Let’s face it, there’s an inevitable air of anticipation in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day—whether you find the occasion romantic or choose to walk around mumbling, “Hallmark holiday,” February 14th comes with both hype and heartfelt expectations. But, faster than you can say “conversation hearts,” grand V-Day plans can easily disintegrate into long lines, expensive bills, impromptu Sex and the City marathons, and one too many bottles of wine. The good news: Santa Barbara offers quiet beaches, secluded hideaways, and hundreds of restaurants from hole-in-the-wall charmers to posh eateries—and herein I’ve listed my top choices for a happy heart day. And the really good news? If you follow my lead, you might just top the holiday off with a sweet smooch from your valentine. That’s a big IF, people…keep reading.
Revel in a little Old World charm at Arnoldi’s Cafe, one of the most historic restaurants in town. With classic Italian fare, a full bar, and twinkle lights and bocce ball out back, you’re bound to induce the look of love. The kicker: Prices are moderate and the crowd is comprised of mainly locals, save for the under-the-radar celebs who frequent the cafe (think Jack Johnson and Michael Keaton).
If you’ve got some V-Day dough burning a hole in your pocket, treat your sweetheart to dinner at The Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch. The 19th-century citrus packing house-turned-dining room serves up wine country fare by the fire or in view of the sun setting over the Pacific—a brook even babbles within earshot. The Ranch is tucked in the hills of Montecito and has a long history of storied romance—the hostelry has hosted the likes of John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin for honeymoon getaways.
If you want to take your date to a spot you’ll frequent each time you’re in Santa Barbara, make reservations at Ca’ Dario. Located downtown, this intimate eatery has white tablecloth-covered tables for two and vintage photos adorning the walls, and once you’re a regular, the waitstaff knows you by name. The wine list is extensive and the dishes taste like they’re straight from an Italian mama’s kitchen. The Ravioli al Burro e Salvia—pasta pillows filled with spinach and ricotta, covered with browned butter sage sauce—is a decadent local favorite.
It’s not necessary to spend a lot of money for a cozy Valentine’s Day. Stop into markets like Lazy Acres or Trader Joes, pick up some vino and brie, and head to one of a few choice outdoor spots in Santa Barbara where you can watch the ocean and take in the sunset. Franceschi House—a historic, 19th-century property built by talented botanist Francesco Franceshi—sits in disrepair amid a rare botanical collection cultivated by the original owner. A picnic area offers a quiet spot where you can set up an al fresco dinner with panoramic views of the Channel Islands.
Feature image by Foxtongue/Flickr