John Cox’s introduction to the California restaurant scene was a bit unorthodox. After graduating from culinary school on the East Coast, the New Mexico native secured an internship at Sierra Mar, the acclaimed restaurant at the breathtaking Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. During his first three years at Sierra Mar, Cox worked his way up to chef de cuisine and along the way he developed an appreciation for California’s micro-climates as well the Golden State’s majestic beauty. It’s not surprising, then, that Cox is praised for his aesthetic sensibilities, crafting food that is simultaneously pleasing to the eye and the palate. The San Francisco Chronicle’sMichael Bauer even went so far as to call Cox the “Dominique Crenn of the Central Coast.”
The celebrated chef now runs two Central Coast restaurants—Cultura Comida y Bebidain Carmel-by-the-Sea and The Bear and the Star in Los Olivos—and he shared some of his Golden State favourites with us via the California Questionnaire.
Where do you live? I’m lucky (and crazy) enough to live aboard a boat in the Santa Barbara harbour.
Why there? For me, Santa Barbara exists on a perfect equilibrium between Northern and Southern California. We have palm trees and long sandy beaches, but we also have steep forested mountains and redwood groves. There is usually a hint of morning fog that soon gives way to perfect California sunshine. My wife and I thought it would be fun to live on a boat as a temporary housing transition. After two years in the Santa Barbara harbour I can honestly say there is no place we would rather live. We can walk to downtown, watch the Fourth of July fireworks from our deck, and are surrounded by lovely neighbors.
Who or what is your greatest California love?The Pacific Coast. Some people may wonder why I would be willing to have two restaurant concepts so far apart from each other—The Bear and Star in Los Olivos and Cultura in Carmel-by-the-Sea—but the 3-4 hour “commute,” either along the Big Sur Coast or through the Salinas Valley, is something I really enjoy. It’s just over 150 miles, but the two locations couldn't be more different or exceptional in their own ways. Whether my route takes me through the vineyards of Santa Ynez and Paso Roblesor the coastal communities of Cambria and San Simeon, there are always beautiful views and something new to experience.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? For every stereotype of Californians, there is a counterbalance. As a Texas/New Mexico transplant, I don’t worry too much about misperceptions because part of appreciating a culture is discovering how you were wrong about it and being pleasantly surprised.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? California is one of the most diverse and multi-cultural states and generally Californians are inclusive and nondiscriminatory.
What’s your favourite Golden State splurge? A whole local box crab or spiny lobster grilled over charcoal on the Big Green Egg on my boat.
Time for a road trip—where do you go? It’s tempting to say Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and Cambria but since that’s a normal drive for me, it can hardly be considered a road trip. Instead, I would drive up 395, a lonely desert highway that runs between Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I would then go over Tioga Pass into Yosemite and then return along the Merced River back toward the coast.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would that be? Eat a purple sea urchin freshly pulled from the Pacific. This is partly because they are delicious but mostly because right now there is a major concern about their exploding population and their ravenous appetites. These urchin have little commercial value and can wipe out entire stretches of kelp forest, creating an “urchin barren,” or an area that has been completely “deforested.” I figure if I can decree anything, it might as well have a positive environmental impact.
Best California Song? To understand my answer, you first have to know that I moved to California in 2000, and as it happened a couple of the band members from Red Hot Chili Peppers lived in Big Sur, where I lived and worked at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar. The band was known to throw impromptu community concerts and occasionally dine at my restaurant. For that reason, Californication, despite its questionable lyrics, is the first song that comes to mind.
How would your California dream day unfold? I would wake up early, have an espresso, and drive up toward Lake Cachuma into wine country. My next stop would be the Parker Home Ranch, where Katie Parker McDonald and Rocky McDonald would have horses saddled up and ready to tour the upper pastures. We would check in on the herd of Wagyu cattle, ride through vineyards, peek into the mushroom cave and root cellar, check along the stream for any foraging, walk through the garden and orchard, and check on the chickens, ducks, turkey, and quail. For lunch I would have one of our ranch-raised Wagyu burgers paired with a splash of Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard Syrahfrom the vineyards we just rode through. I would head back home in time for dinner, picking up some fish from our neighborhood market to prepare on the boat with my wife (who is also a chef). While dinner is cooking, we would relax on the back deck of our boat, sipping some beer from Third Window Brewing Company and watching the sunset.
Bougainvillea twining across red-tiled rooftops, birdsong mingling with the ocean breeze, islands and whale spouts on the horizon—Santa Barbara’s charms tempt at every turn. Perfect getaways don’t get much more perfect.
Take it from the movie stars who sneak away to Santa Barbara all the time—or just straight up move here. Oprah, Brad, Ellen, and other first-name’s-enough A-listers have estates here, many tucked away in the coastal enclave of Montecito. Why not? There’s that legendary Old World beauty that befits the city’s nickname, “The American Riviera.”
The charmingly small city, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, hugs both the beaches and Highway 101 (and also offers easy access by train): Don’t miss sandy stretches such as Refugio State Beach, Summerland County State Park (with views of Channel Islands National Park), or Butterfly Beach, which sits across from the Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara. Step across the 101 and the city is comprised of Spanish-style architecture and rolling hills that stretch east into the Santa Ynez Mountains and wine country.
But Santa Barbara has a new energy, too—leafy streets lined with designer boutiques, a buzz-worthy food and wine tasting rooms, and a waterfront teeming with sailboats, kayaks, and stand-up paddle-boarders. Come and experience Mediterranean-style magic along the Central Coast.
In Santa Barbara, State Street is synonymous with shopping, and if you don’t want to be tempted, you’d better put on blinders before you walk. If you’re ready to dive in and enjoy, start at State Street’s upper end, with luxury retailers such as Tiffany & Co. at La Cumbre Plaza. Next up, La Arcada; it’s twisting walkways with fountains and flowerpots allow plenty of time to gaze into boutique windows and think, “Oh, I really need that…”
Grab an espresso at local favorite The French Press to keep you going then continue south to the babbling fountains and lush landscaping at Paseo Nuevo shopping center, home to more than 50 stores. Continue to Victoria Court, with an alluring mix of independent shops and top restaurants. Once you’re ready to call it quits, settle in at Blue Tavern (California cuisine with a Peruvian twist), Olio (perfect wood-fired pizza in a rustic chic setting), or Bouchon (classy to the max).
Besides being Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark, Stearns Wharf brings new meaning to fresh seafood—fishermen drop off their daily catches at the harbor just down the road—and ordering a round of authentic fish-and-chips is a must. Take in the view at the pier from the historic wharf, which was built in 1872, before letting the kids visit the many shops to pick out favorite trinkets and souvenirs.
Join the locals and rent bikes to pedal along the famous beachfront, or pose for selfies in front the iconic dolphin statue at the base of the pier. This is also a great place to try standup paddleboarding, with rentals available from various companies, including Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which also offers guided kayak trips. East Beach is perfect for families—the sand is soft and inviting, and the surf is gentle. It’s also the spot to come if you’re into art; local artists show and sell there works here on Sundays.
Tucked between US 101 and East Beach, a narrow band of warehouses has become a hotspot for urban wine-tasting rooms, artists' studios, surfboard-makers and bohemian-cool restaurants like The Lark.
Start your sampling at AVA Santa Barbara Vintners with its dozen or so house wines, each made with grapes from a different corner of Santa Barbara County. Continue to sip your way east towards the beach, finishing with a pale pink rose from Municipal Winemakers, then stroll a block to the sand to dip your toes in the surf. When you want to take a break from sipping and swirling, check out the Funk Zone’s galleries and studios, as well as its ever-changing murals on Mason Street, part of an ongoing project by AMASS (Artists Making A Street Scene). End in true California style, watching the sunset from the tip of 2,300-foot-long Stearns Wharf, a wooden gem dating back to 1872. From here, it’s just you, the swirling seagulls, the barking sea lions and the twinkling lights of town against the soaring coastal mountains.
Established by Spanish Franciscans in 1786 and nicknamed Queen of the Missions, Old Mission Santa Barbara perches above the town, fronted by a glorious swath of lawn that practically screams “Picnic.” No wonder plein-air painters prop their easels out front, capturing the elegant mission towers. Take time to stroll through the mission’s lovely gardens, including a collection of plants important to native Chumash Indians, and visit the historic cemetery. But do it quietly: this is still a practicing mission, with Franciscan friars in residence.
If you want to learn more about the mission, consider taking a guided tour to learn more about the mission’s art and architecture. Another tour lets you visit the Huerta Historic Garden, which contains plantings that mimic those of the Mission era (1769-1834). Plants here were gathered from those found at other mission sites, then cloned, grafted, or planted from cuttings and seeds.
In the mood for some perfect pampering in a breathtaking setting? Santa Barbara has plenty of ways to make sure you’re happily spoiled. Lodgings here specialize in laid-back luxury, with settings ranging from hilltop areas, to secret bungalows, to edge-of-the-sea dazzlers.
Consider Belmond El Encanto, with terraced gardens and sweeping views of the Pacific. Perched in the hills above town, it feels like a private enclave that doesn’t draw attention or flash—just pure relaxation and sigh-worthy settings. Pull on a fluffy robe from the closet of your classic bungalow to dip into the pool, or get a treatment at the onsite spa.
Natural beauty meets classic luxury and romance at San Ysidro Ranch (Editor's Note: San Ysidro Ranch was affected by the recent mudslides. It is currently closed until further notice. Please refer to their website for the latest information), nestled in the Montecito foothills. This stunning retreat has a storied past sprinkled with celebrities: Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier exchanged vows here and it made a perfect honeymoon retreat for then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his beautiful bride Jackie.
At the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, expect ultimate five-star service a seashell toss from the ocean. This luxury lodging feels the most like a see-and-be-seen destination in the region—albeit in one where arriving for brunch in a chauffeured Bentley seems oh so normal. The waterfront property has on-site tennis courts and provides access to nearby golf courses. Guests can also use the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club, across the street at secluded Butterfly Beach.
For total pampering in a dramatic oceanfront setting, head to The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara, situated on 78 acres along the rolling hills and ocean bluffs of the Gaviota Coast, 20 minutes west of Santa Barbara. Posh rooms have private balconies or patios, and the resort boasts a full-service spa, a 12,000-bottle wine cellar, and a Paris-born executive chef. Hotel staff can arrange tempting activities—guided tours into surrounding wine country, sailing excursions, private tennis lessons, horseback riding, or a game of golf on adjacent Sandpiper Golf Club. Then of course, you can simply loll by the zero-edge pool and do nothing more taxing than watching the Pacific for passing dolphins and whales.
Abundant sunshine, a moderate climate, and a healthy amount of rain make this part of the Central Coast ripe for a year-round cornucopia of fresh produce, much of it grown organically. The locavore and slow food movements are big here, and chefs source food mostly within a 100-mile radius. The area hosts farmers markets every day of the week except Mondays, and while they are all worth a visit, the signature event is that one on Tuesday afternoons, when downtown’s State Street morphs into the ultimate place to be, with food, music, and beautiful people. White-jacketed chefs snap up thick bunches of fresh herbs to use that night on just-caught local sea bass or black cod. Kids say “thank you” to farmers offering samples of juicy peaches, and guitar-strumming folk singers gather clusters of listeners. Really—does it get any more “California” than this?
Can’t make it on Tuesday? Try La Cumbre Plaza (Wednesdays), Carpinteria (Thursdays), Montecito (Fridays), Downtown (Saturdays), and Camino Real Marketplace (Sundays). Consider this your chance to try something new like funky looking cherimoya, nicknamed “custard apple” for its creamy white inner fruit. From avocados and eggplants to figs and fennel, melons and squashes, pears and persimmons, the food—and the people—make for an unforgettable day.
The Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is one of most diverse grape-growing regions in the county. Near the Pacific, fog and cool air rolls in at dusk, ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Thirty miles inland at Happy Canyon, it’s sunny and hot—perfect for Bordeaux varieties like Cab Franc and Merlot.
And scenic? How about rolling hills, endless vines, and ancient oaks to the horizon. Between the wines and the views, it’s easy to see why the region became a star in the 2004 surprise hit, Sideways. Take a self-guided tour of the film’s many shoot locations in Buellton, Los Alamos, and Los Olivos—even if you don’t remember the movie, these places are all worth a visit.
Where to go? Why not start at Sunstone Winery. It has a cool wine cave, sustainably grown grapes, and a spectacular limestone chateau available for overnight stays. Another tip: buy a pass from Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association to save on tastings at 15 participating boutique wineries.
If you’re looking for a totally different way to tour the region, sign up for a Cloud Climbers Jeep Tour. Guides take you four-wheeling on mountain roads to various wineries, including picnic lunch.
Here’s a great food find, a classy food hall, where you can sample an array of handcrafted and sustainably made food products highlighting local farms and artisanal ingredients. Find international cheeses at Counter Culture, then end on a sweet note with miniature cupcakes like vanilla cake filled with ollalieberry-lemon mousse at Enjoy Cupcakes.
Part of the Alma del Pueblo mixed-use development in the heart of downtown, the LEED-certified building also features a commissary kitchen that hosts cooking classes and winemaker dinners. Look for freshly baked country loaves at Crazy Good Bread Co., Thai- and Taiwanese-inspired handmade dumplings at Empty Bowl Noodle Bar, and fresh-off-the-boat fish at Santa Monica Seafood.