There’s a rumor that Greg Ryan wants to clear up: The residents of the Santa Ynez Valley do, in fact, love seafood.
The restaurateur saw it in 2018 when he opened Bell's, a French-leaning bistro in Los Alamos, with his wife and the restaurant’s chef, Daisy Ryan. They'd been warned against serving seafood; the locals, they were told, preferred meat and were set in their ways. But "every fish dish, every week, when we were an a la carte restaurant, sold out," Greg said. "We put tinned sardines on the menu and we couldn’t keep them in. At a certain point we were like, ‘This just isn’t true.’”
Now, as the Ryans open Bar Le Côte — a modern seafood tavern along the main drag of historic Los Olivos, a former stagecoach town just a 12-minute drive from Bell's — they, with chef and co-owner Brad Mathews, are banking on oysters, uni, octopus and gulf shrimp.
It could be that the success of Bell’s seafood can be chalked up to the influx of new residents or the droves of Angelenos heading for the destination restaurant. Perhaps longtime locals were misrepresented.
But one thing is certain: The Santa Ynez Valley is changing, and Bar Le Côte’s blend of old and new is, in a way, a microcosm of the area's evolving identity, filling a 1901-built former mercantile structure along the old stagecoach route with new faces, new-school fish-aging technique and rising culinary talent. The rolling hills and acres of grapevines splayed out in the sunlight for miles along the Central Coast look, more or less, like they did decades ago, but the methods used at some of the wineries are leaning more low-intervention or experimental. Visitors are skewing younger and travel publications eagerly note each new opening.
After a summer of L.A. pop-ups and a month of walk-up lunch service, on Sept. 2 the team behind Bar Le Côte made it official — opening the doors to a place where patterned tile floors, green walls and an eclectic rock, indie and oldies playlist set the stage for line-caught fish and hand-harvested bivalves and urchins sourced from local farmers and fishermen. Seafood arrives freshly caught or dry-aged. Much of the produce gets picked up from nearby Finley Farms and delivered via the back of Mathews’ Volkswagen.
The Bar Le Côte menu includes meaty, fried, lemon-zested Pacific Gold oysters atop steak tartare, and dry-aged-kampachi crudos laced with saffron. Some dishes hint at Mathews’ early years cooking in Bar Pintxo, the Santa Monica tapas restaurant from the late and influential chef Joe Miller, whom Mathews reveres as a mentor; among those dishes are gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp); pulpo a la plancha (grilled octopus) with saffron aioli; vegetarian paella; and Little Neck clams with house-made chorizo — all on the opening menu.
Mathews, 37, continued to develop his love of seafood at Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, where he worked his way up through the ranks to sous chef and found another mentor in chef-owner David LeFevre.
“It’s become my whole life,” said Mathews, who grew up fishing in the Finger Lakes region in New York state with his father. “There’s something that has always been so calming to me about water. ... If you get great product and you treat it with respect and try to showcase the product — do it in its simple form — I think there’s something unbelievably romantic about that. [It's] not that you can’t do that with a great steak but it feels more true to who I am with seafood.”
Bar Le Côte is a sequel of sorts to a restaurant heralded by Bon Appétit as "the reason you should visit Los Alamos, California." Bell’s has spurred tourism in the tiny Old West town — even more so during the pandemic, according to Greg, 39. He attributes the increased interest in the bistro, in part, to a slump in air travel in the first few months; Californians were driving, not flying, to get away.
Praise for Bell's continued to grow, as did its popularity. Daisy Ryan garnered a best new chef of 2020 accolade from Food & Wine magazine, which the pair saw not just as a win for her but as validation for the region, a signal that the Santa Ynez Valley’s cuisine, not just its wine, was entering the national discourse.
These days Los Alamos hotels and motels such as the boutique-y Skyview are booked weeks out, and the owners of Bob’s Well Bread Bakery rent out cottages on the grounds to help attract and accommodate some of the visitors. The nearby Danish town of Solvang also is experiencing a tourism boom, and a restaurant there just began renting out rooms too.
Elsewhere in the Santa Ynez Valley
At his freshly opened nouveau steakhouse, Coast Range, and its adjoining Vaquero Bar, chef Lincoln Carson and his business partners recently renovated the two one-bedroom units above the Solvang restaurant — and one is already rented for one month straight.
Carson understands the appeal. After closing his Arts District bistro Bon Temps due to the pandemic, the former Michael Mina pastry chef — along with his wife and his daughter — relocated to the Santa Ynez Valley for more peace of mind and breathing room. He opened Vaquero Bar in April and then the dining room of Coast Range in September. Its cast of co-owners also includes Top Round co-founder Steven Fretz; Anthony Carron of 800 Degrees Pizza and Top Round; and sommelier and winemaker Rajat Parr.
He’s made friends quickly and easily since moving, he says, and in a small town it seems everyone knows everyone else — and they all want to help. Neighbors and friends helped build the restaurant alongside its owners; when a 300-pound wood beam had to be lifted, Carson hopped on the phone with a friend who immediately said he’d be there to help hoist it.
“I’m not going to say that you don’t have that kind of restaurant camaraderie and community in other places,” he said, “but [elsewhere] I haven’t experienced this kind of support and positivity from other folks — not just other chefs.”
He believes the region will continue to grow in popularity, especially its culinary scene.
In Los Olivos, a quarter-mile from Bar Le Côte, the sprawling property and historic stagecoach stop of Mattei’s Tavern is being reimagined by Auberge Resorts, which is building a luxury compound that will house a new restaurant. Nella Kitchen & Bar, from the team behind Santa Ynez’s popular S.Y. Kitchen, recently opened around the corner.
But not everyone is thrilled with the region’s rapid changes.
“I would hate to see the Tavern be altered in any such a way that it would diminish this rich history of Los Olivos and our Santa Ynez Valley,” a local resident wrote to the Santa Barbara Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission in 2020, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.
Wineries are making news
Before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and spending formative years in some of New York City’s most storied restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Per Se, Daisy Ryan was a kid in Solvang who attended high school in Los Olivos, about three minutes from Bar Le Côte, and her summer arts school was held in the park down the street. The Ryans’ son, Henry, attends school nearby. To her, the area's changes are full of promise.
The Ryans moved to the Santa Ynez Valley from Austin, Texas, four years ago with the dream of opening their own restaurant. Daisy says she was awestruck by the natural-wine revolution taking place in her hometown.
The region’s old guard of winemakers had forged new territory in the 1970s and ’80s, discovering new California-temperate climate zones for growing and revolutionizing growing practices. Many, such as Bill Wathen of Foxen Vineyard & Winery, Richard Longoria of Longoria Wines and Richard Sanford of Sanford Winery and Alma Rosa Winery, are still growing and producing. Now a fresh wave of vintners, such as Lo-Fi Wines and A Tribute to Grace Wine Co., are using even more new-to-the-Valley grapes or focusing on entirely biodynamic or lower-alcohol wines, moving the region’s legacy in different and experimental directions.
“With those younger, kind of different-style winemakers being here, there’s a kind of undercurrent of younger people moving here from elsewhere,” Daisy said, “and with that, I think that’s why we’ve been so successful with Bell’s and Los Alamos. ... People need stuff to do here. "
While the Ryans relish the growth that new restaurants and wineries have brought to the region, they're working to ensure the local community feels supported. In 2020 they founded Feed the Valley — with the help of a generous patron — to assist people in need during the pandemic. They began preparing and packaging 300 meals a week for a rotation of Santa Barbara County organizations that aid those in hospice, senior centers and beyond, usually low-income and food-insecure. And since its founding Feed the Valley has expanded, paying a number of other restaurants to prepare meals for those in need.
On opening night at Bar Le Côte, just before welcoming its first rush of customers, the front- and back-of-house teams, led by general manager Grace Gates, 28, gathered at the bar. Huddled spooning vegetables and rice into tortillas laid flat in Styrofoam containers, they portioned out meals for Feed the Valley, joining the community effort from the restaurant’s first day.
Well-wishers and guests lined up outside the door. Others craned their necks as they passed by, surprised to see the restaurant fully open after months of preparation and teases.
Diners strolled in with tidings of congratulations, some bringing kids and some — such as Bell’s weekend barbecue guest and occasional collaborator, Nicholas Predite — carrying flowers for the staff. It seemed the former stagecoach town had embraced a new stop for travelers — and locals.
Bar Le Côte is at 2375 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos, open from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. barlecote.com
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.