An email sneaked into my mailbox sometime over the weekend from a Central Coast winemaker who’s notoriously picky about restaurants. “We finally have a really good restaurant in our gastronomic black hole,” it read. ”I think I’m going to light a candle in some church ... I am so happy.”
He didn't have to tell me the name. I knew it already: Lark.
I'd peeked in last month at the Santa Barbara County Wine Futures Tasting held in the courtyard in front. The 130-seat restaurant had literally opened the day before. I couldn't stay for dinner that night, but I've been giving the name to everybody I know headed that way. Everything about it—and the rest of the complex in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone feels right.
Finally, Santa Barbara has something interesting and hip. The Anacapa street complex in the now lively Funk Zone is built around a series of interlocking courtyards that open onto Lark, a free-standing pizza place called the Lucky Penny, (entirely covered in pennies)--and the posh new wine shop and wine bar Les Marchands.
Managing Partner Sherry Villanueva, founder of the boutique marketing and branding agency Twist Worldwide, envisioned a new use for the historic 1920s Santa Barbara Fish market. To that end, she enlisted sommeliers Brian McClintic and Eric Railsback (then working in San Francisco) and convinced them to move south to open Les Marchands.
The two sommeliers are completely plugged into the local wine scene and also make wine themselves. The shop has not only the best of Santa Barbara, but plenty of wonderful French finds too. They're pouring 30 wines by the glass, and offering rustic cheeses and charcuterie, local oysters and a menu of small dishes to accompany the wines.
Lark's chefs Jason Paluska and Nick Flores both come from RN-74, a Michael Mina project, in San Francisco and brought some of that sensibility with them. I can't wait to try caramelized cauliflower gratin with Gruyère, preserved lemon and bacon breadcrumbs or the grilled peach-glazed pork belly sliders. And the slow-cooked pork shank with blackberry jus for sure. (Brunch and lunch menus are yet to come.)
The tiny Lucky Penny is strictly eat outside at picnic benches or take your wood-fired oven pizza out—to the beach, your hotel room, home. I'm going for either the Lucky Margherita made with Di Stefano burrata and heirloom tomatoes or "Ode to Dan Russo" (whoever he may be) which involves pork and fennel seed meatballs, oven-roasted tomatoes, smoked mozzarella—and Calabrian hot pepper.
Here's the great news: The trio of restaurant, pizzeria, and wine shop are only a block from the train station—which means you can hop on the train at Union Station in downtown L.A. and beat the weekend traffic to Santa Barbara. And no worries about driving back after spending the afternoon exploring the Funk Zone and its Urban Wine Trail—and/or napping on the beach.