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For decades Buellton in north Santa Barbara County was the place where families stopped at Anderson’s for its signature pea soup on their way to somewhere else. Now the community—aligning sleepy Route 246 that bisects Highway 101—boasts gourmet food and wine tasting tucked in among the vintage motels and newer retail complexes. And a popular gathering place shuttered for 20 years has been reborn as a connoisseur-level restaurant and inn.

For Chelsea Rushing purchasing the property at Zaca Creek where Jim Buell had built his iconic restaurant and dance hall was sinking her roots even deeper into her hometown. As she and husband Stephen Villa, a longtime winemaker at Fiddlehead Cellars, reimagined the site they envisioned a one-of-a-kind wedding destination. Then the pandemic arrived. They were already well into construction of a restaurant—the Tavern—with a covered terrace and adjoining hotel suites (reached by contactless entry), which have pivoted seamlessly into the new world.

Zaca Creek (Danielle Honea Photography)

At the Tavern the Wagyu beef—featured as a tartare with a chipotle aioli in the fall and transformed into a carpaccio for the winter—is a standout. It’s a paragon of sustainability, hailing from the nearby ranch of Luke Branquinho, five-time world steer wrestling champion. Diners can also choose from a host of Wagyu steaks and ribs butchered daily (no shipping fatigue here) or sample the beef in the extraordinary steak sandwich served at lunch.

That the Tavern adjoins six suites—the walls clad in a comforting stone and the bathrooms outfitted with spa tubs—invites a deep dive into Villa’s breathtaking spirits list, especially once the rooms open to the public later this month. The array of bourbon and whiskey (including Japanese and Taiwanese producers) is matched only by the breadth of the tequila and mezcal offerings. For the adventurous, Villa has curated several mezcal and whiskey flights, as well as one for fernet, an amaro that’s largely underappreciated in the U.S.

There couldn’t be a more comforting time to visit this central coast locale: the hills are cloaked in spun gold and the skies soften to an embraceable blue each fall. It’s also a short car trip away for Angelenos seeking relief from urban heat spells or sooty air or gloomy fog—or just busting loose from the confines of four walls. Outdoor dining and wine tasting are de rigueur here throughout the year, but with Santa Barbara County currently enjoying red tier status, there’s also an indoor port, so to speak, in the event of a storm.

Courtesy God’s Country Provisions

The rich confections at Enjoy Cupcakes were highlights of the Santa Barbara Public Market, fashioned after San Francisco’s Ferry Building and, as an indoor collection of vendors, one of the first casualties of the pandemic. Owners Kevin and Amber Vander Vliet have pivoted brilliantly at their bakery in Buellton, transitioning to Enjoy Bagels & Sweets, Kevin’s crusty bagels the best we’ve had west of the Mississippi. The breakfast sandwiches are sumptuous, from the olive schmear and smoked salmon (with a clever addition of cucumber slices) in the Goldie Lox to the myriad flavors of the “burrito”: beef al pastor with a jalapeno salsa schmear, black bean corn salsa, grilled pineapple and two types of cheese.

Loren Ollenburger had been working in finance in Orange County when he made his own personal pivot in 2017, moving his family north and helping found God’s Country Provisions, which includes a craft lemonade (the juice hails from Ventura County orchards) that’s on the menu at Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos and served from a giant mobile lemon parked in Los Olivos on weekends. Where the former executive has gone big, at least for those with sweet teeth, is with the artisan creations at a donut shop in Buellton that dips heavily into the area’s seasonal largesse. Like the pomegranate seeds on a perfect chocolate donut in the fall or the maple bacon, a fan favorite.

We miss the communal tables at Industrial Eats but the menu is still scrawled on butcher paper and might include the smoked pheasant salad or an excellent pizza with housemade fennel sausage. The restaurant is the culmination of a following that developed for Jeff and Janet Olsson and their New West Catering, which taps into the extraordinary farm-to-table offerings in the region (Jimenez Family Farms, Valley Piggery, Sea Stephanie Fish, among many others). These days diners place their orders inside the restaurant, then head out to tables on lawns by the parking lot.

Courtesy Industrial Eats

Frank Ostini kept the fires burning at the Hitching Post in the pandemic’s wake, offering a pared-down takeout menu. For his next act he unfolded a special-events tent (which his wife had providentially purchased years before) in a scenic corner of his property for sit-down dinner service. The tent abuts his open-air HP2, which turns out luncheon fare at picnic tables with a bird’s-eye view of Ostrichland. We’re huge fans of the grilled artichoke and the double fries and just about anything that comes off the Santa Maria-style barbecue manned by this pioneer winemaker, the food delivered to the tables from hotboxes mounted on the back of oversize trikes.

Frank Ostini at The Hitching Post (Rob Stark Photography)

The western end of Route 246 is home to some of the region’s most celebrated and historic wineries, such as the eponymous Babcock (Brian) and Melville (Chad). Not to be missed is Pence Vineyards & Winery, where tasting stations are set up at scenic sites throughout the property, beautifully landscaped with native plants and featuring a duck pond and gently sloping canyon. The winemaker here is Sashi Moorman, who helped put Stolpman (with tasting rooms in Los Olivos and Solvang) on the wine map. Tastings are by appointment though the vineyard will take walk-ins as spacing allows. The winery is one of the few producing a Gamay and turns out a Syrah with an interesting hint of the native laurel.