With the Santa Ynez Valley now a burgeoning fine dining destination, 2017 has become the year of the makeover for some of the best-known restaurants in the area. New names, locations, chefs and menus -- it's adding up to a renaissance in the local culinary world.
Nowhere is this restaurant redux making more of a statement than at the Ballard Inn in (where else?) Ballard. In the 13 years since chef Budi Kazali and his wife, Chris, purchased the inn, its restaurant was known simply as the Ballard Inn restaurant. It even had the same furniture and white tablecloth decor that came with the place. No more.
Kazali has transformed his inn's restaurant into The Gathering Table. After a 17-day closure in January, it reopened with an entirely new look (thanks to interior designer Heather Saarloos), name (credit goes to Chris Kazali) and menu from Kazali.
"People have been coming here for anniversaries, birthdays, Thanksgiving, winemaker dinners -- bigger events. We wanted to really change the concept of the menu and the way the restaurant looks, to make people more comfortable," Kazali explained. "We now have locals who were coming in two or three times a year coming in two or three times a month."
Gone are the white tablecloths. In their place are impressive wood tables that appear to historically match the circa 1870 portrait of William Ballard that hangs in the inn's lobby. There are new hardwood and brick floors, a new paint scheme and lighting fixtures.
In the center of the dining room is a long gathering table, along the sides are booths and traditional four-tops. It's the gathering table where Kazali especially enjoys seeing his guests.
"It's a great way to meet people. It's a great way to see what other people are having and talk about the food. It's fun. We do occasionally get people who don't want to sit with others, and that's fine. We have an ample number of separate tables."
The menu also underwent an overhaul.
"For the person who wants to do their own thing -- one appetizer, one entree and one dessert -- we can do that. But we're encouraging more sharing. When two people come in, we recommend ordering three dishes to share," he said.
Perfect for sharing are oysters on the half shell ($14 for 1/2 dozen), sliders with white cheddar ($7 each), pork belly ($14) and marinated hanger steak ($23).
If the prices seem surprising, given Kazali's outstanding reputation, they, too, are by design.
"We brought down the prices so people are willing to try different things. The value of this menu is great. We want people to come in and experience the concept of what we're trying to do."
Kazali, born in Indonesia and raised from the age of 13 in Santa Barbara, comes from a family of innkeepers. He decided to go in another direction and studied at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
His food has long been acclaimed and Kazali is well-known throughout the Valley for his philanthropy. Now he's hoping his foodie followers will want to make The Gathering Table one of their favorite eateries anywhere.
"We want it to be where people from all walks of life can have a meeting place. We want it to be a real gathering place," he said.
Terravant Wine Company opened in Buellton with an attached restaurant called Avant. Two years ago the restaurant was renamed Terravant Winery Restaurant. The Terravant owners are optimistic that the third time will be the charm as they completely overhaul the restaurant. It's now called Bottlest. There's a new chef and menu, new general manager and decor.
Executive chef Owen Hanavan made a splash on the Santa Barbara restaurant scene when he was hired as head chef for Barnareno when it opened in 2014. General manager and certified sommelier Vlad Stojanov, originally from Serbia, comes to Bottlest by way of Bacara Resort, where he was the resort's beverage manager.
"The name is a play on words. Terravant has been sourcing great wine and great grapes since its inception. They decided to use all that experience and bottle it into one form," Stojanov explained.
"We've changed up the menu a lot," Hanavan added. "It's approachable which means it's easy to eat, it's recognizable. Lamb meatballs ($16) is a perfect example. It's a fun bite and people know meatballs. It's not your typical smothered-in-marinara meatball. We have a global cuisine and all the food is great with wine."
A classically French-trained chef, Hanavan buys locally and from the international market.
"Good ingredients come from all over the world. The rack of lamb ($29) is from New Zealand. Some of the best fish is from the Mediterranean. We buy extensively and try to highlight local farms but we don't limit ourselves to farm-to-table."
Bottlest has an open, airy, thoroughly modern look. The kitchen, previously closed off from public view, is now open, a feature that was important to Hanavan.
According to Stojanov, the restaurant at Terravant was always an afterthought to the company's wine production. Now, as Bottlest, it is meant to stand on its own, to be its own destination. Adding a full bar was part of that transition. They now have a classic cocktail menu, some with fun twists, have greatly expanded the beer list, and even make their own vermouth.
Bottlest maintained the 52-bottle "wine wall" that's been in place since Avant days. Stojanov is also in the process of adding to that with a selection of local library wines.
"Nobody is really talking about wines from the area being ageable. People don't think about leaving their pinots in the cellar for 15 years. It's a conversation worth having," Stojanov said.
He's already acquired a selection of Hitching Post wines going back to the 1990s (Hitching Post makes its wine at Terravant), and winemakers including Bryan Babcock and Jim Clendenen have responded favorably, he said.
When it was announced last fall that Petros was moving from its longtime space in Los Olivos, fans of the Greek restaurant didn't know quite what to expect. What they got was a casual concept, Petros Kafe, in Solvang. It opened in April, bringing with it several familiar faces from its Los Olivos staff. With indoor and perfect-for-people-watching outdoor seating, Petros Kafe has a relaxed feel, ideal for a menu that includes items like lamb pizza ($18) and Greek burger ($18), along with traditional dinner dishes like grilled salmon ($25).
Plenty on Bell made a splash when Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian opened it in January 2016 with beloved Los Alamos chef Jesper Johansson in the kitchen. He had an extremely loyal following from his years as chef at Cafe Quakenbush. That restaurant closed in 2015 (the owners retired and sold the building), making Johansson available for Plenty. Only a year later, Ryder and Topalian decided to move from Los Alamos and wanted to sell Plenty. Johansson and his sous chef, Alec Roehl, became the new owners and made just the changes the place needed.
They resumed serving breakfast (the previous owners originally offered breakfast but then discontinued it) and tweaked the menu with a sampling of favorites from Johansson's Quakenbush days. There's a Quakenbush turkey sandwich ($12) and his famed slow-cooked pork dish, Jesper's Banh Mi ($14).
Change can be scary. Change can be good. In the highly challenging independent restaurant world, the owners of these Valley restaurants are betting on the latter.