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:
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.
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.
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.)
Have you ever been to Los Alamos? Where’s your favorite place to travel for food and wine? Tell us in the comments below!