Let's be honest. Do you want to spend a weekend in a place called the Funk Zone? The first time I heard the name, I wrinkled my nose. It sounds like something from the '80s that smells — or looks — distasteful. When I found out it's a tourist zone in the otherwise perfectly lovely town of Santa Barbara, I thought it needed a name change, at best. Most non-Santa Barbara residents I mentioned it to agreed. "Why did they name it that?" people wondered.
So I asked a dozen Santa Barbara residents who live or work in the zone and got a dozen different answers. But all said they thought the name fits. And certainly the Funk Zone's success story seems to indicate that people who visit it don't mind the name. In just a handful of years, the area has become the hottest neighborhood in town, the place celebs go to dine and where everyone else goes to hang out. Its wine-tasting rooms, art galleries, restaurants and shops overflow on weekends and holidays. In fact, the area has become so hip, said a city official, that "businesses outside the zone pretend to be inside it. Or call themselves Funk Zone-adjacent."
That's an amazing compliment for a place that most people admit isn't very pretty. Sandwiched between the beach and Highway 101, the Funk Zone is full of warehouses, manufacturing plants and industrial operations. Streets dead end, railroad tracks crisscross the area, paint is peeling from buildings that look abandoned. Some of these onetime businesses may account for the area's odd name. When I asked locals the origin, one replied, "There's mostly industrial stuff there that's pretty funky"; an artist told me it was named for "the fish processing places that make it smell."
I didn't smell anything foul, so I think that's an exaggeration. Or perhaps no one processes fish there anymore. Certainly the burgeoning zone is changing rapidly.
"The area is being totally revitalized," said Ann Addis, who with her husband, Craig, owns Metropulos, a popular gourmet market and sandwich shop that opened 11 years ago, long before the Funk Zone blossomed into Santa Barbara's most popular neighborhood. "Initially there were a lot of food-processing warehouses, then artists moved in because of cheap rents, then the wineries moved in, then the rents went up."
There's a lot of grumbling by some longtime residents that the neighborhood's chichi appeal is pricing artists out of the district. But there's also a movement to retain them. "We're bringing in awesome street art," said Marcello Ricci, an artist who coordinates a murals program that is giving the district added color and vitality.
The epicenter of Funk is the intersection of Yanonali and Anacapa streets, where wineries and restaurants cluster tightly. The zone radiates out from here, covering a 10- to 12-block area between State and Garden. The zone's 20 wine-tasting rooms provide the main draw; they're part of Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail, which emphasizes the wines of Santa Barbara County. Added to this are breweries, a distillery, some good restaurants, shops, galleries and the Guitar Bar, for those who would rather sample musical instruments than wine.
On weekend afternoons, millennials, students, parents with baby strollers and baby boomers crowd the sidewalks and shops. At Corks n' Crowns, young drinkers stand four deep at the bar, waiting to get refills. At Santa Barbara Winery, which blazed the trail by setting up an outpost here in 1962, a gentle vibe beckons, with many guests seated at tables on a sunny outdoor patio.
The crowds don't disappear when the sun goes down. At places such as the Santa Barbara Wine Collective and its neighbor, Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant, patrons are tasting wines paired with food or learning about wine classifications as they taste flights. Next door, at Figueroa Mountain Brewing, there's a long line waiting to get in and hear the popular Santa Barbara group Spencer the Gardener play. Across the street at Reds Bin 211, funk and world beat music floats on the air. Later, guitarist Brian Fox of the band A Step Away talks about another benefit of the Funk Zone: "It's become a rich musical neighborhood," he said. "It gives us another place to play and gives people a place to hear good music."
Diners fill every chair at the popular Lark restaurant, including those at a long communal table. Like many other Funk Zone businesses, it is pet friendly and pups join their masters on the patio. I'd heard many of Santa Barbara County's famous residents leave their mansions in Montecito to dine at the Lark, but I didn't recognize anyone when I visited. Owner Sherry Villanueva didn't drop names, but she was happy to talk about the zone. "It's a fun, crazy place that pushes the edge more than the rest of Santa Barbara. That's why people like to come here."
She has a point. Silly name or not, the zone adds color to a town that's pretty but stodgy. Save me a table, Sherry. I'll be back soon.
If you go:
THE BEST WAY TO SANTA BARBARA
Take Amtrak from Union Station in Los Angeles to the Santa Barbara train station, which is within the Funk Zone at 209 State St. (tickets start at $31 each way). If driving, take Highway 101 north to Santa Barbara, exit on Garden or State streets. The zone is bordered by State, Garden, Highway 101 and Cabrillo Boulevard.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Indigo, 121 State St., Santa Barbara; (805) 966-6586, http://www.indigosantabarbara.com. Trendy new hotel within the Funk Zone features a renovated historic building with modern touches. Small rooms, some with garden patios. Dog friendly. From $176 per night, double occupancy.
Harbor View Inn, 28 W. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara; (800) 755-0222, http://www.harborviewinnsb.com. Rambling hotel across the street from the beach at the edge of the Funk Zone. Large standard rooms. Rates from $238; hotel sometimes has a two-night minimum stay.
The Wayfarer, 12 E. Montecito St., Santa Barbara; (805) 845-1000, www.pacificahotels.com/thewayfarer. Modern new hostel with many private rooms. Pool, communal kitchen, free continental breakfast. Private rooms from $195 that sleep four or more; excellent arrangement for families. Hostel rooms sleep four, with prices starting at $69 per night per person.
WHERE TO EAT
The Lark, 131 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara; (805) 284-0370, http://www.thelarksb.com. This Funk Zone restaurant, which quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in the city after it opened last year, features farm-to-table dishes and an eclectic menu of seafood, meats and veggies, many prepared to share. Large platters are popular for groups. Dishes $13 to $38.
Metropulos, 216 E. Yanonali St., Santa Barbara; (805) 899-2300, http://www.metrofinefoods.com. Grab breakfast or lunch at this sandwich shop and market that began dishing out great food 11 years before the Funk Zone grew up around it. Try a smoked brie and turkey, pastrami Reuben or traditional gyro. Sandwiches less than $10.
Lucky Penny, 127 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara; (805) 284-0358, http://www.luckypennysb.com. Take a quick look at the penny wall outside this zone cafe before trying a salad, pasta or sandwich. Menu items $15 or less.
TO LEARN MORE
Santa Barbara Convention and Visitors Bureau, (805) 966-9222, www.santabarbaraca.com/things-to-do/funk-zone/