Caroline's Country Guide To The Santa Ynez Valley
Since I’ve shared some of my favorite places in Upstate NY and Santa Barbara, I thought I’d also share some gems in the Santa Ynez Valley. One of the perks of living in Santa Barbara is that we are just a short drive over the mountains to the valley. When Jeffrey and I are in need of a quick trip, we love to head north to explore our local wine country, try the cuisine and soak in the breathtaking views. I love the mix of old, western history and contemporary establishments with quality offerings – it makes for a vibrant experience. And with lower temperatures, fall is one of the best times of year to visit, so here is my guide featuring our favorite places to eat, drink and play in the Santa Ynez Valley.
FAVORITE PIZZA JOINT
While not technically located in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos is just a short drive north of Los Olivos and filled with some of the regions best restaurants. Our favorite spot that we visit when we're in the area is Full of Life Flatbread. A production bakery turned restaurant on the weekend, this artisanal wood-fired pizza place uses fresh, local ingredients to create delicious organic pizzas in their stone hearth. Choose from one of their classics (we love the Mushroom and Caramelized Onion Flatbread), or opt for a seasonal special – you can’t go wrong. And save room for dessert.
Recently awarded a Michelin star and quickly becoming a culinary destination all of its own, Bell’s Restaurant in Los Alamos is on the top of my list to visit. A family-run, French-inspired bistro, this popular spot sources ingredients from local farms and ranches and features an award-winning wine list. Owners, Daisy and Greg Ryan worked for dining institutions like Gramercy Tavern and Per Se in New York (which I love) before returning to the Central Coast to open Bell’s, and most recently, sister restaurant Bar Le Côté in Los Olivos.
WHERE TO STAY
We live close enough to the Santa Ynez Valley that taking a day trip has always been easy. But after seeing renovations of the historic Inn At Mattei's Tavern, I've officially added a weekend stay to my list. This property dates back to 1886 when the tavern was used as a stagecoach stop, and the 19th century water tower still stands as a landmark for both locals and visitors. In February 2023, it will officially open to feature 67 rooms stretching 6.5 acres, where historic architecture meets modern comfort.
A drive through Santa Ynez Valley wine country is equal parts beautiful, and overwhelming. There are so many wineries to visit and it’s hard to know which ones are worth a stop. I’m a sucker for sipping wine amongst beautiful scenery, so a stop at Brave & Maiden is a must. Located off of Highway 246 between Santa Ynez and Solvang, this winery boasts a personal wine experience with tastings by appointment only. They have a limited production of wines made right on the property, which is sustainably grown and meticulously crafted. Enjoy sips of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rosé.
BEST WINE TASTING ROOM
If you're spending an afternoon wine tasting in downtown Los Olivos, the options are abundant. I recently discovered Story of Soil Wine, a small woman-run operation that sources grapes from quality vineyards and uses minimal interventions to let the flavors really shine. They pour a variety of wines, from Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé to Pinot Noir and Syrah.
FAVORITE LOCAL HIKE
Known for its hillside of poppies in the spring, Grass Mountain is just as beautiful in the fall. Jeffrey and I love to take a drive up Figueroa Mountain Road located near the town of Los Olivos, and if you’re in the mood for a fairly challenging hike, the Grass Mountain Trail is 5.2 miles out and back and finishes with an intense incline with breathtaking views. Walking some of the Grass Mountain trail is just as enjoyable, plus Nala loves it too.
BEST LOCAL FARMSTAND
Before heading back to Santa Barbara, we like to stop by family-run Finley Farmstand. Located in Santa Ynez, off of Refugio Road, this organic honor stand is bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables. Currently, you will find the last of the blackberries and tomatoes, fresh lettuces, squash, peppers and the start of winter greens. First generation farmers, Johanna and Chris Finley farm over 60 acres in the valley and sell their produce at the farmer’s market, the farm stand and to local restaurants.
For fresh bread, pastries and a delicious breakfast, our favorite spot is Bob’s Well Bread. And with a line out the door, we always know it’s going to be good. Executive-turned-baker, Bob Oswaks and his wife, Jane turned an old 1920’s gas station in Los Alamos into a bakery and café in 2013, and since have expanded with a second location in the sleepy town of Ballard. Delicious artisan baked goods are created using the finest local and seasonal ingredients, and are worth the trip to the valley.
BEST CUP OF COFFEE
For a seriously good cup of coffee, visit the newly opened Queen Cup Coffee in Santa Ynez. Husband and wife team, Skyler & Alyce Barrick opened Queen Cup in 2020 with the goal of bringing ethically-sourced products and well-crafted coffee to the region. From a classic espresso to a matcha latte and seasonally-inspired drinks like The Basic B(ee), there's a beverage for every taste bud.
FAVORITE DANISH BAKERY
Nestled in the heart of Solvang, Mortensen’s Danish Bakery is a must when driving through town. This quaint bakery and café is still run by its original owners of over 40 years, using old world recipes from Ove Mortensen, a Danish baker from Copenhagen, Denmark. Only the finest ingredient are used to create authentic buttery-rich pastries, from shortbread cookies and napoleons to chocolate eclairs and florentines.
It's such a treat to have the rolling mountains, valley and sea all within driving distance of our home in Santa Barbara. The Santa Ynez Valley is a special place, and whilst it continues to grow and change, there is still so much authenticity that remains. I look forward to many more visits and hope these suggestions can help guide any first time visitors.
Sending lots of love,
Photos Courtesy (top to bottom): Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Full of Life Flatbread, Bell's Restaurant, The Inn at Mattei's Tavern, Brave & Maiden, Wander and Wine, Noozhawk, Foursquare, Finley Farms, Bob's Well Bread, Queen Cup Coffee, Mortensen's Danish Bakery
Love this article. Thanks so much for sharing!