A Foodie Tour Through Beautiful Santa Ynez Valley

Over the foothills just north of Santa Barbara lies Santa Ynez Valley, a wine country replete with natural beauty, distinctive wines, and— as I’ve recently discovered—many fabulous eateries.

Published: 1/13/2015

Over the foothills just north of Santa Barbara lies Santa Ynez Valley, a wine country replete with natural beauty, distinctive wines, and— as I’ve recently discovered—many fabulous eateries. “Here in the Santa Ynez Valley, everybody is doing their own thing,” says Root 246 General Manager Mike Brown. “There is no restaurant like another, so all you have to do is decide what you’re hungry for and head there. It’s a very exciting place to be.” To see if what Mike said was true, I visited six restaurants in six Santa Ynez Valley towns in six days. At every turn, I discovered ingenuity, enthusiasm, and lots of food, glorious food!



The Ballard Inn & Restaurant, located in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley , is one of the region’s most intimate and romantic places to dine—complete with a roaring fireplace. I was greeted by Chef Budi Kazali who won Central Coast Magazine’s Ultimate Chef Competition in 2009. I was invited to order off the tempting menu, or to let Chef Budi make several choices for me. I chose the latter and he did not let me down! I started with the flavorful Cauliflower Soup (the tender buds of cauliflower were carefully roasted), then devoured an amazing Hamachi Sashimi appetizer layered with avocado slices and a Soy-Yuzu Vinaigrette dressing . A third appetizer , the Red Roast Kurobuta Pork Belly, was the perfect complement to my glass of Ballard Inn Pinot Noir, crafted by Winemaker Richard Longoria. Meanwhile, my companion enjoyed Ballard Inn’s signature Caesar Salad sprinkled with sesame seeds. For my entrée, Chef Budi chose his phenomenal Australian Rack of Lamb with Fennel Ratatouille and Star Anise Demi-Glace, while my companion chose the Pan-Seared Duck Breast—another excellent choice. I was going to take a pass on dessert until I learned that all of the ice creams are house made, and I’d never tasted Cranberry Ice Cream. Smooth, creamy, and not too sweet...it was the perfect end to a sumptuous meal.


Serving as a gateway to the treasures of Santa Ynez Valley, Buellton answers many needs with filling stations, hotels, and a range of restaurants. The most iconic of the restaurants, Hitching Post II, was my restaurant of choice for this feature. Owned by Valley legend Frank Ostini, Hitching Post is a classic barbecue restaurant with an uncanny knack for honoring tradition while embracing the new. Besides fabulous steak, ribs, chicken, and seafood cooked over a wood-fire grill, Hitching Post II offers an extensive portfolio of its own wines, crafted by Frank and his partner in winemaking, Gray Hartley. I ordered a flight of Hitching Post Highliner Pinot Noir— three 2-ounce samplings of Pinots honoring the 10th anniversary of the movie Sideways, which was partially filmed in the restaurant. After a delicious appetizer of Grilled Artichoke with Aioli dressing, I relished Swordfish straight from the grill, while my companion enjoyed a tender Flat-Iron Steak. I followed my flight of Pinots with the splendid 2006 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir and a delicate slice of Key Lime Pie. The restaurant is expansive and homey. Many staff mem- bers have worked there for decades, and Frank is there nearly every evening to greet his many customers and help out in any way he can.

Los Alamos

Located almost exactly halfway between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, Los Alamos is great for foodies as well as antique and history buffs. Bob’s Well Bread Bakery is the first restaurant you’ll come to when you exit Highway 101. Housed in an impeccably renovated early 20th century roadside filling station and café, this fabulous artisan eatery is owned by Bob Oswaks, a former Hollywood executive who started his bread-baking career as a therapeutic hobby. With his wife Jane at his side, Bob greets his regular customers each day with an eye-opening menu of organic, naturally leavened breads and breakfast and lunch items, all baked fresh from scratch that morning. When my companion and I arrived at 8 a.m., Bob and his crew had already been baking for three hours. I ordered Egg-in-a-Jar—a purple potato purée topped with Gruyère cheese, poached egg, bacon lardons, chives, and crème fraîche. The dish is indeed served in a jar on a plate surrounded by toast “soldiers” designed for dipping. Absolutely phenomenal! We also tasted the pain au chocolat and almond croissants, rye bread, and raisin bread made with two types of raisins. You can purchase loaves of bread and baguette sandwiches to go—ideal for touring Santa Ynez Valley wine country.

Los Olivos

Once a stagecoach stop, Los Olivos now boasts more than two dozen tasting rooms and several great restaurants that deserve attention. This foodie chose Sides Hardware and Shoes – A Brothers Restaurant and was well rewarded indeed. The intimate restaurant is housed in an historic building that began as the town’s shoe and hardware store. It retains its 1900s charm with a tin ceiling and genuine historic photos on the walls. Sides is famous for its thick-cut house bacon and I can see why. Chef Michael Cherney personally oversees the four-day process of curing each steak-sized slab, smoking it out back in an Applewood smoker fashioned from an old oak wine barrel, and then glazes it on the griddle in maple syrup. A meal at Sides is not complete without at least a taste of this fabulous bacon steak, but there’s much more. I ordered the Sea Bass Paella and my companion ordered Mussels and Frites, and we both found it hard to share! A fabulous Pear Upside-Down Cake (all of the desserts are house made) topped the evening. Sides has a great Wines on Tap program that allows you to order local wines by the glass or quarter, half, or one-liter carafes.

Santa Ynez

First settled more than a century ago, the town of Santa Ynez is now home to its own fabulous cucina rustica, S.Y. Kitchen. The warm and inviting ambience of this restaurant in a reborn California farmhouse was unmistakable from the moment I stepped inside. We were seated in the Front Room and introduced to the menu of uncomplicated, yet compelling dishes. Just as I was narrowing my choices down to five or six, our server Alessio, pointed to the blackboard listing the many specials. Verona, Italy-born Executive Chef Luca Crestanelli uses the highest quality ingredients to create his amazing menu, but I think it’s his passion that really sets his food apart. I finally settled on a Shaved Yellow Beet Salad with Goat Cheese and Hazelnuts and Fusilli Halibut with Wild Mushrooms and Asparagus. My companion ordered a phenomenal W arm Octopus Salad, a Fresh Pea Salad, and a Wood-Fired Pizza, which he claimed was the best pizza he had ever eaten. The wine menu features an array of local Santa Ynez Valley and Italian wines by the glass and bottle, all carefully selected by the wine director for their compatibility with the inspired cuisine. And for dessert? A not-so classic Tiramisu—the perfect end to a perfect meal.


Already famous for Danish baked goods and aebleskivers, the bustling town of Solvang is home to so much more. I was invited to dine at Root 246, adjacent to the chic Hotel Corque. My companion and I were guided through the ultra-cool dining room to the best seat in the house—the kitchen! I was assured that this wasn’t special VIP treatment. The table is open to parties of up to four who are interested in an experience of a lifetime for a very reasonable price. Chef Seth Nelson greeted us warmly and proceeded to conduct the amazing staff of chefs and servers with calm precision as they served 168 meals over the next three hours. It felt more like 30 minutes to us, because we were treated to dish after dish of inspired fare, each paired with a fabulous wine from the Santa Ynez Valley. Bison Tartare with Soft Poached Quail Egg with Grenache Rosé Sweet Tea–Brined Deep Fried Quail with Viognier, Smoked Nori–Crusted Steelhead Trout with a Tuscan red blend, Wild Boar in Miso Pork Jus with a blend of Roussanne and Viognier...and more. Oh my. For dessert, we shared three: Baked Nebraska made with Sweet Corn Ice Cream, S’mores Tart, and the Rock & Roll Donut topped with Pop Rocks.

For more information, please visit: visitsyv.com

As seen in the issue Spring 2015 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.


Avant Tapas and Wine

Los Alamos
Bell Street Farm
Café Quackenbush

Los Olivos
Mattei’s Tavern
Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café

Santa Ynez
Dos Carlitos
Trattoria Grappolo
Vineyard House

Mirabelle Inn & Restaurant
Succulent Café Wine Charcuterie