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Here’s Why Santa Barbara Could Be LA’s Best Day Trip

Here’s Why Santa Barbara Could Be LA’s Best Day Trip

More than just a stopover on your roadtrip to San Fran, Santa Barbara is coming into its own with the development of the city’s “Funk Zone” and a revitalised downtown.

Michael C Armour is standing on the second floor of a historic silo on the outskirts of Santa Barbara’s newly christened “Funk Zone”. For the past decade, the former ad director and children’s author has used this space to work on his craft; an eclectic mix of styles from abstract oils to landscapes.

Upstairs, in a room cluttered with old film posters, Michael eked out a crime novel called Creek, which was recently optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio (even though he’s admittedly more of a Joaquin Phoenix man). While downstairs, he exhibits works by local artists in a space formerly occupied by his motorcycles. Before that it was a grain storeroom for a forgotten local bakery called Weber Bread. “It was a shit bread – but it was our bread,” he says, laughing.

One day, while tending to his motorcycles, Michael noticed the area change. “All of a sudden people were driving past in Range Rovers sipping wine.” In a matter of months the motorcycles were gone, replaced by local artworks proudly curated by Michael himself. “This one’s pretty powerful,” he says, pointing to a list of numbers scrawled on a chalkboard. (I later learn it’s a stark depiction of California’s diminishing rainfall, which makes me feel like an idiot for questioning its artistic merit in the first place. But seriously, it’s a list of numbers on a chalkboard – can you blame me?)

Funk > Moist

Gallerie Silo is typical of most businesses in the Funk Zone, where inventive entrepreneurs and craftspeople have turned old warehouses into art spaces, restaurants, small batch breweries, wine tasting rooms, and homeware stores like Blue Door. Showcasing the best kind of kitsch Americana over three floors, it’s a wet dream for mid-century furniture enthusiasts and those shopping for souvenirs that aren’t snow domes.

“All of a sudden people were driving past in Range Rovers sipping wine.”

The Funk Zone spans about 12 blocks between Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean. It’s somehow transcended its terrible name (“funk” is a close second to “moist” on the list of the worst words imaginable) to become one of Santa Barbara’s most popular neighbourhoods.

The area even has a ‘good bread’ now, and you can buy it by the baker’s dozen over at Helena Avenue Bakery, which is housed in a warehouse precinct centred around fine dining establishment The Lark. The speciality here is an egg and cheddar biscuit sandwich, which you should definitely order with crispy bacon to cut the sweetness from the buttermilk biscuit and rich tomato jam. Oh, and the coffee here is actually good by Aussie standards – not in a Starbucks kinda way.

The wonderfully decadent egg and cheddar biscuit sandwich from Helena. (Photo: Facebook)

The Funk Zone feels surprisingly authentic for an area that popped out of nowhere only a few years ago. And that’s certainly true of Mony’s, a hole in the wall taqueria on Anacapa Street, right in the Funk Zone’s epicentre.

Starting out as a food truck, this slim hallway-like establishment has become a favourite among locals in just a few years. The lines are always out the door and the spectacle of watching people snare an outdoor table is akin to watching seagulls swoop on a handful of chips. (Those who aren’t lucky enough, just end up eating their tacos on the pavement.) You have to try the Al Pastor – a cross between a taco and a shwarma – but at just $1.75USD per taco you may as well order a damn taco bouquet!

To wash down your tacos it’s just a short walk over to Figueroa Mountain, one of the most popular taprooms you’ll find in the Funk Zone. The vibe here is decidedly “dude”: lots of wood, hot pretzels, heavy IPAs that taste like full meals, NFL on the tele, and a soundtrack of classic rock.

While Figueroa Mountain’s main operation takes place in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley – where most of Santa Barbara’s famed wine is produced – this bar serves as a showroom/test kitchen, where bearded brewers get to experiment with different flavour profiles and techniques. Like a one-off batch made with coffee and locally sourced chocolate, which miraculously has the look and finish of a lager.

Figueroa Mountain has one of the largest craft beer selections in Santa Barbara. (Photo: Jesse Natale/supplied)

For a more up-market craft beer experience head to Third Window on E Haley Street, a good 15-minute walk outside the Funk Zone. The owners here have very sleekly restored an old barn and their seasonal beers are sophisticated and easy to drink. For an extremely strong beer, the XII Quad goes down surprisingly well, with subtle notes of raisin, plum and – yep, you guessed it – chocolate. For some reason they love putting chocolate in beer here. That’s a fact, not a complaint.

Places like Third Window and Figueroa Mountain are becoming a national craft beer concern, but let’s not sugar-coat it – people come to Santa Barbara for the wine. The vast majority of the 23 wineries on the city’s famed Urban Wine Trail are centred around the Funk Zone.

The Santa Barbara Wine Collective tasting room in the Funk Zone. (Photo: Rob Stark/supplied)

Kunin, just a block away from the beach, specialises in some less obvious varieties such as Syrah, Viognier and a red Zinfandel, sourced from a 111-year-old vineyard in the mountains. I know that because Robbie told me. Robbie is one of the pourers here and he’s super laid back but also super knowledgeable about the eight super good wines you just tasted here in 20 super delicious minutes. (They like to use that word here!)

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The only drawback with the Funk Zone is that it’s a hard place to kick on once you’ve got your wine buzz going, so you’ll need to Uber or take a 20-minute walk under the State Street bridge downtown. Here’s where you’ll find Santa Barbara’s late night watering holes and bustling shopping strip – everything from the Apple Store and H&M to a bunch of chains you thought went out of business in the ’90s like Banana Republic. But even downtown is being transformed and informed by what’s happening in the Funk Zone, with many restaurants and bars forced into upping the ante by their peers from across the bridge.

Barbareño’s take on the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. (Photo: Facebook)

One of the best new restaurants downtown is Barbareño, on a residential corner a couple blocks west of State Street. It’s here you see Santa Barbabra’s farm-to-fork ethos in full swing. Serving homegrown wine and craft beer from breweries like Third Window, Barbareño proudly champions the amazing produce of the Californian Central Coast.

Their “Eggamuffin” appetiser is a clever play on Maccas’ egg mcmuffin, which for better or worse was invented here in Santa Barbara. But the tri tip (a particularly Californian cut of sirloin) served with beans and pico de gallo is undoubtedly the main event, hinting at the Mexican influence on practically everything here.

How To Get Here

The drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara is one of America’s best roadtrips. But if you’re not up for driving on the wrong side of the road for two-and-a-half hours, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner is your best bet. Trains leave daily from Union Station in downtown LA and tickets range from $31USD for the coach service to $47USD for business class, which guarantees a comfy seat. Pro-tip: Sit on the left side of the train on the Los Angeles-Santa Barbara leg for incredible ocean views.

Where To Stay

If you’re basing yourself in the Funk Zone, The Wayfarer – a boutique hotel/hostel hybrid near the train line on E Montecito Street – is a great option at an OK price (a private king room will set you back roughly $180USD a night). The only drawback with staying in the Funk Zone is that things tend to close pretty early, so to be closer to the late night action you may want to consider a hotel downtown.

How To Get Around

Walking is a great way to take in all Santa Barbara has to offer and it’s just a 20-minute stroll under the State Street Bridge from the Funk Zone to downtown. If you’re after a guided tour, the Santa Barbara Trolley Company runs a 90-minute tour of local hot spots such as the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Museum Of National History and the Mission. Santa Barbara is a bike-friendly city and there are several rental places dotted around town.

Some of the author’s costs were covered by Visit Santa Barbara.

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