Cream of the Carp: A day in Carpinteria
Carpinteria may just be one of California’s best kept secrets. Join Kerstin Kuhn as she explores the best of one of our favorite little beach towns along the Central Coast.
By Kerstin Kuhn
If there’s one thing California is renowned for across the globe, it’s the iconic coastline and laid-back beach lifestyle. From the rugged beauty of the Northern Coast to the legendary surf breaks of Southern California, our Golden State is a treasure trove of seaside attractions with dramatic cliffs, pristine beaches, and enchanting little beach towns dotted along the way.
But not all places are made equal. While tourist hubs like Monterey, Big Sur, and Santa Barbara attract millions of visitors each year and bask in the glory of headlining tourist guides and travel magazines the world over, there are many hidden gems left just for the locals to enjoy. These small towns embody the quintessential California dream without the busloads of tourists.
A case in point is the quaint little beach town of Carpinteria. Located just a stone’s throw from its fancy neighbor, Montecito, it is often overlooked by travelers who speed right past it on the 101. But tucked between the sparkling Pacific Ocean and the imposing Santa Ynez Mountains, Carp (as the locals call it) is definitely worth a stop. Whether you’re looking to relax in the sun, go on outdoor adventures, or prefer to shop and indulge in a taste of the local food and drink scene, Carpinteria doesn’t just have something for everyone, it has a small-town charm that will instantly win you over.
One of Carpinteria’s biggest draws is, of course, its collection of stunning beaches. And for such a small place, there is a surprising number of them, all located within five minutes from the center of town. The southernmost end located at the Santa Barbara and Ventura County line, features Rincon Point. Also known as the “Queen of the Coast,” this is one of the most famous surf spots in California, celebrated around the world for its consistent, well-formed waves and long rides. But even if you’re not into surfing, it’s a great beach to hang out, swim, and play in the sand; and watching the skilled surfers carve through the swells is certainly a mesmerizing sight.
While Rincon is renowned for its epic waves, arguably Carpinteria’s crown jewel among its beaches is the State Beach. This pristine, four-mile stretch of coastline is ideal for everything from swimming to surf fishing, tidepool exploring, hiking, and camping. Indeed, the Carpinteria State Beach Park is one of the most fabulous camping spots in Southern California, with four campgrounds offering facilities for both tents and RVs. Although most of the campsites are located just a small distance away from the beach with shady spots underneath trees, there are plenty of sites directly on the sand, just steps from the ocean.
If nature is your jam, you’ll be in heaven here. Take a scenic hike along the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve bordering the beach and enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the mountains, ocean, and the nearby Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary. And for a totally extraordinary beach experience, head to the nearby Tar Pits Park, a small beach known for its natural asphalt seepage that creates tar pits along the shoreline. Explore the fascinating tar formations and learn about the area’s geological history, all while frolicking on the beach.
Meanwhile, just a few miles north of Carpinteria along the Amtrak train tracks, you’ll find Padaro Beach, which most locals refer to as Santa Claus Beach. A relatively uncrowded, wide stretch of beach, it’s not the easiest to get to as there’s no official parking lot, and you have to cross the train tracks to get onto the sand. But it’s totally worth the (minimal) effort for this is a truly picturesque beach that offers a secluded and serene experience. Capped by the mountains on the north and with panoramic views of the Channel Islands on the horizon, it features a wide expanse of soft, white sandy shores and mild waves, making it ideal for all sorts of ocean-related activities, including swimming, paddle boarding, boogie boarding, and general beach fun.
After spending time on the beach, take a stroll down to the Padaro Beach Village on Santa Claus Lane, where you’ll find a charming selection of independent shops and restaurants. Get all your beach gear at the A-Frame Surf Shop; or peruse the gorgeous gifts and interior goods at Porch, a carefully curated home and garden shop “where shelter and nature converge.” Restaurants along the strip include Borrello’s Pizza & Pastaria, where local restaurateurs, Lucy and Michael Borrello, have served up authentic Italian dishes in a laid-back, family-friendly location since 1975. There’s also Garden Market, a gourmet grocer and all-day café offering organic, farm-to-table ingredients and wines from around the Central Coast. And then there’s the wildly popular Padaro Beach Grill. With its park-like setting — think picnic tables surrounded by tropical palm trees — and a perfect oceanfront location, it’s the ideal spot for families, friends, and couples alike. The fun atmosphere, where kids can run around barefoot on a sprawling lawn and play in a sandbox full of toys, groups of friends can connect over a bottle of rosé or pints of craft beer, and couples can enjoy an intimate cocktail, you simply can’t go wrong here on a sunny day. The menu, too, has something for everyone. From fresh salads to yummy sandwiches, gourmet burgers, and seafood dishes like clam chowder, shrimp tacos, calamari, and fish and chips, this is eclectic California fare just as we like it. Try the signature Padaro burger with melted cheddar cheese, bacon, Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce, an onion ring stuffed with mashed avocado, chipotle mayo, and lettuce and tomato. Make sure you leave room for one of their deliciously rich milkshakes.
Back in the center of town is Carpinteria City Beach. Famously known as the “World’s Safest Beach,” it has been ranked as the No. 1 swimming beach in California, thanks largely to its southern exposure and gradual incline. It’s a very popular beach not just because of its small surf and lack of riptides — as well as its extensive facilities, including picnic tables and barbecues, restrooms, volleyball nets, and even a beach shack — but also due to its location right at the end of Carp’s bustling Linden Avenue. Lined with mom-and-pop shops, cafés, bars and restaurants, this sweet little high street offers a quintessential small-town experience that is a far cry from the blocks of brand-name stores we’re so accustomed to seeing these days. Take your time as you go treasure hunting through the many antiques stores that are packed to the brim with knick-knacks, trinkets, and memorabilia from decades past. Connect with your inner child as you step inside an old-school candy store, Robitaille’s Fine Candies, that has been family-owned and operated for three generations. Or lose yourself at Murphy’s Vinyl Shack, a store heaving with thousands of vintage records, new vinyl, comic books, DVDs, and even a few cassette tapes. Owner Kevin Murphy is a fount of knowledge on all things music and always happy to chat and guide you through his vast collection. There’s also a cute little store called Bon Fortune that sells a selection of nostalgic, vintage party supplies. And for the ultimate pampering experience, step into SOAP, a boutique designed to wrap you in the finest fragrances and fabrics from 20 countries around the world.
If all that shopping is making you hungry, Linden Avenue has plenty of options to satisfy your appetite. For a casual affair, pick up a bunch of deliciously spicy tacos at Tacos Don Roge, or visit The Spot right by the beach for a relaxed throwback vibe and real American burgers. For a more elevated experience, head over to Little Dom’s Seafood (a spin-off of the original in Los Feliz), where upscale Italian fare with a heavy focus on seafood is paired with sinfully delicious cocktails. Or join husband-and-wife team Jessica and Kevin Clark for tapas and vino at their wine bar and bistro Corktree Cellars.
If it’s too early in the day for you to indulge in a boozy drink and you’re in need of something caffeinated instead, be sure to visit Carp Moon Cafe. Located on the corner of Linden and Carpinteria Avenues, it’s a coffee shop run by local entrepreneur Laura Samperio. Choose from sweet treats like pastries and waffles, healthy smoothies and acai bowls, savory breakfast burritos, egg dishes, and sandwiches as well as an array of organic coffee beverages. And don’t miss out on Carp Moon Cafe’s signature café de olla, a traditional Mexican coffee drink brewed in an earthen clay pot with spices including cinnamon and star anise, raw sugar, and orange peel. It’s more than a drink, it’s a ritual that nourishes the body and soul.
Next walk down the eastern stretch of Carpinteria Avenue, which runs perpendicular to Linden Avenue and also hosts a bunch of foodie spots that you won’t want to miss. For breakfast, visit the Lucky Llama Coffee House, a quaint little spot with a sunny patio that serves up anything you might possibly crave in the morning. As you leave, look up the giant pine tree on the lawn next to the restaurant and you might just spot some blue herons in their nests up above. For a wholesome lunch, head to The Good Plough, a casual farm-to-table restaurant and grocer from husband-and-wife duo Katie and Jason Lesh of local produce box delivery company, Farm Cart Organics. And for afternoon or early evening craft beers and burgers, you can’t go wrong at Rincon Brewery, the original outpost of the Carpinteria brew house which also has locations in Ventura and Santa Barbara.
Meanwhile, in the opposite direction at the western end of Carpinteria Avenue, lies Susan Willis Ltd., a delightful general store and gift shop that has been a community hub for three decades. Run by owner Susan Willis, the shop really embodies the spirit of Carpinteria. Inside the store you’ll find a “little of everything,” from soaps, candles and lotions to jewelry, clothes, decorations, treats, and anything that helps to make a house a home. What’s more, Willis also provides a free gift-wrapping service to her clients, making Susan Willis Ltd. the top spot for buying presents in Carpinteria.
If you’re looking to buy the gift of wine, be sure to visit the Carpinteria Wine Company, a straightforward, low-cost wine shop with a select range of wines that are exceptional both in quality and affordability. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it’s run by yet another husband-and-wife team, Jane and Frank Dambach. The key to success is their excellent customer service, the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the shop and the staff’s deep knowledge of the wines along with each unique growing region.
Just a few blocks up, you’ll find one of Carp’s living legends: Clementine’s Steak House. Operated by chef-proprietor Lloyd McLenithan, whose late mother Irene first took over the restaurant in 1980 (it’s been in existence since 1970), this place is an institution if ever there was one. Step inside the restaurant and you feel as though you’re going to your grandma’s house, right down to the kind and unaffected service, the frilly curtains and lace doilies. Choose from regular or petite meals (all under $50) and prepare yourself for generous portions of classic American country fare: top-notch New York steak or prime rib on weekends, fresh grilled fish, and crispy fried chicken. Entrées come with homemade bread, soup, salad, fresh vegetables, and a choice of potato or rice as well as a huge slice of homemade pie that Lloyd bakes daily. Clementine’s is a nod to a bygone era that was a lot simpler and more wholesome than today.
And that’s what defines Carpinteria: it’s a laid-back beach town that somehow seems to have been forgotten by the craziness of the modern world. It’s a place where you walk down the road and people smile at you, tell you secrets of where to go and what to look out for, where shops are family-owned and run, and you leave feeling taken care of. We think it’s quite alright that the guidebooks don’t shout about it.
CALIFORNIA AVOCADO FESTIVAL
Every fall, thousands of visitors descend on Carpinteria for the annual California Avocado Festival. Taking place on the first weekend of October, it is one of the largest free festivals in California, which honors the importance of the avocado industry to the local community. Apart from celebrating all things avocado (including the world’s largest vat of guacamole), there are booths and stalls all down Linden Avenue, including four stages with live music. This year the California Avocado Festival will be held from October 6 to 8. Find more at avofest.org.