Los Alamos Love

Get ready to fall for this quaint corner of Santa Barbara County

By Nicole Leonetti

I know the term “hidden gem” is overused, but that’s what comes to mind when I think of Los Alamos. I fall deeper in love with it with every visit! The town is a beautiful blend of chill, easy living, with Wild West vibes.

Los Alamos (which means “The Cottonwoods”) is a small, unincorporated community located in Santa Barbara County. It became a popular stagecoach stop in the late 1880s, and while the train stopped running years ago, it is now a popular spot for wine lovers and foodies from around the globe.

Park your car upon arrival, and don’t worry about it until you’re ready to depart. The action takes place on one wonderful street: Bell Street.

eat eat eat

I suggest beginning your Los Alamos adventure with a hearty breakfast. Plenty on Bell is a local favorite that serves breakfast and lunch, and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays during summer. Plenty’s breakfast menu offers favorites like pancakes, bacon, eggs, and burritos. If you are truly hungry, I recommend Joe’s Scramble (four eggs, braised spinach, sautéed onions & garlic, ground beef, and cheese). For lunch, the Seared Ahi Tuna Salad is delightful. They also serve beer, wine, and wine-based cocktails. Wash down breakfast with a few mimosas! They have a lovely patio that is dog-friendly.

Originally from the UK, owner Christine Gallagher said what she loves most about the town is how “Los Alamos has retained so much of its original history and charm.” The building that houses Plenty was once the town’s hardware store, then a biker bar, and now a cozy restaurant.

A few steps away, another hot spot for breakfast is Bob’s Well Bread. Bob’s has gained national acclaim and is the place to go for baked goods. Bob’s serves all-day breakfast and lunch until 3 pm, and their menu truly has something for everyone. Delectable pastries include pain au chocolat, scones, and British sausage rolls. Bread options include olive bread, brioche, and challah, as well as gluten-free breads. An obsession among my family and friends is their Baguette, Prosciutto, and Egg Sandwich, with its deliciously runny egg.

Breakfast at Plenty on Bell. Photo by Jeffrey Bloom

Everything at Bob’s is prepared with thought, passion, and craftsmanship in baking. Owner Bob Oswaks noted, “We are constantly experimenting with new dishes we think will be enjoyed, like the newly-added marble rye, which has been a huge success!” The space is inviting, picture-perfect, and dog-friendly. They even offer homemade dog treats — which I am assuming are delicious since my dog Frankie consumes them with gusto!

If you are in town on the weekend, Priedite BBQ is a must for lunch! Priedite is a weekend pop-up at Bodega Wine Bar Saturday and Sunday (noon to 3 pm, or until they sell out). On Saturdays, they serve classic Santa Maria-style barbecue, with favorites such as their famous smoked beef brisket served with homemade tortillas. On Sundays, their Bandito Burgers are a hit! I am still dreaming about this burger with ground brisket, grilled onions, picante pickles, and burger sauce on a perfect brioche bun.

Owners Nicholas Priedite and Brendan Dwan have been working on this passion project for years. Their food pays tribute to California vaquero culture — down-home American barbecue with Spanish influence. Nick said, “We want to make approachable food that makes sense to the valley.” He added, “I have discovered how much history is here – cowboy culture, ranchers. We just want to have fun and give people a taste of life in a quirky ranch town.” Mission accomplished because I was ready to move to Los Alamos after one bite of that burger!

Mussels at Pico. Photo by Silas Fallstitch

You won’t have to travel far for dinner options, as Pico Restaurant is just down the road. Owners Kali Kopley and her husband, Will Henry, opened Pico in 2016. Will fell in love with Los Alamos, introduced Kali to the town, and she quickly saw his vision. Will said, “I love the community, love the feeling that we are still living on the frontier!”

Locally-sourced food drives Pico’s menu and allows creativity in the kitchen with a mixing of cultures. Will learned from his father that “the best food comes from small farmers.” Working with local farmers allows for a focus on freshness and quality, and the menu changes frequently as they keep it seasonal. Recurring favorites include the Big-Ass Pork Chop with Lompoc pinquito beans, Fresno chiles, and house-made cornbread, as well as their Spinach & Feta Spanakopita, which is a recipe from Kali’s Greek grandmother.

Walking a few hundred feet down the road brings you to Bell’s Restaurant, which Daisy and Greg Ryan opened in 2018. Bell’s received its Michelin star a few years ago, which sent up a flare and brought new visitors to Los Alamos. But Daisy and Greg did not have a Michelin star in mind when they were starting out; it was just two people executing their vision. They describe the food at Bell’s as “Franch” — classic French cuisine through a filter of California regional and seasonal ingredients.

For lunch, there is a casual French bistro menu, where reservations are suggested, although walk-ins are allowed. Dinner is a five-course prix fixe menu, and a reservation-only affair. Bell’s has a thoughtful wine menu curated by wine director Emily Blackman. She has a phenomenal palate, and one of my favorites from her menu is a red blend from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, which pairs perfectly with their food. Another bonus: Bell’s also has a cozy dog-friendly back patio!

Bob’s delectable breads. Photo by Silas Fallstitch

Charlie’s Place has been open since 1978, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner featuring homemade Mexican food, burgers, and barbecue tri-tip. Owner Charles Gonzales is proud that “Charlie’s is the oldest established business in Los Alamos.” He moved to Los Alamos in the 1950s at the age of 5. At that time, Los Alamos was all about cattle and oil before any grapes were grown in the area. “Los Alamos was known for oak trees and great barbecue,” Charlie said. His favorite thing about Los Alamos, he added, is “the people.” His daughters run the restaurant, and he is still active making the barbecue tri-tip. Locals tell me that Charlie’s is where you get all the juicy local gossip in town. The tip I received from their regulars is that Charlie’s Chile Verde is a highlight!

Another popular dinner spot in Los Alamos is Full of Life Flatbread. Locals and visitors alike enjoy their cozy atmosphere, ample indoor/outdoor seating, and, naturally, their signature flatbread pizzas. I am partial to the Central Coast Sausage Flatbread with house-made fennel pork sausage, smoke-dried tomatoes, red onion, and a delightful mix of mozzarella and Grana Padano cheese.

drink drink drink

My never-ending search for exceptional wine first brought me to Los Alamos, and one of the first places I visited was Clementine Carter Wines (formerly Casa Dumetz). Sonja Magdevski, owner and winemaker, is “creating world peace — one bottle at a time.”

The name Clementine Carter originated from a character in Sonja’s favorite Western, My Darling Clementine (1946). Clementine has become Sonja’s alter ego in the Wild West of Los Alamos.

The mind behind Clementine Carter, Sonja Magdevski. Photo by Deborah Chadsey

Clementine Carter focuses on single varietal Rhône wines, sourcing grapes from Santa Barbara County coming from organic and/or biodynamic vineyards. Their 2022 Santa Barbara County Grenache Blanc has lovely notes of golden apple and white flowers. A beautiful representation of their wine is the 2022 Sta. Rita Hills Grenache (100% whole cluster fermentation, aged in neutral French oak barrels) which you can enjoy chilled year-round. Sonja also produces a traditional GSM blend (30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 50% Mourvèdre) under her Feminist Party label.

Sonja describes Los Alamos as a “vortex of love.” When I asked her favorite place in Los Alamos, she said they are lucky since there is “not one miss in town.”

Next door to Clementine Carter Wines is Babi’s Beer Emporium, also owned by Sonja, which is a cute spot offering a menu of quirky beers from cool distributors. Their rotating tap list and large assortment of bottled and canned beer is complemented by delicious dim sum from Dim Sama, the wine country sister of Sama Sama Kitchen in Santa Barbara. Indulge in tasty bites such as Pork & Shrimp Shu Mai, Sichuan Taro Wontons, and Fried Cauliflower Bao Buns.

Dovecote’s lineup. Photo by Mark Valasquez

Will Henry and Kali Kopley, from Pico Restaurant, also own Lumen Wines. Together with Pinot Noir icon, Lane Tanner, they make low-intervention, sustainable wines using organic and regenerative farming practices. Will believes that when you select the perfect day to pick grapes, “wines don’t need to be messed with.” Lumen Wines are low in sulfites and contain no additives. While Pinot Noir is their focus, they also produce Grenache, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay.

You can enjoy tastings of Lumen Wines at Pico Restaurant. They also have a wine club and offer private vineyard tours. I was excited to try their Hey Ginger Chardonnay, which is made with no added sulfur and uses ginger instead. Think Chablis with a slice of ginger! My favorite wine from Lumen is their 2021 Mad King Pinot Noir, a 100% single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the famous Wild King Vineyard.

If you don’t mind venturing off Bell Street for an afternoon, nearby you will find Dovecote Ranch and Estate Winery. Dovecote is located in the heart of the Alisos Canyon AVA. Owner/farmer/winemaker Noah Rowles bought the property in 2014 and launched Dovecote in 2018. The goal at Dovecote, according to general manager and assistant winemaker Cameron Porter, is “to express place” — namely, Thompson Vineyard. This 35-year-old vineyard has historical significance in the wine world and its vines create stellar Syrah and Grenache.

Dovecote offers intimate tasting experiences at their pond, 7 days a week (by appointment only). Their wines are Rhône-focused with an abundance of fruit along with floral, spice, and earth notes — complex, yet perfectly balanced. My favorites are the 2019 Redtail (Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Petite Sirah) and their 2018 Noumenon (100% Syrah), which is starting to show beautiful texture, tertiary notes, and tannins. Regenerative practices and biodiversity are important to Dovecote; they use organic materials in their farming that are conducive to bee health and creating a healthy ecosystem.

The dreamy pond at Dovecote. Photo by Mark Valasquez

Another talented Los Alamos winemaker is Jason Mergenov with Rockets Red Wines. Jason, an Air Force veteran, became passionate about wine while he was in the military, and then went to school to learn about wine and worked in a winery. Rockets Red Wines was founded in 2018 and has winemaking facilities in Santa Ynez where Jason offers tastings and tours by appointment. He sources grapes from local vineyards and practices minimal intervention winemaking. Jason is known for his Rockets Red Fizzion which is a Pét-nat made from 100% Pinot Noir. He also produces Grenache, Pinot Noir, and Rosé. Mental health advocacy is important to Jason. A portion of sales from Rockets Red Wines goes to organizations to help veterans, such as the Home Base Program, which provides clinical care, wellness, education, and research to veterans.

There are additional tasting room options up and down Bell Street. Tribute to Grace is the spot for amazing Grenache. New Zealand-born winemaker, Angela Osborne, is a force of nature and has been devoted to Grenache for over 20 years. They have tasting flights available in their tasting room; I suggest their Library Flight for the perfect deep dive into their wines.

At nearby Bedford Winery, you can try their 2021 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir and Syrah in a fun setting. I recommend Lo-Fi Wines for easy drinking, lower-alcohol wines in a groovy tasting room. They have a great Chenin Blanc and Gamay Noir.

Bodega Los Alamos is a cozy outdoor wine bar that focuses on natural wines. Grab a glass while waiting for your food at Priedite BBQ. They have ample seating, and you can easily spend a few hours around their firepits catching up with friends while enjoying a Pét-nat or Orange wine.

When it is time for a good old-fashioned bar, check out Los Alamos Depot Bar, or “The Depot” as locals call it. The Depot is housed in a former train station, which happens to be the last standing Pacific Coast Railroad Station. They have strong drinks, live music, indoor/outdoor seating, and some of the best people watching I have ever experienced. The Depot is a perfect place to watch a game and soak in the vibes of Los Alamos.

PLAY PLAY PLAY

The 78th annual Los Alamos Old Days takes place Sept. 27 – 29, 2024. This family-friendly event is sponsored by the Los Alamos Valley Men’s Club. Despite the name, women have always been an important part of the club. They currently have a female president, Kristy Williams, whose family has lived in Los Alamos since the early 1800s. Her relatives were original founding members of the club, which was started in 1946 by veterans.

Throughout Old Days weekend, there are dinner/dance events with live bands, a barbecue contest, a 5k run, and a car show. On Saturday and Sunday, Bell Street will be lined with approximately 100 vendors. Kristy said to expect “Every type of vendor you can imagine!” You’ll find music, food, and an array of kids’ activities, including camel rides. The “Greatest Little Small-Town Parade” takes place along Bell Street on Sunday. Hotels book up quick that weekend, so make sure to plan ahead!

Los Alamos Gallery. Photo by Joaquin Esparza

Los Alamos has you covered if you are looking for great theatre! Los Alamos Theatre Group puts on several productions per year at the Depot, and the 25-person company includes a few notable residents of Los Alamos mentioned above. They’ve done 10 original shows so far! LATG, a non-profit group that donates to local charities, was started in 2018 by Jeffrey Bloom and his wife Carole, who both come from a showbiz background. Jeffrey writes, directs, and produces each show; Carole produces as well. They moved to town from Los Angeles 12 years ago after visiting one weekend and falling in love with the place. Jeffrey marvels that in Los Alamos “people acknowledge you and say hello,” which is indeed a rarity in Los Angeles. It’s “something out of the Andy Griffith show!” Jeffrey shared. He continued, “In Los Alamos you find expat showbiz people … lots of artists. It’s eclectic — you find everything you want here.”

If planning an event in Los Alamos, you must check out The Maker’s Son. This unique event space, once a 1920’s garage and gas station, hosts corporate events, weddings, birthday parties, and more ranging in size from 25 to 300 guests. The Maker’s Son has both indoor and outdoor space on a half-acre of property and offers in-house catering to handle your food and beverage needs. Operating manager, Don Connor, shared that the name The Maker’s Son “pays homage to the makers of the Central Coast” — the character, roots, and foundation.

SHOP SHOP SHOP

Terramonary. Photo by Nicole Leonetti

While my first dozen or so visits to Los Alamos were solely focused on food and wine, I have come to appreciate Los Alamos as a shopping destination. Your first stop should be Los Alamos Gallery, which offers a mix of art from over 55 local artists. Find original work such as paintings, ceramics, woodworking, photography, prints, mixed media, hand-loomed rugs, clothing, brass sculptures, stickers, and jewelry priced between $5 and $15,000. The gallery is open 7 days a week and visitors from all over the Central Coast and Southern California come to check out the artwork and explore Los Alamos.

Just around the corner from Los Alamos Gallery is Sylvia’s Depot Thrift & Collectables, where you can find vintage clothing, furniture, toys, records, and more. At Sisters Gifts and Home, you can browse antiques, art, and décor. Terramonary Porcelain Dinnerware specializes in hand-crafted pottery.

If antique shopping is your thing, visit Keanes Eclectic Los Alamos. You’ll find rare and wonderful items including vintage tools, furniture, original artwork, and many books that I could spend hours perusing.

Elder Flat Farm in Los Alamos has a Farm Shop located right on Bell Street. There you can find a bounty of items including fresh produce, farm fresh eggs, cheese, chocolates, flowers, and cookbooks.

STAY STAY STAY

With so much to discover in Los Alamos, make a weekend out of your trip and choose one of the fabulous hotels in the area.

The Alamo Motel is centrally located on Bell Street. It has been owned by Shelter Social Club since 2014 and was renovated in 2016. The décor of the 21 rooms draw inspiration from Georgia O’Keefe’s home in New Mexico. Kenny Osehan, the CEO and founder of Shelter Social Club, offered her thoughts on Los Alamos: “Los Alamos is a really special place — small, but mighty … business owners in Los Alamos have good intentions.”

The hip and comfy Alamo Motel. Photo by Stephanie Helguera

The Alamo Motel is dog-friendly, and guests love to hang out by their large, central firepit before retiring to their rooms. They also have Bar Alamo, a great place to sip on local wine and beer while meeting new friends. Fun fact: I met close friends of mine at Bar Alamo years ago. Something about Los Alamos makes you want to connect with people. It must be something in the wine.

Down the road and up a lovely hill, you will find Skyview Motel. This property’s 33 cozy rooms — about half of which include private patios — offer guests customized bath products, a locally-sourced mini bar, and a continental breakfast each morning that includes artisanal pastries. Skyview is also dog-friendly. (Are you catching a theme that Los Alamos is a dog-friendly town?)

Skyview has bikes for rent to get you around town easily. General manager Travis Domingues shares that their pool is “the place to be in the summer,” and you can enjoy drinks and food there all day. Norman, Skyview’s restaurant, has something for everyone with weekend brunch, happy hour, and nightly specials including Taco Tuesdays and Wine Bottle Wednesdays (half off wine bottles!). The seasonal menu is contemporary with their own little twist. Favorites include the Yellowfin Tuna Crisps (Japanese slaw, sesame ginger vinaigrette, furikake, soy mirin glaze, and sriracha aioli) and the popular Bates Burger (American Wagyu beef, smoked cheddar, caramelized onion, pickles, confit tomato jams, bacon aioli). They even have a vineyard on-site and make their own Pinot Noir Rosé.

Skyview Motel, Los Alamos, California

For a unique hotel stay, check out The Victorian Mansion Bed and Breakfast. This is an 1864 mansion that was moved to Los Alamos in the 1980s. Their six themed suites provide an immersive experience for guests. You can stay in rooms such as the ‘50s Suite, the French Suite, and my personal favorite, the Pirate Suite, where you can fall asleep to the sounds of ocean waves. Each suite includes its own background music, customized scents, and hidden bathrooms!

Owner Rod Rigole was a guest at the Mansion in the ‘90s and fell in love. He bought the property in 2007 and wanted to keep the vision of the original owner while updating it with modern amenities. Room rates include a hot gourmet breakfast delivered to your room each morning, and all rooms feature hot tubs built for two. Weekends book up quickly, so plan accordingly. The Mansion also has two exciting new experiences on property: the Treehouse, with a rustic deck and private patio, and the Hobbit Hole Cottage, where you can live out your “Lord of the Rings” dreams.

By now you’re probably picking up that I am a huge fan of Los Alamos. I will quote Sonja Magdevski in saying that Los Alamos is both “The middle of nowhere and the center of the universe.” It’s truly a special place I will return to again and again, not only for the food, wine, and shopping, but also for the fantastic people. Visit Los Alamos once and it will be hard to forget!

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