Whether it’s just a drive away or a airplane trip, Santa Barbara is one of California’s ideal vacation spots. And not just the charming city proper. The amusing, kitsch-loaded, family-friendly, somewhat bizarre town of Solvang is just a short drive up the 101, and most exciting to some of us, it’s located smack in the middle of Santa Barbara County wine country. The primary obvious destination for kids is the landmark restaurant that dominates the Buellton/Solvang exit and is dedicated to one food item; if you’ve ever road tripped through California, with or without kids, chances are you’ve stopped at a Pea Soup Andersen’s. We all love spotting Hap-Pea and Pee-Wee from the highway. But in addition to this obvious choice and the Danish-style bakeries that occupy just about every other storefront in Solvang, this is a wonderful area for restaurants that show off local ingredients and culinary customs, and welcome families.
The Hitching Post in Buellton is the locally famous restaurant that suddenly became nationally known, thanks to a certain movie. Admittedly the relentless Sideways references can become tiresome in Santa Barbara County wine territory, but Santa Ynez and Co. deserves to enjoy the pop culture recognition, along with the related economic boost. So…do you love high quality steak? In this case, grilled over red oak in the Santa Maria tradition and overseen by grillmaster Frank Ostini. Enjoy terrific Pinots that capture the region’s terroir? How about amazing service and super friendly waitresses? Care for a restaurant that’s about the food and people, with zero pretension and airs (unless you count the film stills on display)? And what about a full kid’s meal with chicken or excellent steak for $8.95?
Then seriously, there’s nothing NOT to love at the Hitching Post II. The Rolling Hills Garden Center next door offers outdoor distractions at the if needed, and you’ll see the residents of OstrichLand strolling around their territory on your way back to Solvang (if you’re staying that way). Next on the agenda someday: Hitching Post Casmalia and Full of Life Flatbread, but the latter place involves risky waiting lists and limited hours. While we’re daydreaming, FYI Frank Ostini will leading a BBQ Bootcamp at the lovely Alisal Ranch ranch this October.
406 East Highway 246, Buellton; (805) 688-0676
This is yet another hardly off-the-radar restaurant, especially if you’ve been to the area and/or seen Sideways. I typically raise a skeptical eyebrow at any menu that gets too widely interpretive and broad with a “California cuisine” theme. Some dishes don’t work, and a ragù tasted more like cooked tomatoes with ground meat added rather than a fully integrated, long-simmered sauce. And yet I got into the spirit and enjoyed a busy spinach gnocchi special with pea shoots, canellini beans, a few ribbons of roasted peppers coated in a light cream sauce. Terrific burger, too, and portions are generous enough to share. The attached wine shop’s extensive local selection is perfect for picking up bottles of any producers whose wineries or tasting rooms you might not be able to get to in person.
2879 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; (805) 688-7265
The classic Solvang institution is all about the solid greasy breakfasts, endless cups of diner coffee to help relieve any hangovers ONE of you might have (note not both, just ONE, right?), and that signature Danish treat of Solvang, aebleskivers. Alternately, just walk up to the window on Copenhagen Street and get some of the round pancake balls to go. Because when in Solvang, you should try them, but one serving coated in the overly sticky sweet Bedstemor’s raspberry jam should be enough to satisfy your group.
1672 Copenhagen Drive, Solvang; (805) 688-4645
While not included on the agenda of our last trip, we’ve been to the character-loaded Brothers Restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern that dates back to the 19th century in Los Olivos. Also highly recommended for Central Coast hearty fare (but definitely not cheap). The maps and photographs displayed on the walls of the restaurant, plus touches of an old bordello aesthetic, hint at the historic intrigue contained within the rambling restaurant’s walls. There’s even transportation history involved! Mature trees on this property have a particularly magical way of conducting the light. The Wicker Room is a perfect place to sit over a sunny meal or watch day slip into night, with ample space between tables to fit whatever sized group you’re managing.
2350 Railway Ave., Los Olivos; (805) 688-4820