The old and new come together in the Santa Maria Valley.
Head northwest from Santa Barbara to the vineyards, farmland, and hills rolling downward from the Santa Lucia Mountains and there — although it’s easy to drive right past and miss it — waits the town of Santa Maria. Although it’s lined with chain businesses and strip malls, just a little digging reveals the surrounding valley’s unique joys.
This region is famed for its historic tri-tip-centric barbecue, a style created during the 19th century by local ranchers in which meat is slow-roasted over native red oak fire, then served with sides of pinquito beans, salad, and salsa.
Agriculture remains the region’s key economy: Just inland from the coast, its farm life and varied terrain feel like the heartbeat of this state that grows a majority of the produce sold nationwide. Hotels here are dated and few — at least The Historic Santa Maria Inn has a sense of place — but the region’s gems are many. A weekend here is relaxed and restorative.
Going classic, it doesn’t get better than the Hitching Post, tucked amid the hills of Casmalia. Buellton’s Hitching Post II is its more-famous sister location, having appeared in the film Sideways, but this original locale — owned by the Ostini family since 1952 — is pure Old West charm, serving the ultimate example of Santa Maria-style barbecue. Aged beef is cooked to perfection by gracious chefs/brothers Paul and Louis, as is everything from white quail to fish. Don’t miss this restaurant’s grilled local artichokes or a walk through its quirky back garden.
Gracing Nipomo since 1926, Jocko’s Steakhouse is another Santa Maria barbecue charmer. You won’t find quite the same perfection on the plate, although you’ll get warm service and heartwarming traditional fare.
On the new-school side, Orcutt’s appealing main street is on the rise. Pizzeria Bello Forno is the town’s pizza destination, serving the likes of cherry-fennel sausage pizza and highlighting local winemakers such as Clarissa Nagy. Orcutt’s Naughty Oak Brewing Company is a low-key gathering place for young families and singles over beer — such as its mango blonde and hibiscus kettle sour — and fun events such as cornhole tournaments. Neighboring wine bar Vino et Amicis smartly offers small pours of local wines so that you can try more of whatever you like best.
In a region that lacks quality third-wave coffee, one of the only decent options is Orcutt’s sunny Cubanissimo Cuban Coffee House & Cafe, which serves cafecito island-style.
One of the most picturesque wineries in all of SoCal is Presqu’ile, a multigenerational family outfit with Louisiana roots. The seating for its concert series overlooks expansive vineyards; listen as you sip pinot noir, lush syrah, crisp sauvignon blanc, or chardonnay.
A little further south, the town of Los Alamos is a hip haven enjoying a food and drink renaissance, including what is easily the region’s best bakery: Bob’s Well Bread, opened by former Hollywood studio executive Bob Oswaks, who studied breadmaking in San Francisco. Bob’s is so popular that Oswaks is opening a second bakery in Ballard.
Historic 1880 Union Saloon is one of Los Alamos’ only spots for “craft” and classic cocktails, yet its service can be so spotty that you might prefer neighboring Pico, a chic general store, restaurant, and wine/cocktail bar distinguished by friendly staff and house charcuterie. Down the street, the pleasant tunes and enclosed, tree-lined yard of wine bar Bodega make it one of the region’s nicest places to linger, especially given its savvy natural, organic wine list.
Fresh and hip or classic and comforting, all of the above await you, hidden amid the gentle farmland of the Santa Maria Valley.
When You Go
The Historic Santa Maria Inn: 801 S. Broadway, Santa Maria, 805-928-7777, SantaMariaInn.com
The Hitching Post: 3325 Point Sal Rd., Casmalia, 805-937-6151, HitchingPost1.com
Naughty Oak Brewing Company: 165 Broadway St., No. 102, Orcutt, 805-287-9663, NaughtyOak.com
Bob’s Well Bread Bakery: 550 Bel St., Los Alamos, 805-344-3000, BobsWellbread.com