If you're feeling Lucky's, head to Montecino
The legendary Santa Barbara restaurant is a romp, but it'll cost you.
When my brother heard that my lovely wife and I were headed for Santa Barbara, he said "Oh, you've got to go to Lucky's." I went online and dutifully booked us a table for two. Even on a Monday night, I could score a table no later than 5:45 p.m., firmly in the cool-people-don't-eat-then slot. It was booked solid otherwise.
I should mention here that my brother has owned a successful law practice for years, has homes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and among other things belongs to the Riviera Country Club. Which is to say he's not the sort of fellow who pays much attention to prices at a restaurant.
And so it was with some alarm that, after being greeted warmly at the Montecito institution and being handed a menu, I scanned the offerings.
We get around quite a bit, and we're no pikers. We've enjoyed tasting menus at Michelin-starred restaurants that left us blissful if $600 poorer. But I've got to say, a $42 appetizer [Dungeness Crab Cocktail] and $140 steak [Porterhouse] hit new a la carte highs.
I gained my composure, took my lovely wife's hand, and said, "We're on vacation. We're here, and we'll never be here again. Let's just forget the prices and enjoy ourselves."
Which is to say, for all our differences in bank balances and so forth, I am my brother's brother.
The legend of Lucky's
The dining room was lined with photos of mid-century glamorpusses: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Bobby Darin, Humphrey Bogart, Muhammad Ali, various royals unfamiliar to me. Right over my shoulder posed a young Robert Dinero. Above the fireplace hung a huge picture of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. howling with laughter.
And so I was surprised to learn that Lucky's has been around only about 25 years.
The modest building had survived various previous identities, starting as a set of bungalows in 1926, when the road it faces was part of California's legendary Highway 1. Its incarnations summon the tenor of their various times: in the '50s it was the Pink Squirrel Bar; in the '70s, the Chanteclair ; in the '80s, Santa Fe; the '90s, Coast Village Grill.
While the photos may not have been hanging since DiMaggio played, the owners have conjured a convincing and impressive "classy steak house like they used to have" vibe. It's a white-tablecloth joint lined with dark wood. Our waiter had that wonderful Old World weariness of having opened thousands of menus and answered every question, all with great poise and just a touch of boredom.
I later learned that Lucky's esteemed guests have included such Montecito neighbors as Oprah, Katy Perry, and the rarely-out mega-celebrity duo of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
While at our early hour we saw nobody who was anybody, when we left we did see what the somebodies drive: Right out front were parked a fully restored '68 red Corvette and a handsome white Bentley.
Oh, right: The food at Lucky's
I ordered a Vesper, which Lucky's makes using the rare mixologists'-secret-handshake recipe that uses Cocchi Americano instead of white Vermouth, instantly gaining my admiration. It was vitally cold and immense, a drink so big it prohibits a second.
I asked our waiter about the abalone appetizer. An East Coaster, I mistook it for albacore, as in tuna. I pronounced it "ab-a-lone." He gently, nearly kindly corrected me and explained that the "ah-baloney" was like a big oyster or clam, a rare delicacy, and a product of a nearby farm with the highest standards. Firm flesh, pounded thin and sauteed with breadcrumbs. I was in. It appeared on iridescent shells. While oversauced -- generosity in all things may be the kitchen's vice -- it was lovely, like a slightly chewy scallop, crisp and sharp from the lemon squeeze.
Speaking of vices: It was artichoke season, so we ordered one. Like everything we had at Lucky's it was brightly fresh, crisp and meaty and dead-on.
It was Monday, the only day Lucky's offers chicken pot pie. This may seem an odd choice for a fancy-pants place on a warm June evening. But the pie was made with morels. We have been trying, in vain, to grow morels in our yard for 3 years. And so we had to order it. It was gorgeous, arriving like a brilliantly decorated boat of pastry. The whole thing was rich and delicious, the morels adding a truffle-like savor.
For dessert: The best creme brulee we've ever had. And we've had a lot of them, always prowling for a great one. Its top was a perfectly glassy amber, requiring a firm tap with the edge of the spoon to crackle. Inside was that rare mixture that tastes not like egg, cream, or sugar, but of a somehow perfectly balanced blend that can be only creme brulee.
Out of Lucky's
So would we go to Lucky's again? Nope.
Don't get me wrong. We had a blast. And we do a couple splurge meals a year, and our $350 bill fit in line with those.
We blundered into Lucky's thanks to my brother's careless good graces, and I'm delighted we did.
But when we return to the Santa Barbara area, we'll be looking for our next dining memory. I hear Blackbird has a Michelin star. So does Stonehouse. And...and...and...