There really is a night life in Santa Barbara. And the little city by the sea that seems as timeless and unchanging as the mountains that form its backdrop can change aplenty under the cover of darkness.
Joe's Cafe, a veritable institution with the martini-and-steak set, has moved from its quarters on lower State Street--that place with the long bar and varnished wood booths and ancient photographs--to new digs a little farther uptown.
Remember Maggie McFly's? Five years ago that's where all the singles under 30, and a few over, flocked to check each other out. You could hardly get near the place, such were the crowds bumping together under the mock Tiffany lamps and hanging greenery. Suddenly nobody went there anymore, and that's how it happens in Santa Barbara.
Nobody Leaves Hungry
So Joe's Cafe went uptown, well, up the block to the old Maggie's, taking its ancient photographs and oversize drinks with it.
They serve the same sourdough bread and salsa, the same basic steak-spaghetti-potato dinner, and nobody goes away hungry . . . or thirsty. The hard part is getting a table. At 6:30 on a recent Saturday evening there was already an hour's wait. But the bar--still long and wooden, though decidedly less weathered--was doing a booming business, and you couldn't hear yourself think for the revelry decibels.
The old Joe's is empty, and iron bars block the front door.
The 1129 is a chic veggie restaurant so renowned that Los Angeles restaurants emulate its sprout-and-avocado sandwiches and call them 1129s. The restaurant is still there, but the big news is Oscar's, 1129's bar area, one of Santa Barbara's newest "in" places.
Go through the wonderful Spanish courtyard just off State Street, right on through the restaurant and out the back door, across another patio, and you're at Oscar's, where from 4:30 on a weekend afternoon, on through the evening, you can watch the band or dance your buns off. The dance floor is surrounded by a rail on which the front row of spectators can rest their elbows and their drinks. It's comfortable, cozy and happening, at the moment.
Another new place in town is Zelo. Not a whole lot of action at dinner time (everyone's up the street at Joe's), but by 11 p.m. the line spreads down the sidewalk with people waiting to get in there and dance.
The decor at Zelo is Art Deco, black and white and gray, punctuated by glass potfuls of brilliant red anthuriums, spaces defined by thick glass cubes.
Long, Skinny Layout
For some reason I was reminded of the old Tommy's Ice Cream Parlor that was once just up the street (now a 1920s clothing store). It has the same long, skinny layout (diners at the front, dancing in the far rear) and a brick interior wall that runs the length of the place.
Rocky Gallenti's, on the beach side of the freeway, at 35 State St., continues to pack them in. It's where people go to drink and dance, especially young singles there to check each other out, and a bouncer or two keeps an eye on the mobs. Body-building exhibitions are listed on the agenda.
"If you meet a guy at Rocky Gallenti's, don't take him seriously," is one young woman's advice.
But on weekend evenings, on the restaurant side of Rocky Gallenti's, Dario, a happy white-haired man in a black beret, sings "O, Sole Mio" and other old-country favorites for the pasta eaters that fill the place to overflowing.
And if you're in the neighborhood, you'll want to head on out to the rebuilt Harbor restaurant and go to the bar on the second floor. Good music, one of the best views in town and a glassed-in patio keep people lingering hours longer than they might have planned to stay.
The El Paseo, once an institution in the center of town, lost its appeal with the locals, but it's trying to woo them back with an expensive face lift. They threw a great New Year's Eve party this year for starters, people said.
The Montecito Scene
No tour of Santa Barbara night life would be complete without checking out the Montecito scene on Coast Village Road.
Barney Brantingham, daily columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press, says that area is called "the Montecito triangle. . . . You can go there and not be seen again."
The Montecito triangle consists of the good old Bistro (it attracts tourists from the Biltmore as well as the older Montecito crowd; Hank & Wayne are the musicians), the Santa Fe Bar & Grill (small, cozy, popular, pleasant) and Nipper's (so successful that a second Nipper's has opened in Beverly Hills). The Santa Fe is where John Ireland's Chanticleer restaurant used to be.
There's no live music at Nipper's, but there's a disco dance floor and a disc jockey to keep the crowd in the mood.
The thing about Nipper's is the champagne. Expensive. Well, you can have a glass of champagne for $5. For a bottle, the prices start at $65 and the sky's the limit. For $65 you may have the Moet et Chandon White Star Extra Dry. If you prefer a Champagne Charlie (that's Charles Heidsieck, of course), expect to pay $135. And if money is truly no object, prove it by ordering the Brut Imperial (1914, a very good year). The price, if you must ask, is $3,300.
A lovely surprise, while we were in the area, was the Cafe Rouge in the Montecito Inn. A peek in from the sidewalk revealed a scene reminiscent of the Savoy Hotel in London, or a step back into the gracious elegance of an old-fashioned salon. Velvet upholstered couches and chairs arranged for conversation, baby's breath bouquets in frosted glass vases, a grand piano and cello, soft jazzy music by the Carol Diamond Trio. We went in for a quick look and lingered for an hour.
Back in town, another favorite place to linger is the El Encanto Hotel--both the patio with its fantastic views of forever, and the cozy, comfortable bar.
For letting your hair down and hiking in your cowboy boots, the Texas Chili Factory draws a late-evening crowd for country music. Also on that end of town is Harry's Plaza Cafe that matches Joe's for big drinks and steaks.
People who like live comedy have a place to go now, too; that's a new feature at the fairly new Second Story Bar & Grill at 1221 State St. For dancing, the young set likes the Pacific Coast Dance Co., at 500 Anacapa St. (or PC/DC, as they call it).
The Feed Store is gone. The Tea House is gone. The Metro Cafe is popular, especially out on the patio late on a warm afternoon. State & A, on the corner of State and Anapamu streets and across from the Museum of Art, is a good people-watching patio restaurant. It's where Pepe Delgado's used to be. Old-timers will remember when it was Pelch's tobacco and magazine shop.
Back on lower State Street, Gallagher's fills up for happy hour. It used to be a restaurant called the Head of the Wolf. Before that it was a restaurant called Leon's.
That's how it goes in Santa Barbara. What's missing in quantity is recovered in turnover. If you don't like the current crop of night spots, wait a few years; there will be some changes, for sure.