Get your live music fix in Santa Barbara
By Nigel Chisholm
John Denver only got it half right in 1971 when he said country roads take you home. Those very same blue highways can also unwittingly take you on adventures of the musical kind.
Blue highways paint this country from top to bottom. But, in our non-stop, gotta-be-there-right-now, constant-engagement lives, somehow we have become disconnected from the journey itself. Yet, we know full well that the most important part of any journey IS the journey. Think Simon and Garfunkel’s classic America as a starting point. The line, “‘Cathy, I’m lost,’ I said, ‘though I knew she was sleeping’” has got nothing to do with being physically lost. It’s a state of mind: One that we should all look to embrace a bit more when we travel.
So, let’s go get a bit lost. Let’s take a journey into what makes America America, and Americans American. As Robert Frost put it, let’s “take the road less traveled.” Let’s make a concerted effort to leave the corporate hospitality world behind while seeking out some owner-operator joints where you’re a friend as soon as you walk through the door. Places where you walk out believing that you got a $1.50 worth of value out of the dollar you just spent.
The tri-counties — Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo — are geographically huge and I’d encourage you to build in an extra day to get off Highway 101 and Interstate 5 when possible. Today, I’ll give you three must visit spots in Santa Barbara that even most Santa Barbarities don’t know to exist. None of them charge a cover.
The granddaddy of all of these is off Highway 154 between Santa Barbara and Los Olivos. Just over the apex of the hill, if you’re headed east, is a little-noticed turn-off called Stagecoach Road. Take that road down ways and you will stumble into an absolute treasure: The Cold Springs Tavern 5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara; (805) 967-0066. From 1868 to 1901, this place was a real stagecoach stop. Over the years, various other buildings were added to create a truly unique environment. It all gives you a sense of the true Old West. There is a restaurant with an extensive and attractive menu. However, all you’re going to want on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon is one of their famous tri-tip barbecue sandwiches to munch on while you sit outside and listen to the music. On Fridays, you’ll find music there from about 5 to 8 pm. On Saturdays and Sundays, they typically host two separate bands, at 1:30 and 5 pm. What you are going to find are musicians who WANT to play here. Not some rosy-cheeked neophytes, but seasoned professionals whose names you have probably never heard yet boast staggering resumes. The music could literally be anything short of punk, hip-hop, and death metal. Their website is kept nicely up to date if you care to look. My advice: Don’t bother, just go and when you see a parking space on the street, take it! Grab your coat because in this beautiful tree covered location atop the San Marcos Pass, it’s icicle time when the sun dips south of the treetops.
If jazz is more in your lane, then you absolutely must head to Stella Mare’s Bistro 50 Los Patos Way, Santa Barbara; (805) 969-6705. Stella Mare’s only hosts music on Wednesdays from 7 to 10 pm. Here’s why it’s special: The George Mamalakis Trio have been playing there every Wednesday since 1997. For those who are counting, that’s 21 straight years! George studied for six years with famed LA jazz pianist Terry Trotter and so, right out of the box, you know it’s going to work. Not only are these cats excellent, but they are also incredibly comfortable in the greenhouse-like environment. Frankly, the only way you could get more relaxed while enjoying their music would be by having a full-body massage at the same time. While Stella Mare’s is, without doubt, an upscale French dining establishment, the elegant atmosphere is perfect for enjoying a bite to eat while collapsing into the jazz. I ordered a Vesper Martini and felt very James Bond for the duration. After waiting unsuccessfully at the bar for either Ursula Andress or Eva Green to stop by and chat me up, I wandered over to the plush sofa and sat down in front of the open fire. The very fine jazz salved my wounds in short order. What is it about jazz that makes one feel smarter and better looking than one really is?!
And now, for something completely different, let’s head to The Pickle Room 122 E Canon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara; (805) 965-1015. This place is a real gem. Think old-style, red leather bar where the West’s idea of what the East is, is turned up to 11. A place where, in times past, you wouldn’t be surprised to bump into Ella Fitzgerald — or, Bugsy Siegel for that matter. Opening in 1947 as Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, presumably because it sits in what used to be Santa Barbara’s Chinatown, The Pickle Room has quite a history. Jimmy’s stayed locked in its own time capsule until 2007 when its doors closed. After six years, it arose phoenix-like as The Pickle Room. Walking in now, you are immediately and magically transported back to 1947. The current configuration maintains the original environment, and it is fantastic. This place has next to no staff turnover. Two of the very able bartenders, PJ and David, have worked there since day one. It shows in their friendly, relaxed, welcoming demeanor, and the remarkable speed and physical dexterity they display behind the small red bar beneath the original Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens sign. These guys love where they work and I am not at all surprised. Amazingly, The Pickle Room manages to squeeze blues bands into this small space on every second Tuesday of the month and jazz bands on every third Tuesday of the month. You best get in there early because not only is the space mighty tight, the music is mighty right. The bands are filled with top-quality musicians who are not playing for the paycheck but for the love of the music and each other. This is the type of joint where the music regularly goes long, and the only bad thing to happen is that your cheeks hurt from the smile that won’t leave your face. If you are even close to this place: GO. While you are there enjoy a pickle martini and order the panko-crusted deep-fried pickles. You’re welcome.
In the next issue I’ll tell you a tale about how the Blue Highways have changed my life: “So, three saxophone players walked into a bar …”