Sunset is when the fun begins in Santa Barbara on Thursday night. (Photo: Corbis Images)
Santa Barbara, a coastal city about 95 miles north of Los Angeles, has multiple personalities. It’s a destination for the wealthy and established — old-money types who look at art downtown and enjoy ocean views from a gorgeous stretch of the city known as the Riviera because it brings to mind tony towns in the Mediterranean. But Santa Barbara is also a raucous college town, where downtown bars are packed with 21-year-olds on the make.
Couture-clad crowds and coeds collide in the city’s diverse eateries, which include classic taquerias, modern canteens from famous chefs, and the vendors at a new, ultra-hip public market. Grown-up fun comes in many packages here, especially on Thursday night.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art downtown is free every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. And during downtown’s regular 1st Thursday gatherings, art galleries stay open late for events that might include lectures, live music, and wine tastings.
The wine flows freely at the Santa Barbara Public Market (Photo: Bruce Caron/Flickr)
Food and wine lovers, though, are celebrating a different kind of artistry at the Santa Barbara Public Market, which opened in April. The airy, industrial-chic downtown space with high ceilings boasts a variety of vendors, including some of Southern California’s top artisanal food purveyors. Many locals come in to shop for fancy groceries, but it’s much more fun to drop by for a pre-dinner snack and drink.
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Sit at the counter at Santa Monica Seafood for some raw oysters, or grab Belcampo Meat Co.’s spectacular dry-aged grass-fed burger and take it to the on-site wine and craft-beer bar. You’ll see happy-hour crowds standing and mingling at the simply named Wine + Beer, where by-the-glass options can include local wine-country favorites like Stolpman Vineyards Syrah and sparkling French indulgences like Michel Olivier Cremant.
The line at La Super-Rica Taqueria is worth the wait. (Photo: ohocheese/Flickr)
Many Santa Barbara visitors come back to one casual, no-frills restaurant again and again. Less than two miles from downtown, La Super-Rica Taqueria is an off-the-waterfront spot in an old turquoise-and-white shack, where people spend $10 for dinner and eat in a hurry. And it’s glorious. The restaurant, which rose to fame largely thanks to Julia Child’s endorsement, serves plates of juicy adobado (marinated pork) tacos and vegetable tamales that have long been considered some of the best Mexican food in the country.
The unique and delicious pizza at Blue Tavern (Photo: Blue Tavern/Facebook)
If you’re looking to have a fancier sit-down dinner, downtown’s Blue Tavern from Peruvian chef Ricardo Zarate is the new hotness. Zarate, famous for restaurants such as Picca in Los Angeles, is slinging ceviches and tiraditos here like you would expect. But he also brings the heat with a wood-burning oven for prosciutto pizzas and a grill for anticucho-marinated rib eyes.
The signature margarita at Blue Agave (Photo: Blue Agave/Facebook)
Downtown’s State Street and the blocks around it are built for a bar crawl, and Thursday nights are when you’ll see many college students merrily bouncing from venue to venue. Blue Agave, a restaurant and tequila bar, has a margarita to suit whatever mood you’re in. Keep things refreshing with a blood orange, or feel the burn of a guava habanero. Santa Barbara Brewing Company’s pilsners and IPAs are craft-beer bliss. Or keep things simple at The James Joyce, an Irish pub that has live music and your pint of Guinness waiting.
Bottle service is hot at Eos Lounge (Photo: Eos Lounge/Facebook)
It’s not exactly the bottles and models crowd you’ll find in bigger cities, but Santa Barbara has its own collection of DJs and debauchery dance clubs, where the rich can reserve VIP tables and the beautiful often find a way to drink for free. There’s the Wildcat Lounge with its go-go dancers, The Savoy with its cabaret acts, and Eos Lounge with its Mediterranean beach-club feel.
“Turn Down For What" escapades at loud clubs can be fun, but if you prefer winding down with a conversation and a serious nightcap, The Marquee wine and cocktail lounge makes drinks like the 42nd Street Manhattan with Maker’s Mark bourbon. And spending $100 here can get you both a bottle of Perrier-Jouët and a bottle of California Central Coast wine like Saddle Rock Pinot Gris or Scott Cellars Sangiovese. Some might consider this a splurge; others might consider this a chill night out. Santa Barbara’s happy to have you whichever way you lean.
Santa Barbara: A great place for a chill night out — or not-so-chill, depending on your mood. (Photo: Corbis Images)