When Chef Jesper Johansson first opened the now-shuttered Cafe Quackenbush with his partners in 1999, there were only two other restaurants in Los Alamos. At that time, Los Alamos wasn’t quite the food destination that it is now: with one of the country’s best bakeries, farm-to-table restaurants, a Food & Wine Best New Chef, and tasting rooms pouring some of the area’s most interesting wines. All this sits on just four blocks of the town’s main road, Bell Street.
Nicknamed “Lost Almost,” this town of fewer than 2,000 people was known for its antique malls and cowboy charm, but easily missed by those who don’t know to look for it. Los Alamos is located 100 miles north of Los Angeles and was a stagecoach stop in the late 1800s. The town’s long history is visible by the vintage buildings that are still standing, such as the antique store Depot Mall, the only surviving depot of the Pacific Coast Railway, and the landmark 1880 Union Hotel building (now open only for private events).
Los Alamos is still sleepy on weekdays with most restaurants and wine tasting rooms closed, but on the weekends these places are booked. There’s also probably a wedding happening somewhere. Yet, Los Alamos is small enough that even on a busy weekend it still feels idyllic, and the year-round temperate weather means plenty of outdoor spaces to spread out.
Chef Jesper has seen many businesses come and go over the years, but he noted the town has really evolved in the past four years. Cafe Quackenbush itself has since closed, but Jesper stayed in the area and went on to work at Plenty on Bell before taking over the restaurant as chef-owner. After all, flanked by vineyards and farms with a short drive to the ocean, Los Alamos has easy access to the best ingredients that California has to offer.
Most of the restaurant owners will pinpoint the opening of Full of Life Flatbread in 2004 as a turning point. Former music industry veteran Clark Staub initially found the location that is now Full of Life when he got off the freeway to get gas. It was the town’s first new building in many years. At the time, he was launching a small batch wholesale baking operation for frozen pizzas, so the fact that Los Alamos was a quiet little town was not important. A few months later, Clark started doing weekend-only dinners showcasing local and sustainable ingredients that earned him a following. Soon, Full of Life became known as one of the best food pit stops for those traveling up and down the state. Over the years, Clark moved away from wholesale and focused on the restaurant, where he gets to serve hyper-seasonal produce like green almonds, the soft and skinless form that exists for only a few weeks before the seeds harden and become the almonds we’re all familiar with.
Bob Oswaks also remembers the old Los Alamos as it was a weekend destination for him and his wife 21 years ago. “Los Alamos is unique in that it’s exactly halfway between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. It’s right off the freeway, an easy on, easy off kind of town,” said Bob about the location’s draw. When Bob decided to open a bakery in town, he knew exactly which building he wanted; he’d seen the building many times. It’s a vintage service station from the 1920s that has housed a biker bar and a rest stop in the past. His bakery, Bob’s Well Bread, has won many accolades as one of the country’s best small-town bakeries. Weekends are always busy here thanks to brunch dishes like a jar of stunningly purple potato puree topped with poached egg and lardons, and artisan breads and pastries.
Recently, most of the chatter surrounds Bell’s Restaurant. Chef Daisy Ryan grew up in neighboring Santa Ynez. She was away for 17 years working at restaurants around the country, including at the three Michelin star Per Se, where she met her husband, Greg. She always knew she wanted to have her own restaurant. “We saw the potential here, it’s not a saturated market,” said Daisy, “We didn’t necessarily have the funds to open something in a first-tier market like L.A.”
One of the things that drew her here is the evolving wine industry in the Santa Ynez Valley. “Younger winemakers are moving to this area and making wine here versus in Northern California where it’s far more expensive,” she explained. She wanted to provide something exciting and different for the wine industry crowd to go eat and drink.
Bell’s reputation extends far beyond the local winemakers: last year Bell’s was named one of the Best New Restaurants in America by Esquire and Chef Daisy was recognized as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. Fine dining lovers throughout California are making their pilgrimage to experience the tasting menu at Bell’s, which may feature something so simple yet perfect like locally grown lettuce salad or a luxurious bite of mini mille crêpes topped with caviar and sea urchin.
The Ryans are also bringing another new business in town, partnering with BBQ champion Nick Priedite. Priedite BBQ has been popping up for breakfast every other weekend, but they will soon open a more permanent space just behind Bell’s. The brisket is worth waking up early for, and the line out the door is proof.
The interest in Los Alamos’ food and wine scene is revitalizing other businesses here. The antique stores are still strong and Local Artisans Enterprise, a gallery highlighting local artists and craftsmen opened in November of 2019. People had mostly visited Los Alamos for the day while staying in other nearby spots like Solvang, especially with limited (though stylish) lodging options on Bell Street (there is the 21-room Alamo Motel and the six themed rooms at Victorian Mansion Bed & Breakfast) but that has also recently changed. Just on the other side of the freeway, Skyview converted a roadside motel into a desert chic lodging reminiscent of Palm Springs vibes. Some of the 33 rooms come with a private patio that overlooks Skyview’s own vineyard. With a pool and a restaurant that’s open seven days a week, Skyview’s opening offers travelers a place to unwind and more reasons to extend their stay.
In between meals, there’s plenty to drink with half a dozen wine tasting rooms from wineries in Central California. Two open-air beer gardens and cocktails at Pico offer guests a break from wine tastings. A small blue building sits in the middle of the courtyard of the Alamo Motel. The building has been used as a coffee shop and a bike repair shop, but right now it houses Muni Wine, the tasting room for David Potter’s three wine labels that span from natural wines to reserve wines made to age from pedigreed vineyards. Don’t overlook the low-alcohol and zero-alcohol wines here, especially with so many wine tastings to do in town. The low-ABV, fizzy piquette is perfect for leisurely day drinking. His latest foray is called January, a line of zero-proof drinks for adults made from the skin and stems of grapes and then infused with botanicals to emulate the aroma and taste of wine.
Across the street sits Lo-Fi Wines, which was started by two childhood friends, Mike Roth and Craig Winchester, who both live in Los Alamos. Mike worked at a number of wineries before starting Lo-Fi and the duo opened the tasting room four years ago. Lo-Fi purchases grapes from other vineyards in Santa Barbara County, but they also produce wines from Mike’s own vineyard, located next to the Skyview hotel. They’re serious about making good wines with minimal intervention, yet the wines are fun and approachable, just like their relaxed tasting room—and Los Alamos in general. “We wanted an old man bar, so we opened our own,” joked Mike.
Whether guests want to geek out over wine techniques like carbonic maceration or just drink wines accompanied by great music, they’re welcome here. Lo-Fi gets a few visitors who recognize their wines from natural wine stores in L.A., and more and more have been finding them. Asked if Los Alamos has grown too busy for their taste, Mike and Craig say no, “It’s perfect right now.”