From frosty beer & NY pie to organic salad – Santa Barbara, a town of contrasts…

Many places on this beautiful planet are well-known for a particular culinary style. Whether this descends from the people who live there now or the historical & geographical references of a specific locale, there’s often one dish or type of food that you can be guaranteed to find. So far on the trip we’ve had amazing re-inventions of classic dishes in Seattle, street food to mow down your own best friend to get to in Portland and a burrito that was a credit to it’s south-of-the-border roots in San Francisco.

Now here’s the thing about Santa Barbara…after 24 hours in this college-student-come-eye-wateringly-rich-residents town, I have no idea what it’s traditional or local food is because, frankly, you can get whatever you want, pretty much whenever you want it. That’s true of lots of places you might say and yes, to a point it is, but even in places like London, New York & Paris where the food offerings are diverse, there is also something in each place to call a culinary trademark. Here in this pretty Spanish Colonial styled town, we dined twice, we dined well and we dined in two places that could not be more varied in their menu, their environment and their specialties.

Let’s start with the one we all have a craving for now and then…pizza. I’m not talking one you pop in the oven on a Friday night and watch hungrily through the glass fronted doors as cheese bubbles & makes a break for freedom over the side of your baking tray. I’m not even talking the really naughty one that you order from Papa John’s when nothing but a hot, crispy, doughy, cheese smothered disc of deliciousness will do. I’m talking New York style pizza – a vast expanse of thin crust (unlike its chubby Chicago cousin) which is coated with the ripest, sweetest tomato sauce and smothered with creamy mozzarella. I’m talking Uncle Rocco’s NY Pizzeria on State St.

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Allow me to set the scene; we’d been driving all afternoon and well into the evening and by the time we ventured out, it was close to 8pm. I’m not exaggerating when I say that our feet were tired, our bones were weary, our stomachs were empty and frankly, the first place we found that looked like it might serve something edible? That was going to be the one we stopped at. You can see the expansive, foodie criteria we were using here obviously…

Uncle Rocco’s was warm & brightly lit. It smelt cheesy & inviting. It had a sign in the window that said all beers were $3. Well, it might as well have been called heaven on a plate to these two hungry diners. As we tried to casually look inside, what can only be described as a total dude stood outside and assured us that if we were looking for the best New York style pizza, we’d come to the right place. Transplanted from Boston he was. In love with Unlce Rocco’s he was. Stop writing like Yoda now I will…

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So let’s cut to the chase – there’s no standing on ceremony here. The tablecloths were plastic & red checked & I loved them. The beers were cold & served in frozen tankards & I loved them. The staff were laid back & friendly & patient & I, well, despite what you think, I need more from a man than pizza before I declare my love for him, but I certainly liked them very much.

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And the pizza? I could not have loved anything at that moment more. I felt like I was in every NYC located film I’ve ever seen, like I was the fourth at the table when Ross, Chandler & Joey discuss the first kiss of the Ross & Rachel marathon, like I was eating a piece of history. Now don’t get me wrong – I do realise that I wasn’t actually in New York but you know what? Half the joy or sorrow from dining comes in the food, the other half in the experience and this place delivered massively on both counts. We were eating a pizza named ‘The Godfather’ for heaven’s sake, what more would you expect?

Said pizza was hot and fresh and at $19.95 for a 12″ medium, I have nothing to compare it to except to say that the platter was wiped clean and we were both left feeling full & super satisfied but not weighed down with dough. The cheese was every bit as stringily gorgeous as pizza cheese should be with meatballs, sausage & pepperoni lovingly cuddled by sweet roasted peppers and crunchy red onions. J and I are both Parmesanaholics so every slice was liberally doused with the stuff and I honestly can’t tell you how quickly this epic meal disappeared. All I can say is that the sound of silence emanated from our booth, permeated only by the rustly grabbing of napkins to wipe perfectly greasy fingers and the satisfying clunk on the table of drained tankards.

If you don’t want to get dressed up and you don’t want to spend a fortune and you don’t want to be in an environment so quiet & hushed it feels more like the local monastery than anything else and if you do want hot, tasty, reasonably priced slices of a pie straight outta the Big Apple, then pull up a stool, order a beer & prepare to get happy.

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It’s amazing the difference good food and a hefty amount of sleep can make to your general well-being. Having had both, the next morning was spent exploring Santa Barbara on possibly the most touristy thing we’d done so far – get the map book and hang those binoculars round your neck please because it was all aboard a trolley tour that was, in equal parts, interesting, cute, fun & err, a tad embarassing.

Y’know those people you see on the open topped buses, simultaneously craning their necks and trying not to look obvious? Hi! That was us! Generally we like exploring a place on our own but really, when you literally have 5 or 6 hours to try and get an snapshot of life in a new town, that’s not always possible or practical. Still when you’re shown things as breath-takingly beautiful as the Mission or any number of so-cute-it-feels-like-Disneyland courtyards, you can’t complain.

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Whereas dinner the previous night had been the epitome of spontaneity, lunch had been planned ever since I saw an episode of Triple D. For the innocent & unknowing among you, that dear readers, is ‘Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives’, an Emmy nominated staple of both the Food Network and my own viewing pleasure since 2007 – the first episode was actually broadcast on my birthday which I take as a sign, don’t ask me of what, just nod and agree please.

Legendary host Guy Fieri spends more time thinking about food than even I do which is saying something and he’s made it his mission for the past 7 years to travel the length & breadth of America, sampling all things local, imported, traditional, re-invented and delicious, and generally making the viewing population extremely jealous & hungry.

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The difference between the Savoy Deli & Cafe and most other establishments visited by the spiky-haired-platinum-alpha-male himself is that this place isn’t known for burgers the size of your head, hot dogs that dwarf your actual dog or stuff that’s been fried more times than an ageing California housewife. Owners of diners, drive-ins & dives, please don’t get angry here & threaten me with a pickle – I’m not suggesting that’s the only kind of food you serve but let’s be honest, you’re not generally known for your quinoa salads…

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…but here at the Savoy, that’s exactly what they’re known for. Healthy, organic, locally sourced products that both herbivores and full-blown carnivores love. Hands down, this is the kind of place I could move into. I’d never be bored with the menu. I’d never eat the same thing twice. I could convince myself that doorstop sized wedges of cake were good for me because they’re vegan. Oh, we’d be so happy together, the Savoy and I.

It was also exactly the kind of place serving exactly the kind of food J and I were after as we’d been craving a plate of something green and crunchy that was going to do all kinds of wonderful things to our delicious-pizza-covered insides. Santa Barbara’s favourite salad bar was absolutely going to come to our rescue here…

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…and it did with wild rice & chicken, mango quinoa salad and blueberry kale. It was literally a rainbow of goodness – were Academy Awards handed out for ‘Best Salad’, I’d mount the sort of campaign for The Savoy that would make Harvey Weinstein shed a little tear. It was simply beautiful – fresh and tangy and earthy and well seasoned and this was a mere trinity of the salads laid across a bar that spread the length of half the restaurant.

If you wanted hot food, you could have it. Cold? Sure. Salads, sandwiches, soups, baked goods, DIY takeout boxes – if you’re after something that feels & taste so good going in you feel worthy of a medal yourself, you’ll find it here. Add in friendly staff, ridiculously reasonable prices – the plate above was less than $10 – a light, airy, peaceful atmosphere and the bonus that it was situated a little off the well-worn-by-tourists-track and I really count the Savoy as an edible highlight of the trip so far.

I’m honestly not 100% sure if I need to go back to Santa Barbara – I mean ok, if I really tried I could live in Montecito in a $50m house like Oprah and yeah, at a push I could handle the palm trees & golden sands but it’s a funny little town that doesn’t quite seem to know if it’s a student party zone or a second home destination for the older generation. Designer boutiques sit alongside surf shops and wheatgrass touting cafes vie with sports bars for your custom.  I like variety but I also like to know what the feel of a place is and Santa Barbara itself is just one of those places I can’t quite get a handle on. For some, that will be it’s charm but not for me. That said, I would crawl back for the chance to eat again and again at the Savoy so maybe one day you will see me in Montecito…

…I’ll probably be on one of those damn trolley tours again.

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