On the fringes of Santa Barbara's popular wine country, tiny Los Alamos is one of the best places to eat and drink along California's Central Coast.
In the early days, when the one-horse Central Coast town of Los Alamos was just getting off the ground as a food and wine destination, those lucky enough to get here felt like they were in on one of California's best kept secrets. In a state not exactly known for repelling a crowd, Los Alamos, a humble community of less than 2,000 with a long history of not doing very much at all with its life, managed to escape the seemingly-inevitable deluge of visitors that descend on so many of the more appealing towns along the well-trodden path between Los Angeles and San Francisco, easily one of the world's most sought-after road trip routes.
Los Alamos was not ignored simply because Highway 101 goes around it, but also because the town has long been less than postcard ready. For cute, you go elsewhere, like nearby Los Olivos, and the other places that featured prominently in Alexander Payne's legendary buddy comedy, "Sideways," which remains the best-worst thing to ever happen to Santa Barbara County's vast and varied wine country, now a favored weekend destination for city-weary Southern Californians that is, once you know where you're going, worth a trip from anywhere.
Most of the buzz seemed to pass Los Alamos by—for the longest time, one of the only reasons to come down here was to lay eyes on the Union Hotel, a wood-frame structure that has appeared more than a little ready to collapse in on itself for decades now. Dating back to the 1800's, the hotel is a fascinating relic from the stagecoach era, known in much more recent times as the shoot location for the video to Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's 1983 duet, "Say Say Say." (That was no accident—Jackson's Neverland Ranch isn't far from town, the departed pop idol was said to have enjoyed the odd stop in at the hotel's then-fantastically old-school saloon.)
Today, the saloon has a chef, there's brunch, there are special cocktails, they do weddings. It's just one of many tweaks to the town that's making more and more visitors slow down and pay closer attention. As California goes, that would typically mean that you were too late to get in ahead of the crowds. There is something, however, about Los Alamos, that allows it to avoid the usual deluge—in many respects, the recent changes don't seem to have changed the town much at all, at least not energy-wise. Maybe it's the fact that it barely feels like it's there, as you drive down the main drag, Bell Street, with its scattered handful of simple storefronts, buffered by plenty of open space; even on a busy weekend, it can feel as if the town remains half asleep, with much of the action concentrated in a few key locations.
Part of this is down to the town's good fortune to be placed along the top fringe of Santa Barbara's sprawling wine country, the maximum possible distance from Los Angeles—many casual visitors find themselves disinclined to pass over the region's more prominent destinations to get here. Which is exactly how the town's biggest fans like it. Plenty of times, you'll feel like you have the entire town to yourself—stop by on a Tuesday, for example, and you may not find much open, if anything.
To say that Los Alamos like to keep it low profile is an understatement—many of the drivers behind the town's quiet renaissance are actually major players (or retired ones, anyway) in the places where the come from—typically, Los Angeles; there are more than a few business owners here with lengthy and fascinating biographies, to say the least. Here in Los Alamos, however, they're quietly doing extremely serious work; in some cases, for a long time already.
For a good few years now, the town has already been home to two of the best meals you could possibly hope to eat on a road trip through the wilds of California—for lunch, it's Bell Street Farm all the way; this deceptively casual cafe, market and wine shop serves up serious plates of roast chicken and memorable rotisserie pork sandwiches; early on, it was one of the few places around to seek advice on where to taste wines; it remains a great place for a glass of whatever's good in the region right now. Owner Jamie Gluck—the friendly guy in the cowboy hat, you can't miss him, if he's in—has always been a great source of information for serious wine drinkers.
More than a decade after it opened, dinner at Full of Life Flatbread remains the most destination-worthy spot in town—you can hang around for a table, but to continue your interesting / new / obscure local wines education, sit at the bar and place yourself in the hands of whoever's behind it, letting them guide you through a memorable evening of by-the-glass exploration. The food—simple, local, colorful, and much more than just their excellent, California-style pizzas—is very good, too.
Recently, visitors have found their options greatly expanded—most notably, perhaps, is the fact that there's now a must-do breakfast spot, too—whether you go for coffee and croissants or hang around for the terrific all-day menu, served until 3 p.m. on the days that they're open, Bob's Well Bread is a great place to eat as well as one of the best small town bakeries you'll ever lay eyes on, at least on this continent—buy as much bread as you think you can eat to take with you. That is, if they have anything left.
Once you've eaten enough, if such a thing can be done, there is of course, the small matter of all the wine you haven't tried yet. The drive from town, out Alisos Canyon Road and into the gorgeous Foxen Canyon area takes you past some seriously wonderful wineries; you'll start, however, with a stop at Nan Helgeland's Martian Ranch, with its biodynamically-farmed vineyards and seriously good rosé, which in this warm, dry part of California, is pretty much always in season.
Not that you even need to leave town; back on Bell Street, Sonja Magdevski's Casa Dumetz makes just 1,000 cases a year, relying solely on locally-grown fruit; stop in the casual tasting room for a pour or three—she's known for her Grenache. Down the block, Zac Wasserman's Frequency Wines has received high praise for his Syrahs; hip Municipal Winemakers has a rustic-chic tasting room at the spiffed-up Alamo Motel; stop in for a glass, take a seat by the fire pit, and thank your lucky stars for all those people that still whiz by on the 101, never knowing that in their haste to get to wherever they're going, they missed out, big time.