It’s Thursday night and Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is hopping.

Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. in the Funk Zone in Santa Barbara. Photos by Jesse Natale, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

The culinary scene in the small, California coastal city is creative, locally driven and often playful, propelled by regional star chefs and new arrivals from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

The two-dozen Funk Zone tasting rooms, part of the city’s Urban Wine Trail, are open late, pouring from Santa Barbara County’s top vineyards in the onetime industrial area that used to be on the wrong side of the tracks. Area craft brewers are also well represented.

It’s not what I expected to find on a night out in Santa Barbara.

The Pacific beachfront beauty bracketed by the Santa Ynez mountains, dubbed “The American Riviera,” lures monied retirees, movie stars and boldface residents like Oprah Winfrey, all keen to escape L.A.’s smog two hours away.

The Mediterranean climate makes it a year-round destination and the laid-back luxe life plays out quietly. Nothing wrong with that. There’s a walkable downtown centred along State St., with hidden courtyards, shopping arcades, gardens and boutiques. Stop at sidewalk cafes and excellent taquerias. Or ride the 50-cent downtown and waterfront shuttle bus.

Buildings follow a strict city design code: low-rise with red-tiled roofs, Arabesque arches and white stucco walls in Spanish-Moorish Colonial Revival style. The heritage art deco theatres are plentiful and especially impressive. The courthouse is an architectural master work.

With all this tradition, is there a place for getting Funky?

Oh, yes.

The year kicked off with Santa Barbara claiming the No. 3 slot on The New York Times 52 Places to Go List with tagline: “The “American Riviera” turns hip food and wine haven.”

Santa Barbara has some surprises.

Walk the breakwater along Santa Barbara Harbor and marina, then explore along the beach.

Take a self-guided walking tour of local architect Jeff Shelton’s buildings to see some of his delightfully wonky Gaudi-meets-Santa-Barbara works.

At modern Spanish restaurant Loquita on the edge of the Funk Zone, we sipped saffron-infused gin and tonic (one of five versions of G&T on the menu). Executive chef Peter Lee twins his Korean heritage with his signature paella, layering shredded brisket, shiitake mushrooms, furikake, kimchi and a creamy sunny side egg to mix into crispy-bottomed rice.

Barbareño celebrates Central Coast California cuisine history with nods to the region as the birthplace of the Egg McMuffin. Surprise! The chubby, wee circles of cornmeal blini topped with fluffy seascape mousse, speck and sprinkled with salty preserved duck egg are delicious.  So is the take on classic Santa Maria beef barbecue starring smoky tri-tip. And the Baked California dessert plays on Baked Alaska, tasting of now-legal pot, without the buzz.

At charming Scarlett Begonia in Victoria Court, I had the best shrimp and grits outside coastal southern Georgia. The massive Yukon Gold Cinnamon Roll is so good, it’s got a role on an upcoming Food Network episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

As for the Funk Zone, its origins are murky. Our cab driver says the area got its name about 20 years ago from the ‘funky, hippy-dippy-trippy murals” and art studios that sprang up around the once-derelict area. It’s constantly evolving, with vintage shops and new restaurants and mini-food complexes like “fast-fine” Southeast Asian food hall Tyger Tyger opening.

We headed to the Waterline, the Funk Zone’s hub. The 10,000-square-foot, Quonset hut-shaped former industrial building was reborn as a happening spot for food, wine and craft beer.

The place has the feel of an open food hall, with zones for local purveyors including Topa Topa Brewing Co. and Lama Dog Tap Room. We found a cozy spot on a low couch in an area that houses Fox Wine Co., skipping a $15 wine tasting flight to go straight to a glass of the exceptional Blair Fox Cellars Pinot Noir. And what goes better with great wine than a killer hamburger?

While the takeout window at The Nook, helmed by local chef Norbert Schulz, serves up dishes from lobster mac ‘n’ cheese to pork belly quesadillas, we go for a charred-and-medium rare beauty of a burger topped with candied bacon and caramelized onions.

We picked up Funk Zone hoodies in the Shops@Waterline artisan collective, then headed a couple of blocks over to Funk Zone stalwart The Lark for coffee and dessert. Our seat at the long communal table gave fellow diners a chance to coo over my Instagram-worthy dish of West Coast Avocado Sorbet.

The Lark is named for the overnight sleeper train that once brought visitors to Santa Barbara. We’d also come here by train, taking the coast-hugging Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from L.A.’s art deco Union Station to Santa Barbara station in the Funk Zone. Clearly we were on the right side of the tracks.

Linda Barnard was a guest of Visit Santa Barbara, which did not review this story.

When you go

Getting there: You don’t need a car in Santa Barbara, so the train is an excellent option. Amtrak has regular service from Union Station in downtown L.A. to Santa Barbara aboard the Pacific Surfliner. Business fare includes a box lunch-style snack of local goodies and a beverage, including wine or beer. The trip takes just over two hours. Show your train ticket to get local discounts as part of the city’s Santa Barbara Car Free program. Bonus: The Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail means you can walk to visit most of the 28 tasting rooms around downtown without driving.

Where to stay: Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort is located opposite the beach on 24 acres with pool, spa, resort amenities and 338 newly renovated guest rooms and 22 suites. The Fess Parker Winery Experience in the lobby offers daily wine tastings.

Brisas del Mar, Inn at the Beach is two blocks from the water and has spacious rooms, suites and penthouses in low-rise buildings with traditional architecture. Popular with Canadians, especially those looking for extended stayz. Suites and penthouses have fully equipped kitchens.

To do: Walk the breakwater along Santa Barbara Harbor and along the beach. Historic Stearns Wharf is a must-do. Then eat, sip, stroll and learn about the city with Santa Barbara Tasting Tours. Wear flat shoes and your stretchy pants. The tour includes a stop at the Santa Barbara Public Market. Also downtown, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is open during extensive renovations, celebrating the museum expansion with inaugural exhibit Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources in October 2020.

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