The Best Lunch in Santa Barbara (We Promise)

It’s time for lunch. You’re in Santa Barbara, California, and boy are you hungry. Look around. No matter where you’re standing, there are probably at least three restaurants in view, with many more tucked just around that bend or behind this stand of palm trees. But how do you determine which restaurants merit a visit and which restaurants fall short? Enter the 10Best lunch list, featuring the 10 most delicious lunch spots in town.

If you’re in the mood for seafood, you’re in luck. Simply head toward the water to find some of the freshest catches in the area at local favorites like On The Alley and the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. For something more traditional, like a deli-fresh sub or sandwich, try Three Pickles - home of one of the best sandwiches in Santa Barbara. And if you have a healthy appetite... for something healthy, that is, make a beeline for one of The Natural Cafe’s 10 crowd-pleasing locations. Big portions, savory veggies and heart-smart takes on traditional comfort foods are sure to please everyone in your party, even the choosiest eaters.

Continue reading to discover 10 great restaurants to visit for your midday meal. Whether you want to sit down and stay awhile or grab a bite and go, consult this list to find the perfect place. In fact, you might try to squeeze in two lunches after seeing all that Santa Barbara has to offer. (Don’t worry, it’s ok; you’re on vacation!)

Three Pickles
There are sandwiches and then there are sandwiches. The latter being the variety you are happy to pay any sum of money for, wait in lines for and eat standing up if the situation calls for it. Three Pickles makes both kinds. They make perfectly decent deli stacks - you know, meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato etc. - and they also make decadent and messy versions called "Subs Our Way." These subs boast the meat and/or cheese of your choice topped with a pile of chopped onions, tomatoes and dill pickles dressed in olive oil and oregano. You will need napkins and, oh, probably additional napkins. There is also a glorious fixin' bar (more pickles!) and tasty beers on tap. Three Pickles is housed in Santa Barbara's remaining historic Chinatown landmark, Jimmy's Oriental Gardens, so it's sure to satisfy your appetite for sightseeing, too. ((805) 965-1015)

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The Spot
Located just past the train tracks on Linden Avenue, mere steps from the beach, is The Spot: a trusty little shack of a restaurant that all the locals know. Serving up delicious burgers and fries for over 90 years, The Spot is Carpinteria's go to for a quick, savory bite. The surprisingly vast menu also includes veggie burgers, select Mexican specialties and fish n' chips. There's no dress code so come in your bikini or trunks if you please. There is seating outside OR you can just walk across the street to the park for an impromptu picnic! A can't-miss in Santa Barbara. ((805) 684-6311)

Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar
For the most delicious noodles in Santa Barbara, head to Empty Bowl Noodle Bar inside the Santa Barbara Public Market. This casual noodle bar makes everything fresh. You can grab at seat at the long counter or order your food to go and take it home or eat it at any of the open seats in the marketplace. They craft a variety of Thai-inspired noodle dishes to order. Appetizers are equally delicious; their green papaya salad with heirloom carrots is almost too pretty to eat. To drink they have craft beers on tap, wine and sweet and spicy Thai iced tea. Empty Bowl Noodle Bar is right in the center of Public Market, with many other shop and food vendors in the same building. There is a free subterranean parking lot. (805-335-2426)

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company
Seafood doesn't get any fresher than this. At the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, you can pick your lunch right out of the tanks. Established in 1980, this restaurant began as a shellfish shop before popular demand (and secret family recipes) transformed it into the bustling eatery it is today. Their menu includes all types of shellfish, but live abalones, crabs and lobsters - many locally sourced - are the real stars. Local and national beers are available on draft and pair nicely with a bread bowl of chowder on a cold or foggy day. There is bar seating inside, table seating outside and a even walk up window for to-go orders. ((805) 966-6676)

Paradise Cafe
Whether you're on vacation or just pretending you're on vacation, sometimes you all you want is a nice, relaxing lunch. Preferably in the sun, definitely with fresh regional fare, and perhaps accompanied by a sophisticated adult beverage, like a glass of local white wine. If this is the case, Paradise Cafe is the right lunch spot for you. Just one block off bustling State Street, Paradise Cafe has been a local favorite for over 30 years. Their menu is typically Californian - fresh salads, local seafood, burgers... Oh, the burgers! The Paradise's oak wood grill gives their patties a flavor that is hard to beat. On beautiful days, the serene garden setting of their patio is your most pleasant option, but there is also ample indoor seating and even a bar area for those in a hurry or dining alone. (805-962-4416)

On The Alley
On The Alley is a more casual sister venue brought to you by the owners of Brophy Bros., Santa Barbara's wildly popular seafood restaurant. Serving fresh fish tacos, tasty sandwiches (try the pulled pork) and burgers, On The Alley dishes up great lunch fare in view of the harbor. Included on the menu are a handful of Brophy Bros. classics. Breakfast is also served. Communal seating is available in front of the restaurant for dining al fresco, or you can take your food to go. And, as if the sea air, generous portions and wallet-friendly prices aren't already enough to ensure a feel good experience, everything in the restaurant - from the floor tiles to the refrigeration units - is a result of the owners' commitment to using only products that are made in the USA. ((805) 962-6315)

The Natural Cafe
With 10 locations in the surrounding areas, The Natural Cafe is a Santa Barbara small business success story. A local favorite for vegetarian and vegan options, this popular lunch and dinner restaurant also serves up delicious chicken and fish entrees. In all of their semi-casual establishments, you place your order at the counter and then wait for your food to be delivered to your table. Popular dishes include their fresh fish tacos, savory meatless burgers and signature caesar salad generously topped with avocado. To drink, The Natural Cafe offers beer, regional wine, natural sodas and delicious custom blended smoothies. They also have delicious desserts! ((805) 962-9494)

We begin with a warning: do not even think about setting foot in this specialty deli unless you are prepared to buy a handful of assorted delicacies you didn't even know you needed. That said, if you are the type of person that likes discovering exotic seasonings, buttery cheeses and unusual European ingredients, this is the lunch stop for you. First you must attempt to walk straight to the counter - no getting distracted - to place your order for a decadent sandwich or panini made with luxe ingredients like prosciutto and cranberry-fig confit. And then, while your order is being crafted by the wonderful staff, you are free to browse. The cheese counter, the dessert case, the rows and rows of gourmet seasonings, chocolates, wines and more... all of this is yours for the choosing while you wait. ((805) 899-2300)

Mac's Fish & Chip Shop
Perhaps best known around the country for being featured on the popular Food Network program Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, Mac's Fish & Chip Shop is locally famous for a more obvious, less fame-derived reason: they serve up seriously crisp fish and the tastiest chips in town! Grant and Kate MacNaughton, the fine couple behind Mac's (born and bred Brits, both), work their deep-fried magic with sustainable Alaskan cod, but that's certainly not the sum total of their offering. Also on the menu at Mac's are savory meat pies, family recipe haggis, locally crafted sausages and classic British sides, like Heinz beans and mushy peas. Vegetarians are made welcome - and hungry - too; Mac's vegetable curry pie is a rare treat. ((805) 897-1160)

La Super-Rica
For an authentic taste of Mexico, drive up Milpas until, on the right, you see a little white shack with aqua trim. There is no sign, but a line extending from the doorway will let you know that you're at the right place. This is La Super-Rica, famously lauded by the legendary Julia Child as one of her favorite places to eat. Most famous for their tacos, the other specialties on their menu are equally as enticing, from tamales to gorditas and pozole. Portions are small and prices are fair, so be sure to order a little more than you usually might. And while you're standing in line, peek through the windows to admire the view: each and every tortilla served at this establishment is made by hand, directly in plain sight. ((805) 963-4940)

Geneva Ives moved to Santa Barbara in 2000 on a whim (ok, and to go to college) and never looked back. She loves Santa Barbara because it’s really one of America’s greatest small towns - it just happens to have glorious beaches and celebrity residents, too! Geneva spent a decade managing an adorable, locally owned boutique in downtown Santa Barbara and met her husband when he was working as a waiter at the Cajun restaurant right next door. Together they go on many adventures trying to find the best activities, drinks and dining experiences in the tri-county area. 

Read more about Geneva Ives here.

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Maps and Directions

Three Pickles 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: Deli
Cost: $
The Spot 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: American, Burger, Latin, Mexican
Neighborhood: Carpinteria
Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: Asian, Thai, Vegetarian
Neighborhood: Downtown
Cost: $
Santa Barbara Shellfish Company 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: Seafood
Neighborhood: Santa Barbara
Cost: $
Paradise Cafe 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: American
Neighborhood: Santa Barbara
Cost: $$
On The Alley 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: American, Seafood
Neighborhood: Santa Barbara
Cost: $
The Natural Cafe 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: American, New American, Vegetarian
Neighborhood: Downtown
Cost: $
Metropulos 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: Deli, European
Neighborhood: Funk Zone
Cost: $
Mac's Fish & Chip Shop 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: British, European
Neighborhood: Downtown
Cost: $
La Super-Rica 10Best List Arrow
Cuisine: Latin, Mexican
Neighborhood: Santa Barbara
Cost: $
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