The Artisanal Eats, Local Wines and Old West Heritage of Los Alamos | KCET
The Artisanal Eats, Local Wines and Old West Heritage of Los Alamos
In only seven short blocks, Los Alamos captures the small town charm of the Old West while offering exceptional farm-to-table eateries and wines from the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley. Despite being just off the 101 freeway, close to well-tread food and wine destinations in Santa Barbara County, many travelers are unaware of this uniquely charming hideaway.
Once a stagecoach stop and home to the last standing Pacific Coast Railroad Station, the small town is now bustling with exciting new restaurants, wine tasting rooms, antique shops and accommodations with plenty of character and charm. Los Alamos has evolved quite a bit since Huell Howser stumbled upon the town back in 2003, so we’ve mapped out some of the best spots to eat, drink, sleep and explore in Los Alamos. And with Los Alamos Old Days -- an annual celebration of the town’s heritage with horseback parades, food and dancing, a vintage car show and more -- coming up on September 22-24, now is a great time to explore the area.
From Cattle Ranches to Stagecoaches
The Los Alamos Valley -- named after the Spanish word for “the cottonwoods,” which grow in the area -- was originally home to numerous Chumash villages. Many of the Chumash left the area at the turn of the 17th century, forced to construct La Purísima Mission in nearby Lompoc. Then in 1839, when Mexico ruled Alta California, Jose Antonio de la Guerra was given a land grant of 48,803 acres to develop what would become Rancho Los Alamos.
The estate would eventually become a popular stop on the El Camino Real between Santa Barbara and Monterey. By that time another settlement of Chumash members started a village in the Valley with many members working on Rancho Los Alamos, helping to raise cattle for hides and tallow. However, hundreds of Chumash would later die during outbreaks of smallpox and measles brought by Europeans during the first half of the 18th century, with an especially virulent strain moving through in the 1840s. The region continued to be a part of the thriving cattle boom of the time as California became part of the United States in 1850. But disastrous floods and droughts later that decade forced many rancheros to divide up and sell acres of land.
Then in 1868, a new chapter in the history of Los Alamos began. Dr. James Barron Shaw, acting on behalf of San Francisco financier Thomas Bell, arranged the purchase of 14,000 acres of Rancho Los Alamos for Bell’s son John and the same number of acres of neighboring La Laguna ranch for himself, according to the Santa Barbara Independent. In 1874, a stagecoach route was shifted to run through the Los Alamos Valley with the stage company building a stable and eatery for travelers. Shaw and Bell jumped at the opportunity by selling portions of their ranches to attract settlers, and allocated a half square mile from each of their estates to create the town of Los Alamos.
Los Alamos continued to grow as a town, and became particularly bustling when the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway reached the town in 1882. The railway connected the town to the coast, turning it into a busy hub for agricultural goods and by 1883, Los Alamos was home to around 450 people. But by 1887, the railway extended to nearby Los Olivos, rendering Los Alamos less vital. The railway continued to be used into the early 1940s, but by then the new, wider-gauge Southern Pacific Railroad bypassed Los Alamos and a shift to trucking made the route obsolete. In the 1960s, Highway 101 was rerouted, further isolating Los Alamos and, in a way, froze the town in time.
Los Alamos remains relatively quiet with its Old West charms and a population of about 1,800 people, some of whom you’ll likely see sporting a cowboy hat while driving a well-worn truck. But a new crop of restaurants, wine makers and others are breathing new life into the charming town. (Be sure to check the opening times and days of the restaurants and tasting rooms as many are closed during the week.)
Where To Eat
Full of Life Flatbread
Credited with helping to spark the recent wave of farm-to-table eateries in Los Alamos, Full of Life Flatbread opened in 2003 and serves incredible flatbread pizzas, small plates and salads with most ingredients sourced from local, sustainable farms. Owner Clark Staub built the massive, 200-ton beehive-shaped stone oven as the centerpiece to the wood-paneled dining room. There, a roaring wood fire quickly crisps nearly everything on the menu (save the salads), including favorites like the Central Coast Sausage flatbread with house-made pork and fennel sausage and smoke-dried tomatoes or one with local mozzarella and herbs from the garden. Try for a seat on the porch, order local wines, and get there early -- the restaurant is only open Thursday through Sunday, and always busy.
Bell Street Farm
You don’t want to miss the rotisserie chicken at Bell Street Farm -- incredibly tender and moist inside and perfectly crisp with black sesame seeds on the outside -- or the excellent porchetta, also from the same French oven. Both are available as a salad or sandwich. You’ll also find plenty of other great sandwiches on fresh bread with local ingredients, as well as salads, including one with warm triple cream goat cheese and butter lettuce. You could also pair some local wines with a cheese and charcuterie platter. Find a seat inside or on the back patio, or you may want to pack a picnic with a selection of deli salads, olives and a half or whole rotisserie chicken and take it to explore wine country. Bell Street Farm opened in 2011 inside of a 1916 bank building complete with tin ceiling where you’ll likely spot owner Jamie Gluck with his signature Stetson hat.
Bob’s Well Bread
Stopping for breakfast at this phenomenal bakery-café inside a former 1920s gas station is essential for any Los Alamos visit, just be sure to get there early as it gets busy. Opened by Sony executive-turned-baker Bob Oswaks, Bob’s Well Bread offers an excellent selection of organic, French-style pastries, including pain au chocolat, seasonal fruit and savory pastries and kouign-amann. You’ll also find a great menu of breakfast and lunch dishes, as well as grab-and-go sandwiches, long-fermented baguettes and densely delicious specialty loaves perfect for a wine picnic. Oswaks recalls falling for Los Alamos as a vacation destination with his wife in 2001, “It was a very different town, was very quiet. I like to say there was tumbleweeds going down the street, but it wasn't quite that quiet,” he says. “We just liked the vibe of being in the Valley. And we could come up and relax, and we had the whole Valley to go wine tasting in with our friends.” They were thrilled when Full of Life Flatbread opened, offering a chance to stay in town for dinner, and later, how their friend Jamie Gluck eventually opened Bell Street Farm after also buying a house in the area. Many of the eateries in town now feature Oswaks baked goods.
Plenty on Bell
Another excellent option for breakfast or lunch, Plenty on Bell opened in 2013 by owners Alec Roehl and Chef Jesper Johansson -- after Johansson had operated the popular-but-now-shuttered Café Quackenbush nearby. You’ll find excellent locally-sourced breakfast fare such as breakfast sandwiches, buttermilk pancakes and a short rib hash. At lunch, dig into the Zuni Cafe-inspired roast chicken and bread salad, a seasonal farro bowl or great sandwiches, that pair well with a great wine selection. You can also catch dinner on Fridays and frequent winemaker dinners on select Saturdays.
Opened in 2013 by chef/owner Conrad Gonzales, who built a strong following with his still-thriving catering business, Valle Fresh is a not-to-be-missed stop for next-level tacos and colorful tapas. Dig into “legit” tacos on house-made corn tortillas with local ingredients like the slow-braised pork belly with goat cheese and verde salsa, or the vegetarian with smoked local mushrooms, goat cheese and seasonal veggies. Also don’t miss the Spanish fried rice with smoked sweet corn, the battered Brussels with meyer lemon and romesco, or the smoked and fried wings. As an added bonus you can enjoy excellent local vintages from the adjoining Casa Dumetz Wines tasting room and local craft brews and hard-to-find international beers from Babi’s Beer Emporium.
The latest addition to Los Alamos’ top-notch dining options, Pico was opened last year by owners Will Henry and wife, Kali Kopley, featuring locally-sourced, upscale comfort far from chef/owner Drew Terp -- who has cooked in Michelin-starred kitchens across the globe. Look for exceptional locally-sourced, seasonal hits like the grilled cauliflower with dates and confit garlic, ricotta cavatelli with oxtail ragu and grilled lamb chops with polenta. There’s also a great selection of charcuterie and cheeses, which pair well with the excellent wine offerings, including local favorites like Lumen Wines from Will Henry and Lane Turner, and fantastic farm-fresh cocktails. Consider grabbing a seat on the back patio, where you can see the restaurant’s chickens roaming through the garden. Sunday nights you’ll catch Burger Night, where Chef Terp whips up some killer creations; live music Tuesdays and Thursdays, and periodic cooking classes open to the public. The next one is September 23, and will focus on “Preserves to Poultry” where you can learn how to breakdown, truss, smoke, confit and roast quail chicken and duck. First-come preference is given to those who are subscribed to Pico’s email list, and if there’s still space you can register by calling or emailing the restaurant. You can also visit their tasting room inside the restaurant earlier in the day to sample Lumen Wines and Nuclear Wines.
One of the first buildings in Los Alamos was the 1880 Union, built by local Wells Fargo agent J.D. Snyder in 1880 as a stagecoach station with lodging and a store. The building burned down in 1893, but was later rebuilt in 1915 as a hotel and saloon. In 1972, the owners renovated and restored the face to the original 1880 look, which lends plenty of vintage Western charm to the town. The building is rumored to be haunted, and both the interior and exterior were used in Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s music video for “Say, Say, Say” -- among other cameos. The hotel was recently renovated and is currently used for weddings and special events only, but the public can now dine and drink at the Saloon on the side of the building. Chef William Ouderkirk, whose impressive resume features California and international kitchens -- creates inventive spins on comfort classics. Don’t miss the house speciality of biscuits and gravy, the oak-smoked tri-tip sandwich, the Union burger, or the mac and cheese with garlic and panko crust. For weekend brunch, you’ll find great choices like the nachos desayuno, breakfast burrito and a fried cornish game hen with waffles.
Charlie’s Place, which also has a second location in San Luis Obispo, has been serving up Mexican fare, towering burgers and BBQ tri-tip in Los Alamos since 1978. It may not be the place for locally-sourced artisanal eats, but if you’re hankering for a big, hearty meal fit for a cowboy, this is your place. They also have a full bar, and those with a sweet tooth may want to order the Xango, a house specialty with cheesecake filling that’s wrapped and deep fried in a tortilla, rolled in cinnamon and sugar, then topped with ice cream, chocolate and powdered sugar.
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Where To Drink
Casa Dumetz Wines
Owned by winemaker Sonja Magdevski, the Casa Dumetz Wines tasting room should definitely be part of your itinerary. You’ll find a focus on small production -- they only make 1,000 cases a year -- Rhone varietals that use Santa Barbara County grapes, including the excellent Solid Ground, a Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre blend and a beautifully balanced Syrah rosé. There’s also a wonderful Gewürztraminer, inspired by Magdevski’s grandmother Babi “Ilinka” and the grapes that were grown near her village in Macedonia. The tasting room is bright and stylish, and a great place to linger for a tasting, especially with bites from Valle Fresh next door.
Babi’s Beer Emporium
Next door to the Casa Dumetz tasting room, you’ll find Babi’s Beer Emporium, also inspired by Magdevski’s grandmother. Belly up to the bar to find an impressive variety of craft beers on tap and in bottles and cans from stellar California brewers, as well as hard-to-find brews from around the country and abroad. You also may want to grab a bite from Valle Fresh with your beer and head to the charming side patio.
In the cozy tasting room of Frequency Wines, owned by winemaker Zac Wasserman, you’ll find a focus on Rhone Varietals from the boutique winery, including Syrah, Grenache and Pinot Noir. The tasting room opened in 2014, and they produce around 800 cases a year. You’ll also definitely want to try their Artist’s Series, an annual production that features artwork from artist friends with the originals showcased in the tasting room.
At winemaker Stephen Bedford’s tasting room, you’ll find wines that are almost entirely 100% varietal with the goal of fully expressing the terroir and the grape. At the Bedford Winery tasting room, you’ll find his signature Syrahs and barrel fermented Chardonnays, but be sure to sample some of his limited edition wines, which often explore lesser-known or forgotten varietals. In addition to being an excellent and knowledgeable winemaker, Bedford may also wax poetic on everything from history and cooking, to gardening and cooking and baseball. He also frequently hosts special events at the tasting room and back courtyard, including a live radio dinner show, a wild mushroom event with food and wine pairings and more.
Owned by winemaker Dave Potter, Municipal Winemakers’ tasting room is tucked inside a charming little building in front of the Alamo Motel. There you’ll find a wide variety of refreshingly approachable wines from specialty vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Chenin Blanc, Grenache, as well as a new sparkling white known as Mubbly that comes in two packs, perfect for picnics. The wines are inspired by the winemakers’ travels throughout Australia, California and France and each of the bottles features fun and modern artwork by illustrator Kate Bingaman-Burt. They also have a tasting room in Santa Barbara.
Where To Stay
The Victorian Mansion
The beautiful, recently-renovated Victorian Mansion, originally built in 1864, holds exciting surprises inside for guests. Each of the six plush suites offer a playful and highly-detailed theme, including a Pirate ship, an Egyptian hideaway and a 1950s drive-in complete a bed made from a ’56 Cadillac convertible. They all include a bottle of local wine, an in-room tub for two, a fireplace, hidden bathrooms, hand-painted murals, a collection of themed music and movies (plus "Sideways," of course), breakfast delivered through a secret compartment and plenty more secrets. There’s even a vintage boat in the back garden, which will is in the process of being restored to create another suite. Staying at The Vick, as it’s locally known, is a whole lot of fun, and while it’s reminiscent of The Madonna Inn, with fewer themed rooms here there is way more attention to detail in each one.
The Alamo Motel
This completely redesigned 50s-era motel, features 21 rooms inspired by the rustic minimalism of Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved Abiquiu residence in New Mexico. Inside each stylishly appointed room of The Alamo Motel -- operated by the Shelter Social Club -- you’ll find plenty of natural woods, woven blankets, record players with LPs, original animal-themed artwork and the occasional bleached cow skull. The king suite features a living room, kitchen and patio; there’s a queen suite with a beautiful clawfoot tub; a family suite with two rooms and a kitchen; in addition to standard size rooms. Outside you’ll find a firepit with chairs and the Municipal Winemakers tasting rooms.
Skyview Los Alamos
Slated to open in December 2017, the renovated Skyview Los Alamos will offer 34 rooms, a full service restaurant, spa, gardens, a pool and two acres of grapevines. The restoration has been ongoing for about a year now, and aims to offer an intimate and upscale lodging, while also drawing on the historic and country roots of Los Alamos.
Where To Shop
Sisters Gifts and Home
Tucked inside the oldest home in Los Alamos, Sisters Gifts and Home is owned by Ana Lomeli Curiel who recently moved her business into the historic building. Throughout the multiple rooms and backyard of the building, you’ll find an eclectic and thoughtfully curated selection from six antique vendors and two local artists -- all women, hence “Sisters” -- including artist Carol Wood Jackson, and Madeleine Jex, who moved her store, The Gentleman Farmer, into the building.
Los Alamos Depot Mall
One of the first sights you’ll see as you drive into Los Alamos along Bell Street, the Los Alamos Depot Mall is full of antiques and is also the last standing Pacific Coast Railroad Station. The sprawling, multi-room space showcases vintage goodies from over 60 antique vendors, including everything from toys and home goods to furniture. They even have a wine bar and a lounge for those looking to take a break from shopping.
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