The Santa Maria Valley, just north of Santa Barbara and south of San Luis Obispo, is known for its rolling hills, morning fog, sandy seaside dunes, early California history, elegant wines and their spectacular Santa Maria-style BBQ.
Yes, you’ve heard of Kansas City, North Carolina, Memphis and a host of other barbecue styles—but welcome to the Santa Maria rub.
While the Travel Channel has a whole segment dedicated to the Santa Maria Elks club and their frequent fund raising cookouts, if you happen to be in the area when the famed Elks Lodge #1538 isn’t cooking, there are still a few excellent choices that have the same kind of history in their approach to Santa Maria BBQ.
As Sunset Magazine points out Santa Maria barbecue is “America’s least-known best barbecue” and that pretty much sums it up. Initially a way to feed traveling vaqueros and cattle workers, locals had the easily available beef from massive cattle ranches and used what is known as the tri-tip cut in chunks aged in a dry rub of salt, pepper and garlic salt (with variations) then slow cooked over coastal red oak wood and served with salsa and pinquito beans, a truly local small, plump legume. Tortillas or garlic bread and green salad complete the meal.
The Far Western Tavern, owned by the third generation of the Minettis, a long-time Santa Maria Family that has also branched out into wine with Riverbench Winery and a dry goods company called Susie Q’s, is the standard by which Santa Maria barbecue is measured. Susie Q distributes the Santa Maria spices, beans and red oak that have made the barbecue in this area famous. In addition to the original tri-tip, every kind of beef cut is offered as well as local seafood. Originally in the Palace Hotel in Guadalupe, Far Western has relocated to the charming town of Orcutt, bringing their original recipes and the grand mahogany bar with them.
Susan Righetti is the stylish face of Far Western and the Susie behind Susie Q’s. She speaks lovingly of the family, its history in Santa Maria Valley and the Minetti family’s commitment to sustaining the vitality of the Valley. They still run cattle along with grape growing and the family’s other ventures.
Another excellent Santa Maria barbecue joint is Shaw’s Famous Steakhouse. A casual dining, family place its vast space makes for the perfect place for a dinner for two or twelve. A relish tray is delivered upon being seated and when asked, the waiter even hand-stuffed the blue cheese olives requested for the martinis. This staff goes above and beyond.
Start with the tri-tip appetizer to get a taste of the original Santa Maria rub ‘cue and then choose a petite filet or sirloin for another taste of what makes this steak house famous. Pair with a side of scampi for a meal that can easily be lunch the next day. Pinquito beans and salsa is all-you-can-eat so be sure and eat a lot of those yummy beans.
Other fantastic dining options in the Valley, especially for lunch, include the unique Moxie Café, which was started by the owner of a local healthcare company in order to feed his employees healthy, fresh food on their lunch hours. Creative salads, steak chili, fresh sandwiches, gelato, coffees and live music many nights of the week make Moxie the place to go at any time of day. Their motto is “eat fresh and healthy…and make a lot of friends” and it works.
Rooney’s Irish Pub has at least six house-made beers on tap at all times (two are seasonal) and they are made right there. A tasting of six beers is the way to try the full gamut and pair these with classic Irish grub like Bangers and Mash, Irish Stew, Corned Beef and Cabbage as well as an inverted and modernized Shepherd’s pie. And, because this is California, one of the most popular dishes is the fish tacos. Rooney’s, owned and run by a couple ex-firefighters, is lively and delicious, with something for everyone, including an extensive Irish whiskey list and, of course, excellent local wines.
It was Clarissa Nagy who clued us into the fish tacos at Rooney’s while tasting through her line of ultra-small production single vineyard wines under her label, CNagy Wines. Santa Maria with its towns of Orcutt and Santa Maria is really a small town and, frankly, everyone seems to know – and support – each other.
Clarissa’s day job is crafting the larger production Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Sparkling wines at the beautiful Riverbench Winery, part of the Minetti family holdings. Grab a picnic and head to Riverbench’s flower-filled grounds for live music most weekends and excellent, affordable sparklings.
Clarissa Nagy’s background is in food science and she fell into wines because of the chemistry. You could say chemistry played a part in making wines that go beautiful with foods as well as led to her marriage to Jonathan Nagy, winemaker at Byron Winery. They met the first day they both started working there and now make wines throughout the Valley and raise a seven year old daughter.
Clarissa has been able to source small amounts of grapes, an acre, of the varietals she loves and coaxes them into truly elegant, varietally-on-point Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Other varietals, including Chardonnay and Grenache are in CNagy’s future.
Ca’ del Grevino has tasting rooms in Orcutt and in Santa Barbara’s Funk District, but visiting their estate and seeing the expansion planned for these lovely hills is nothing less than mind-blowing. Existing now is a massive mansion and winery facility, as well as an outdoor amphitheater and stunning gardens. In the plans and under construction in the lower hills of the property is a tasting room, gravity-fed winery and caves as well as a combination of fine and casual dining restaurants focusing on local bounty.
The wines at Ca’del Grevino include the larger production Element line of wines from Santa Maria Valley, the Grevino single vineyard line (including a yummy Grenache) and the high-end limited production Ca’del Grevino label. With its facility and tasting expansion, Ca’ is primed to grow and further its commitment to this lush but quaint Valley.
Next door and perched high on a hill is Presqu’ile Winery. Meaning “almost an island,” Presque’ile is a departure from most wineries in its very modern architectural approach, open terraces, lots of outdoor seating and meeting, lean lines and lean wines.
Presqu’ile’s winemaker, Dieter Cronje, with the support of Matt Murphy and the multi-generational Pinot Noir-loving Murphy family, makes a stunning, fresh but creamy Sauvignon Blanc and a crisp but rounded Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir line up is what you would expect from a family that seeks out the best fruit, and planted much of it, for their favorite line. Beautiful across the entire line, especially in the clone-specific single vineyard Pinots.
When possible, get a tour of the 300 yard long wine cave which ends at an elevator that ascends through production areas of the winery and ends up at the Terrace with 180-degree views out to the Pacific and across the fog-touched rolling hills of this paradise.