“Welcome to Los Alamos,” read the roadside billboard. It marked the transition from table-flat farmland to rural enclave in Santa Barbara County. From the sign, you could just about see the other end of town.
Buildings and store fronts from a century ago clad in stone, stucco or board and batten — all painted the earth tones of the surrounding fields — present an unassuming picture of days gone by.
A closer look reveals another story: world class restaurants, an artisanal bakery, antique emporiums and trendy shops. Los Alamos is not what it seems at first glance.
Just a few minutes off the California 101, Los Alamos (Spanish for the cottonwoods) is on the edge of Santa Ynez wine country near the popular tasting-room destination of Los Olivos. Some of that high-style tourism has rubbed off. Young entrepreneurs found the old buildings and low rents irresistible for realizing their creative dreams.
We had planned a lunch stop at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, a Central Coast destination for fresh-baked bread and pastry, along with a menu of breakfast choices (fancy or plain), and lunch sandwiches and salads.
As we drove the length of Bell Street, our hosts pointed out some of their favorite dining destinations:
Bell’s, a French inspired bistro, is owned and run by Daisy and Greg Ryan who met while working in the kitchen of Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. The creative menu based on local, seasonal ingredients has won them accolades. A few days after we passed through, Bell’s was awarded its first Michelin star, elevating them into rarefied restaurant company.
The Bells $75 four-course menu changes daily. It could start with a Salad of Finley Farms Lettuces dressed with shallot & medjool date vinaigrette and might include Tête De Cochon Tortellini with Kadota fig mostarda, Striped Bass with romano beans, tomato fondue and Cardamom Chocolate Shortbread Cookies with salted cultured buttercream.
Pico, just down the block, is another destination drawing hungry patrons in search of exceptional food. Also a family business, Pico is renowned for its farm-to-table sourcing, exceptional wine list and close relationships with suppliers.
The menu takes local ingredients on a trip around the world, sampling a broad range of cooking styles. Dates L’Avec, Wolfberry & Kale salad, housemade Beet Ziti and what must be a killer burger with three-year cheddar, apple smoked bacon and balsamic grilled onions show the range of the kitchen.
The parking lot in front of Bob’s Well Bread Bakery reads like a shorthand account of who eats in Los Alamos. Dusty pickups, vacationers loaded with car-top carriers, a camper, and a few luxury sedans show the diversity. Under a shade tree there were picnic tables and a bocce court alongside the vintage Coca Cola sign offering to “relieve fatigue” for five cents.
Inside, the bakery aroma was enticing. The display case was full of baguette sandwiches and pastries. A list of daily loaves for sale was posted on the wall.
Our after-lunch reward was a quartet of Morning Buns. Somewhere between a traditional raised-dough cinnamon roll and a flakey European style pastry, the cinnamon swirls had been baked in muffin tins and came either glazed or topped with cinnamon sugar. With a crisp exterior and soft interior, the unique rolls are great at any time of day.
On the edge of town is the Skyview Motel, an iconic 1960s roadside motel that has been updated with boutique luxury and a few rows of vines on the property. Reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Bates Motel in Psycho, the Skyview’s well-regarded restaurant even carries the name, “Normans.” It’s the hip place to stay for a multi-day tour of the dining pleasures of Los Alamos and the surrounding wine country.
Los Alamos has a California-cool vibe you don’t find in the Northeast. Stylish restaurants and grass-roots bakeries set in the fields and vineyards of nearby farms, the Pacific coast over the hills and a soupçon of Hollywood glamor only come together in the Golden State — a world away from our thickly settled Atlantic coast and well worth a visit.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.