When I tell people that I’m taking a trip to Los Alamos, they respond in one of two ways: Either they have never heard of it or they assume I mean Los Alamos, New Mexico (infamous for its national laboratory and the Manhattan Project). I’m always thrilled to introduce them to Los Alamos, California, a small town 45 miles northwest of Santa Barbara that just so happens to be one of the best places to visit if you love food and wine.
Not that long ago, Los Alamos was nothing more than a sleepy exit off Route 101 that you’d miss if you blinked while driving by. But something interesting has been going on in recent years. A happy mix of young entrepreneurs and established creatives has moved in and they are thoughtfully reimagining, renovating, and redesigning everything, bringing in fresh new ideas without losing any of the small town charm. Come for the unpretentious cowboy-winemaker vibes, and stay (in a beautifully restored motel room) for the award-winning restaurants. Los Alamos has transformed from a stumble-upon town into a worthy destination.
Pack your bags, we’re going on an adventure to “Little L.A.,” as the locals have dubbed it:
How to Get There
Los Alamos used to be a stagecoach stop. Part of the pleasure in visiting today is arriving by car, because the drive into town—whether you’re coming from the north or the south—is Central California wine country at its most scenic: rolling hillside vineyards as far as the eye can see. From Los Angeles, plan for two hours of driving. From San Francisco, it’s about a 4-hour road trip.
When to Go
Most of the restaurants and shops in Los Alamos are closed mid-week (usually on Tuesdays and Wednesdays), so it’s best to visit on the weekend.
Where to Stay
The Skyview Motel: Perched on the hill overlooking town, this 1950s-era motor lodge reopened in April after a 2-year, multi-million-dollar renovation. The property’s pleasing midcentury bones remain intact and the iconic yellow-and-black “MOTEL” sign still greets visitors, but now the 33 modernized guest rooms feature hardwood floors, painted shiplap walls, and thoughtful amenities like Pendleton blankets, Tivoli radios, and Fable Soap Co. bath products. There’s also a heated pool, a New American restaurant called Norman, a succulent-framed courtyard with cozy firepits, and a fleet of bright orange Linus bikes for guests to ride.
The Alamo Motel: Another 1950s relic lovingly remodeled, this time by the cool kids from Shelter Social Club, with décor inspired by the rustic minimalism of Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico home. Many of the 21 guest rooms have a clawfoot soaking tub, and rates start at a reasonable $99 per night.
Bob’s Well Bread Cottages: If you’d rather have a little more space to stretch out, you can rent (via AirBnb) one of the two cottages situated behind Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. Your stay includes a complimentary coffee and pastry for breakfast at the bakery, a major perk for fans of kouign-amann, croissant, and pain au chocolat.
Bell’s: Opened in March by husband-and-wife duo (and acclaimed New York restaurant Per Se alums) Greg and Daisy Ryan, Bell’s has an enviable wine list and serves French bistro-inspired classics, all with a distinct California twist—dishes like caper-studded steak tartare, frisée salad with bacon and Point Reyes blue cheese, and a chicken salad sandwich that comes with delicious housemade pickles. Try the much-loved French dip sandwich at lunch and the moules frites or gnocchi with sauce fonduta for dinner.
Bell’s is the kind of restaurant that I’d very much like to dine in every week if I could. Greg and Daisy greet regulars with the same warmth usually reserved for family, and it’s easy to see why so many local winemakers stop by for a bite to eat. Do not miss the rotating selection of spectacular desserts baked by Sarah Williams. They are all delicious, but her gâteau Breton, a buttery shortbread-like cake, is better than anything on this side of the Atlantic, and especially tasty with a cup of coffee. (Full disclosure: My husband designed the brand identity for Bell’s.)
Bob’s Well Bread Bakery: Owner and former Sony marketing executive Bob Oswaks started selling his artisan breads in 2014 in a space that used to be a filling station. It now houses a custom-made oven that turns out perfectly flaky pastries for crowds that eagerly line up in the morning. Come early and be prepared to wait a while (it’s worth it). Bob’s also offers an all-day breakfast and lunch menu and various beverages, including Stumptown coffee.
Full of Life Flatbread: The burgeoning Los Alamos food scene can trace its roots to around the time Clark Staub opened this local ingredient-focused restaurant. In the center of the dining room sits a 20-ton wood-fired oven that was blessed on its first lighting by local Chumash elders. Try an inventive flatbread like shaman’s bread, which comes topped with charred red onions and flax seeds among other ingredients. Or, you can’t go wrong with a classic like (nitrate-free) pepperoni and peppers.
Bodega: Newly opened Bodega is an idyllic alfresco place to sip some wine. Kick back in one of the garden chairs, try your hand at a game of bocce, or browse the curated items for sale in the greenhouse and small shop.
Municipal Winemakers: If you’re staying at the Alamo Motel, then you’re in luck—this wine tasting hut is smack dab in the middle of the parking lot. Buy a bottle to bring back to your room (they’ll loan you a set of fancy wine glasses). You can also hang out by the communal firepit or on the tree swing.
Babi’s Beer Emporium: For a change of pace from wine, how about tasting a beer? Babi’s has excellent local beer on tap as well as a whole wall of bottled brews, most of which are unusual and hard to find elsewhere.
To sample some local wines, stop by the Lo-Fi tasting room. Owners (and lifelong friends) Craig Winchester and Mike Roth often have vinyl spinning on the turntable during tastings. They believe in and exclusively produce low-alcohol, natural wines that are meant for everyday drinking, not collecting. If you aren’t super familiar with this style of wine, the $15 tasting of five or six wines is a fantastic introduction.
You might also like to taste and buy wine down the street at Casa Dumetz, run by journalist-turned-winemaker Sonja Magdevski. Cross your fingers and ask for Feminist Party, a red wine blend of locally grown Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Graciano. She produced only one hundred cases of it in 2017.
Maria Zizka is a cookbook writer and recipe developer who has collaborated with leading chefs, including Elisabeth Prueitt, Jessica Koslow, and Suzanne Goin. She has co-authored numerous award-winning cookbooks, most recently Tartine All Day, Everything I Want to Eat, and This Is Camino. Her first solo cookbook, THE NEWLYWED TABLE, will be published on April 2, 2019.