Rajat Parr is a culinary polymath. The James Beard Award-winner is an accomplished sommelier, winemaker, restaurant owner, and author. For nearly two decades, he worked in restaurants, learning about wine under master sommelier Larry Stone at Rubicon in San Francisco, before ascending to wine director of Michael Mina’s restaurant group. Long story short, you should trust this man’s taste buds.
Earlier this decade, along with winemaker Sashi Moorman, he started getting out of the restaurant more, but starting Sandhi wines in the Santa Barbara wine region. He’s since grown to partner in Domaine de la Cote, and Evening Land winery in Oregon. He also wrote his first book, Secrets of Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World’s Top Wine Professionals.
He’s partnered with his co-author Jordan Mackay for another tome, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, which published last week. In the book the duo traverses the great wine regions of Europe not just to tell you about the best producers, but to give readers an understanding of how geography and geology affects flavor.
But when he’s not circling the globe, you’ll find Parr in Santa Barbara, where he owns the Indian restaurant Bibi Ji. He’s watched as the wine region there has grown: “When we first planted our vineyard there was nothing around us,” Parr says. “It’s still a new region, but now there are 100s of acres all around us now.” And has also been there to see the culinary scene develop. “It has been off and on for many years. The issue really is that the clientele, they want simple food so you have to slowly push,” he says. “But a lot of good spots are opening and the clientele is learning there’s more than just burgers and pizza.”
So if you’re heading to Santa Barbara for wine tasting and you only know where to eat based on watching Sideways 14 years ago, you’ve got some catching up to do. Fortunately, Parr has shared his local knowledge with us to curate the best eating experience possible in California’s central coast wine region.
This place, outside of Santa Barbara in Buellton, is a really fun, casual, and counter service. You basically go in and they have killer sandwiches, good pizza from a big oven, great salads, and local wines. It’s really simple, delicious food. The menu is always changing, but you can get cheeses, and big cuts of meat. It’s the best place for lunch in the valley for sure. I go there as often as I can.
The chef came down from San Francisco and he’s a super guy. The food is very Mediterranean influenced and I try to get here often. They have a great oven, so they do a really great roast chicken. That’s one of my favorite things—a roasted simple bird. The vegetables they serve with changes seasonally, and they source locally. It’s located inside the Santa Barbara Inn, and though it’s in a hotel, it has a nice little outdoor area to sit in.
My favorite coffee shop is run by two former pro cyclists [Aaron Olsen and Kim Anderson]. It has a really good vibe where people who ride their bike will stop by for coffee during the day and maybe a glass of wine in the evenings. They had one shop, then opened a bigger location and they do everything here including roast their own coffee and serve some simple breakfast items. If you go to either one you’re likely to see Kim or Aaron there.
This is the best cheese selection in all of Santa Barbara. They have a great assortment of cheeses from Europe. You don’t have a lot of cheese producers in California because it’s too dry for the cows, so I look to European cheeses. I love sheep’s milk Pyrenees cheese, which I can get there. They have everything, you name it, they’ve got it.
It’s not really a late-night town, but I love Satellite. It’s not open that late, but late enough. Satellite is a little wine bar on State Street and Drew [Cuddy], the guy who owns it, is always there. It’s a really nice wine selection with little bites too.
This is a small place with a local chef using local ingredients and doing some Santa Maria-style barbecue. There’s always some old smoke angle in the food. The wine list is really well curated and Lenka [Davis] the wine director is super engaging. The young wine talent in Santa Barbara is only getting better and definitely a big part of that. People like her and Drew at Satellite are getting more creative with food and wine. The menu has mix of influences [both Asian and European], but it’s not overdone and super complicated. They buy from the markets and won’t get things out of season. And every time I’ve gone I’ve had a good pork dish. It’s a great little neighborhood, local joint.
Santa Barbara Fish Market
I’m a little spoiled because I’m friends with the main woman who does uni diving her, Stephanie [Mutz]. So if I’m ever in need of it, I call her and she’ll meet me at the harbor if she has something. She’s amazing. But that takes some planning. Otherwise I go to the Santa Barbara Fish Market and get sea urchin or spot prawns. It’s right on the harbor and really good.