Endless Amusement in the Presidio Neighborhood
With its everlasting summers and picturesque landscapes,
By Zachary Rosen
Santa Barbara is one of the Central Coast’s most popular tourist towns. The combination of stunning scenery and loads of activities, shopping, and dining keeps bringing visitors back. Over the years, new hot spots have popped up in town like the artsy Funk Zone, but for more than 100 years El Presidio has been a social and cultural center of Santa Barbara. And today it remains as active as ever. The neighborhood is filled with boutique shops and popular eateries in a historic setting that tells of Santa Barbara’s roots. While there is a lot to see in the area, it is hard not to spend all day, or even a weekend, around the Presidio.
The Presidio neighborhood is roughly the four-block area lining the intersection of Anacapa Street and Canon Perdido Street. El Presidio is now a State Historic Park and Landmark, but the site was first built in 1782 as one of the last four military outposts established by the Spanish. The Presidio sits kitty-corner to Casa de la Guerra, which was built between 1818 and 1828 by José de la Guerra, the fifth comandante of the Presidio. While the buildings stand as relics of the past, over the years they have served as important cultural centers for the town, including the celebration of Old Spanish Days (better known locally as simply “Fiesta”). Both sites are popular spaces for weddings, private soirées, and public events. There are museums at both the Presidio and Casa de la Guerra, and visitors can walk through the old adobes lined with historic objects like cannons from its military past. The Presidio also houses a viewing tower, heritage garden, and a small chapel with a vibrant interior.
For a deeper dive into the region’s past, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum sits in the neighborhood as well. The adobe-style building was built in 1964, but there are two historic adobes onsite, including Casa Covarrubias from 1817. Its permanent exhibits tell the story of Santa Barbara, moving through its Native American origins, Spanish entanglements, famous families, and progression of culture. During the visit you can also walk through the charming courtyard and well-landscaped grounds or see the Western artworks by Edward Borein that are currently on display in their gallery. The nearby Craftsman Prairie-style Carrillo Recreation Center is somewhat newer, dating back to 1914, but its unique cantilever dance floor was the first of its kind in the West. Today it still serves as a community center with exercise classes, club meetings, and private functions being held there year-round. Each of these buildings have their own history and contributions to the community, and all of them are worth a visit.
A Legacy of Entertainment
Often a site for marriages and holidays, the small, vibrant Presidio Chapel hosts other events throughout the year. The biggest bash, of course, is the grandiose Fiesta celebration, set for Aug. 3 – 7 this year. But of all the events that take place there, the quarterly Folk Orchestra performances stand out as one of the most unique cultural experiences in the area (and, arguably, the country).
“We’re kind of the only thing like this in the country and it’s truly a Santa Barbara organization,” says Folk Orchestra founder Adam Phillips. “Everyone that plays in it is from here. It’s not a highway orchestra – it’s all local.” Adam is a local music director, performer, teacher, and the brainchild of Folk Orchestra, a 30-person ensemble of folk and orchestral performers. Folk Orchestra began in 2017 when Phillips wanted to gather his friends from both genres, having a passion for each one. In their five years of playing together, the group has grown incredibly popular in the area, with shows selling out every time. Adam is the conductor and host, giving brief tidbits of knowledge on the quirky and unusual flutes, bagpipes, and other instrumental oddities that he weaves into each performance. Each show has a theme, such as pirate shanties, and Adam pulls from the archives and his extensive knowledge to craft a blend of both popular and lesser-known pieces.
The colorful Presidio Chapel provides the perfect backdrop — and acoustics — for their eclectic musical mashups. At intermission, the audience enters the quaint courtyard where they can mingle and sip on local beer and wine. With the Saturday night chapel show routinely selling out, Folk Orchestra has introduced a second Sunday performance at the nearby Marjorie Luke Theater, which allows for a larger audience to (safely) enjoy their mesmerizing music. Their next performance will be held in June and will see the return of their popular ‘60s theme that mixes songs by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Joni Mitchell, to name a few.
At 149 years old, the Lobero Theater has its own interesting history. It is named after its founder Jose (Giuseppe) Lobero and sits across from the Presidio. It is the fourth oldest continually operating theater in the country, and the first in California. The current structure was built in 1924 and was designed by esteemed architects George Washington Smith and Lutah Maria Riggs. The building remains a stunning example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style, and the interior is its own experience with a patterned ceiling, column-lined walls, and dashes of burgundy drapery. The year 1924 also introduced the first Old Spanish Days parade, with the new Lobero Theater playing a founding role in the festivities. The building was the height of architecture at the time and withstood the major earthquake that transformed Santa Barbara the following year. The Lobero acted as a refuge and gathering space in the aftermath of the earthquake. Today, it still is a spot for crowds to join together, and with 604 seats it is one of the largest downtown performance venues. The theater hosts its own Lobero Live series as well as other organizations like the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, CAMA’s Master Series, and Opera SB.
Being such a historic spot, The Lobero attracts a variety of performers spanning theater, music, dance, and even comedy and magic shows. At any given time, its calendar is filled with legendary musicians and acts like blues master Taj Mahal. The New Orleans jazz saxophonist Derek Douget was its most recent artist residency. He went around Santa Barbara County schools giving classes and mentorship to the students, rounding out his residency with a performance at the theater. The Lobero is a hub for jazz as well as many other genres like acoustic, classical, and rock, including an upcoming show (April 15) by Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. For those seeking something a little more story-driven, try The Moth Mainstage (April 7) or the State Street Ballet’s performance of Madeline (May 21). Opera Santa Barbara focuses on modern operas as well as classic renditions, such as their version of Verdi’s La Traviata June 10 and 12. With so many great performances offered, you can spend the day around the Presidio, and the evening at the Lobero.
Time to Dine
The Presidio neighborhood is also home to some of the area’s star food spots. Many locals call Handlebar Coffee Roasters the best coffee in town, and there is often a line running out the door. Handlebar has the traditional coffee offerings alongside freshly baked goods. Everything there has a rich flavor but is unpretentious, relying solely on quality ingredients. Any morning brews can be enjoyed in an outdoor area that sits next to the similarly popular Three Pickles Subs & Sandwiches in the historic Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens building.
Around the corner is Cheese Shop Santa Barbara, originally C’est Cheese. This small shop has become a fixture in the area since opening in 2003 by its passionate owners, Michael and Kathryn Graham. The couple imparts their excitement on to their knowledgeable and friendly staff, who can assist guests through a plethora of delicacies. The shop stocks classics like Humboldt Fog and the fluorescent Mimolette Vieille. Plus, there are some cheese curiosities like the colorful Alp Blossom with a rind packed with wildflowers, or the Brillat-Savarin with Truffle which layers a silky triple-crème with the distinctive earthy flavor of truffles. Their expanse of cheeses, meats, and adornments make it easy to grab some nibbles for an impromptu picnic at one of the surrounding sites.
The El Paseo complex is another historic structure in the neighborhood and was built in 1922 as an extension of the original Casa de la Guerra. To truly experience the history of the building, visit El Paseo Mexican Restaurant. The dining area sits in the central open-air courtyard of the building and is surrounded by foliage and even a fountain. The menu offers all the favorite Mexican dishes, like a hearty pork chile verde, but the restaurant is best known for its buffets. They host a Taco Tuesday in the evenings and have an extensive Sunday Brunch with bottomless mimosas or margaritas. The charming atmosphere makes you feel like you’re dining in history.
Wine Cask is one of the Presidio neighborhood’s most prestigious dining establishments. It is also located in the elegant El Paseo complex but unfortunately it’s currently closed for renovations, soon to be reopened. Their companion restaurant, Intermezzo by Wine Cask, is thankfully open and located just next door. Here, you can still get a taste of Wine Cask proprietor John O’Neill’s vision and executive chef Josh Brown’s distinct fusion of Mediterranean-Californian fare. Intermezzo focuses on small bites, pizzas, and larger dishes such as the slightly spiced Manila clams with Spanish chorizo. The dish is lightened by a white wine and thyme sauce, and served with char-grilled ciabatta to soak up any leftover liquids. Naturally, there is a long wine list to accompany the menu, and patrons can taste the region’s best vintages.
If you just want to stick to the wine, then there are also several tasting rooms in the Presidio neighborhood, with a few of them located in El Paseo. Right on Anacapa Street is Cebada Wine, which specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and further into the twisting alleyways of El Paseo is the Bordeaux-centric Happy Canyon Vineyard. Just next door to them is Grassini Family Vineyards. Both vineyards are located in Happy Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley, and the smallest AVA in Santa Barbara County. Grassini focuses primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, with the Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot small plots that traditionally accompany these Bordeaux varietals. The tasting room is elegant yet inviting with a bar that was built with reclaimed timber from the 1800s.
If a little relaxation is needed, then soothe yourself at FLOAT Luxury Spa with a papaya pineapple body scrub or a sea stone massage. Walking past the alluring back courtyard and stunning fountain instills a sense of calm before even entering their modern facilities. Of course, retail therapy works, as well, and there are many stores in the area to cure your shopping urge. The new fashion boutique, d’Offay, has just opened up on the upper level of El Paseo. Founded by Kristen d’Offay and working with top female-run fashion design houses in downtown L.A., the luxury clothing line specializes in sustainable high fashion with silk wrap-dresses, vegan leather pants, and other modern but comfy clothes.
With so much to do, it is easy to center an entire day in the Presidio neighborhood meandering between museums, shops, and restaurants. From fine dining to casual but classy eats, the area can fit any budget with endless ways to keep yourself entertained. Whether it is a little morning coffee and a walk through a museum, or an evening spent wining and dining before a show at the Lobero, the Presidio delivers a day of fun with a side of history.