It’s surprising how many people aren’t familiar with this gem of a little town—45 minutes north of the city of Santa Barbara and within minutes of many wineries in Santa Ynez Valley.
In 2004 I had my first opportunity to find out when my boyfriend and I stayed at the Skyview. Our exploration was brief but memorable. We had a drink in the Union Hotel and a meal at the now-closed Twin Oaks Diner. The next morning we left, and that was all we saw of Los Alamos. While we had a great time eating and drinking there, I would never have called it a culinary destination.
Fast forward to 2012 and Los Alamos has changed. It is now, most definitely, a culinary destination. And I am staying at the Skyview Motel for a full week, to see how much I can eat and drink before I explode. (The answer—a lot.) Light-years away from the hustle and bustle of Los Olivos and Solvang, there is one main street in town: Bell Street. The people here are quirky and cool, and backing it all up are superior edibles. You could spend a long weekend here, never leaving town, and have a truly stellar eating and drinking experience. If you like art and antiques as well, you will really love Los Alamos.
While I was drinking with the folks down at the Union Hotel bar, Clark Staub was beginning to make his flatbread pizzas at Full of Life Flatbread. Now, people come from not only the Central Coast to eat there, but from all over the country. Besides flatbread pizza, Clark and his chef Brian Collins create salads, appetizers and desserts (and even an entrée or two on Sundays) from ingredients that are entirely local.
Regardless of the night or what is on the menu, there is something very special about Full of Life Flatbread. Filled with families, local winemakers, friends meeting up for a night out and chefs from other restaurants, a meal at Flatbread is like a meal in a cozy barn with a big, beautiful pizza oven and a bunch of happy friends. Sous-chef Brett Stephens, the man in charge of the pizza oven, juggles pans brought out from the main kitchen, a multitude of pizzas, even desserts, seemingly not breaking into a sweat while dancing in front of fire. Dinner theatre, Los Alamos style.
The success of Full of Life Flatbread has added life to Los Alamos and has helped pave the way for others to do the same. There is something for everyone there, and something suitable for every mood, from basic to healthy to on-the-edge. Not just a meal, but an experience. “Our customers don’t go out for dinner,” Clark tells me. “They go out for Flatbread.”
Then there are the frozen Full of Life Flatbread pizzas. I believe Staub is a visionary not only for his restaurant achievement but for his unique frozen pizza. I would not want to feed my young nephews a frozen pizza with 200 ingredients and a high dose of sodium. Staub’s product? All natural, all organic and really tasty to boot. Now if he could just tackle frozen macaroni and cheese, we would be all set.
Walking into the tasting room of Bedford Winery is like walking into an antiquarian library—one with a bar and really good wine. Owner and winemaker Stephan Bedford has been making wine for decades and has had his tasting room on Bell Street for several years. Most of the week you’ll find Bedford’s über-fun and friendly tasting room manager, Helen Daniels. On Sundays and Mondays, you’ll likely be poured your tastes by Stephan himself. He’s not content making the tried and true standbys of the area—Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay—though he does make them too. He likes making other wines with interesting, different and often misunderstood varietals like Riesling and Gewürztraminer. He also does not hesitate to educate the nonbeliever. Hanging out in the tasting room one Sunday afternoon, I eavesdropped as a taster declined to taste the Riesling. “It’s too sweet,” the taster said. “Not to be overly aggressive or anything,” Stephan told him, “but what makes you think that?” He is not asking this because he is offended—he asks because he wants to know why this guy has the opinion he does, and perhaps to change it.
Stephan is interested in American history, botany and a multitude of other subjects. His popular tasting room events could just as easily be centered on Abraham Lincoln as on local mushrooms or garlic. And the man makes everything—his own prosciutto, his own sauerkraut, his own mustard. He is a delight to talk to, and so is Helen. If one were ever to decide to get over their fear of Riesling, this would be the place to do it.
Jesper Johansson is practically an old-timer. He has been living and cooking in Los Alamos since 1999. A Swedish native and talented chef, he was about to move back to Sweden when Ralph Quackenbush and John Morley approached him about running a café and espresso bar adjacent to their art gallery. That was a pretty innovative idea for Los Alamos at that time. But Café Quackenbush quickly built up a loyal clientele who come in for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch or a coffee and pastry on the run. The café and the gallery are housed in the town’s old general store. There is a rustic and antique feel to the place—combined with the bright colors of the contemporary and California Plein Air art on the walls, it seems that Johansson and his partners set the bar pretty high when they opened. This is a place I would imagine in San Francisco, not Los Alamos, but they did it anyway.
Now, it is the mainstay. Open six days a week (instead of just weekends) and with servers who probably know, by name, 75% of their customers, Café Quackenbush is popular not only with locals but also with a lot of people needing a place to stop for lunch on a north-south 101 road trip. The pages of the guest book are signed from people all over the world. Even Sean Connery has eaten there. It is the place for breakfast on the weekends. It is a good place to stop in for the lunch special on a cold Wednesday. It is also a great place for a glass of wine accompanied by journal writing and staring into space. Like the great cafés of Europe, it fills many needs—the fact that it is on a quiet street in a small town makes it that much more remarkable.
Jamie Gluck is one of the new kids on the block, but he has been a part-time resident of Los Alamos for several years. It all started when friends canceled a trip to Europe due to 9/11 and ended up vacationing, then buying a house, in Los Alamos instead. “Where?” was Jamie’s reply, but on his first visit to his friends’ new house he and his partner were also smitten and ended up buying a second home in town as well.
Burned out on working in advertising in Los Angeles, he decided to follow his dream and opened Bell Street Farm in late 2011. The place is equal parts café, wine bar, retail store and salon gathering place (both Clark from Full of Life Flatbread and Jesper from Café Quackenbush were eating lunch in there one Monday when I stopped in). It is very hard not to fall in love instantly with Gluck and the space he has created. He greets everyone with his now (to me, at least) trademark cowboy hat and a smile. He has gorgeous cookbooks and lotions and other tempting things to buy. And then there is the food. Jamie’s right hand man in the kitchen, Evan Klein (pictured at left), worked at Full of Life Flatbread before he helped open Bell Street Farm, and he is a quiet young man very passionate about food. He lives in, and loves, Los Alamos. This is not a guy who is going to let something less than perfect leave his kitchen. Cooking comes as naturally to Evan as a warm welcome comes from Jamie. Talking about the fabulous pâtés of Paris (Evan lived there for a few months at one point in his life), Evan told me “I like my pâté.” He grinds his own meat and uses local Santa Barbara Pistachios. Served with mustard, it makes the perfect wine country picnic lunch. They also do a great rotisserie chicken—I lived on a half of one, and a couple of their cold salads, during the quiet midweek evenings I was staying up at the Skyview. My breakfast, too, came from Bell Street Farm—handfuls of their excellent homemade granola, tossed unadorned and milk-free into my mouth. It is wonderful stuff.
The Cool Chick
Sonja Magdevski is so charming, so warm, and so welcoming it is not hard to understand why this town has embraced her. She is the winemaker for Casa Dumetz, along with fiancée Emilio Estevez as her assistant, using grapes from their organically farmed Malibu estate as well as from Santa Ynez Valley vineyards. Now in Los Alamos she has created a fun and hip place in which to taste their wines. Sonja’s tasting room—called Babi’s, after her grandmother—is unusual and beautiful at the same time. Found art and architectural salvage adorn the walls. There is something to look at everywhere, right down to the labels on every bottle. Making wine in the Santa Ynez Valley for a few years and on the lookout for a tasting room in Los Olivos, Solvang or Buellton, Sonja could not find the “fit” she was searching for. She’d been coming to Los Alamos for years to hang out and, like so many others, fell in love with the town. Then, walking down Bell Street one day, the space that was to become her tasting room called out to her. Now, she is firmly entrenched in this community. She hosts a speaker series called “Words to Live By” every other Friday night with a series of eclectic talks, and all are welcome. As for the person who walks into her tasting room, they could end up staying and talking to Sonja for hours. They won’t be disappointed with her lineup of wines, either, which includes a Viognier, Syrah Rosé, Grenache, Pinot Noir and Syrah, as well as a sparkling Syrah Rosé called Sonja’s Suds.
Doing her best to make the best wine she can, Los Alamos seems the best place to pour it, too. “When new people arrive here they feel as if they have discovered something fantastic, which is true,” Sonja says, “but it is still so fresh to them. It is great to see the amazement and wonder in their faces. I love it when people say, ‘We were just stopping for gas and we have fallen in love with this place! Who knew?’ they will say. Well, we knew. And now they do, too.”
I have also fallen in love with Los Alamos. I knew the potential was there—I just needed to spend some time there to make it happen. I love the sense of community—everyone profiled here is an advocate of everyone else. Jesper Johansson tells you to check out Bell Street Farm. Jamie meets with Evan over at Café Quackenbush. Clark is having a glass of wine at Sonja’s. Everyone says to go to Charlie’s for a burger, which I have yet to do, but it’s on my list. I love the people—all so passionate about what they are doing and their place in Los Alamos and the world. And of course, I love the food and the wine. Part land-that-time-forgot, and part cutting-edge art, food and wine destination, Los Alamos is, well, all heart.
Shannon Essa is a California native whose beverage of choice is Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. She is the author of restaurant guidebook Chow Venice! and splits her time between Santa Barbara and Europe, writing and leading wine-, beer- and food-based tours in Spain and Italy for Grapehops Tours.
In the photo collage pictured at the beginning of the article, from top left: The Los Alamos sign; Brett Stephens; porchetta sandwich from Bell Street Farms; the old gas pump in front of The Station; Union Hotel; rotisserie chicken from Bell Street Farms. Pictured below: The Los Alamos sign.
Restaurants and Wine Tasting
Los Alamos is, for the most part, a “long weekend” destination and while it is possible to eat and drink midweek, the best time to visit is Thursday through Monday.
Full of Life Flatbread
225 Bell Street; 805 344-4400; Thu–Sat 5–10pm, Sun 4–8pm; fulloflifefoods.com.
Also check out the trailer for a documentary about Flatbread by director Michael Albright at ayearfulloflife.com
448 Bell Street; 805 344-2107; daily 11am–5pm; bedfordwinery.com
Quackenbush is now closed, but Jesper Johansson is now at Plenty On Bell.
Bell Street Farm
406 Bell Street; 805 344-4609; Fri–Mon 10am–6pm; bellstreetfarm.com
Babi’s Tasting Room (Casa Dumetz Wines)
448 Bell Street, Suite B; 805 344-1900; Fri and Sat 11am–7pm, Sun 11am–6pm; casadumetzwines.com
97 Den Street; 805 344-4404; Mon–Sat 8am–8pm, Sun 7:30am–7pm
Art & Antiques
Besides the allure of its food and wine, Los Alamos is a great art and antiques destination. This list is by no means complete—wander around to find many more treasures.
Art Brut Gallery
Located at Café Quackenbush, they feature California Plein Air Impressionists of the early–mid 20th century as well as contemporary artists, furniture, sculpture and antiques. 458 Bell Street, 805 344-4440; generalstoreca.com
The C Gallery
Features contemporary art including many artists from Los Alamos. They also offer art workshops and classes just in case you want to combine your imbibing with some valuable art instruction. 466 Bell Street; 805 344-3807; thecgallery.com
This antique mall is a vast, sprawling space with over 60 vendors. It is as easy to get lost there as it is difficult to leave without at least one purchase in hand. 515 Bell Street; 805 344-3315; losalamosca.com/losalamosdepotmall.html
Hand-crafted pottery is created and sold here, and the owners also offer pottery classes. 273 Bell Street; 805 453 5075; terramonary.com
The Skyview Motel
Perched on a hill overlooking downtown Los Alamos and the valley beyond, this motor lodge is a true blast from the past. The rooms are small but comfortable and inexpensive—and there are plenty of them, if you are visiting with a group. There is also a large community room for guest use. 9150 Highway 101; 888 226-6665; theskyviewmotel.com
The Union Hotel
This historic hotel has several room options—some have shared bathrooms, and one has two bedrooms, making it good for a group. The bar is a favorite of locals and travelers alike, and they have a restaurant open Thursday–Saturday. 362 Bell Street; 805 344-2744; 1880unionhotel.com
The Victorian Mansion
The Victorian, built in 1864 in Nipomo and moved to Los Alamos in 1980, has six quirky themed rooms and would be a fun place for a special occasion or for those who envision more time in their room than out. In other words, honeymooners, check this place out. 326 Bell Street; 805 344-1300; thevick.com
Edible Santa Barbara in Los Alamos — Saturday, February 6, 2016 — more info here.
Bedford Winery and Babi’s Tasting Room host interesting events and talks in their tasting rooms. Sign up for their email newsletter, or check their Facebook pages.
Other events include the “Chair Fair”—an exhibition of chairs (from antique to artsy to garage sale) on July 28 and “Old Days” in late September—a three-day event celebrating the town’s Western heritage with a parade, entertainment, food and crafts. losalamosvalley.org