a satisfying hot breakfast, flaky pastries or palatable coffee; you’ve hit a windfall if you get all three. So it is for the hungry morning visitor at unpretentious D’Angelo Bread, just off lower State Street. D’Angelo has been a Santa Barbara staple since it opened in 1992. It was purchased by current owners, baker Dietmar Eilbacher and entrepreneur Gene Montesano, in 2002. D’Angelo first captivates visitors with its bustling open bakery. Eilbacher and his team produce about 20 types of bread and more than a dozen pastries that nourish not only the steady stream of breakfast and lunch patrons, but also customers at Montesano’s other popular local restaurants, Lucky’s, Tre Lune, and Joe’s Cafe, and a number of restaurants and supermarkets.

Sample the sourdoughs, including the Kalamata and multigrain, ham-and-cheese croissants, and the tri-berry or currant scones. Time for a hot breakfast? Enjoy a dish of perfectly poached eggs on top of toasted Kalamata sourdough bread slathered with artichoke spread or the crispy huevos rancheros with fontina cheese and fresh salsa. The warm family vibe is authentic. Inviting outdoor tables line two sides of the restaurant and there are 12 more inside.

In a town that treasures its tacos, Mony’s stands tall. It is a friendly, funky “mama and papa” taco shop with a vast menu of 19 tacos that can be ordered with corn, flour or hard shells. It also serves quesadillas, burritos and tortas (all $9.25), and larger platters of enchiladas, fajitas and slow-cooked or grilled meat such as barbacoa and carne asada.

A bricks-and-mortar outgrowth of its popular food truck, with a few tables inside and plenty of outdoor seating, Mony’s opened in 2013. Owners Mony and Jose Diaz run the grill, and their children and at least nine other relatives work the kitchen and the register, which gives Mony’s its own familial feel.

Mony develops all the recipes for the tacos and eight signature salsas, including innovative flavours such as pistachio, peanut and avocado. Stay tuned for a gluten-free burrito wrap and tamarind salsa recipe she is developing. Son Carlos pushed his parents to open the restaurant when he graduated from high school. He now manages Mony’s while attending college. Try tacos al pastor, chicken mole and vegetarian rajas. Favourites are chile verde, mole and carnitas.

Loquita, which loosely translates as “party girl”, celebrates Santa Barbara’s Spanish roots. Opened in 2016, this inviting Spanish tapas and paella concept has quickly become a revered addition to the Santa Barbara dining scene.

Loquita is the brainchild of six-time restaurateur and Funk Zone mastermind Sherry Villanueva. It’s hard to say which I loved more: the bold yet balanced small plates such as the albondigas (beef and pork meatballs with preserved meyer lemon ricotta and basil); remolacha (roasted baby beets, cara cara orange, pistachio dukka meringue and Purple Haze goat cheese; and carpaccio de carne (Wagyu beef, manzanilla olive, pickled mustard, sherry vinegar, and arbequina olive oil). And then there are graceful cocktails such as the Ibiza (citrus-infused vodkas, spiced honey, mezcal mist and firewater bitters, topped with a micro marigold).

Villanueva and her team recruited chef Peter Lee from L’Atelier de Joë* Robuchon in Las Vegas to craft the menu using traditional Spanish techniques and nearly 100% locally and seasonally sourced ingredients. Lee puts his spin on a classic paella with short ribs, kimchi, shiitake and a sunny-side-up egg ($37).

The bougainvillea-lined patio, with space heaters for chilly coastal evenings, is the ideal setting to enjoy Lee’s playful, flavorful dishes. - The Washington Post.