Time for Fun in the Funk Zone

Wine, Dine, Explore

Santa Barbara, known as The American Riviera® is home to one of the most exciting, eclectic downtown areas of any city: The Funk Zone. Located just across the street from Stearns Wharf, and the glistening white sands of the blue Pacific Ocean, here you can visit many of the wine tasting rooms to experience why Santa Barbara County was named 2021’s Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Taste the diverseness of the microclimates and varieties of grapes grown, creating expressive creative wines, while you dine in restaurants offering sensual epicurean adventures.

The Funk Zone (running between Cabrillo Boulevard and Highway 101, and between State Street and Garden Street), will fill your longing for good wine, fine, creative dining, off-beat shopping, art galleries and more. So, get your walking shoes on, prepare to discover nooks and crannies in an area filled with energy, excitement, passion, and fun(K)!

An easy drive from greater Los Angeles (to the South), or from the Central Coast area of San Luis Obispo County (to the North), The Funk Zone is a great day trip (and of course, multi-day trip) offering a variety of lodging choices.  

The Funk Zone is one area of Santa Barbara’s wine country where you and your senses will experience a unique journey. Here are a few suggestions to get you going.

Where to Wine

With about a dozen wine tasting rooms in and near The Funk Zone, you won’t be at a loss to enjoy a selection of some of Santa Barbara’s award-winning wines. Let’s look at three:

Margerum Wine Company

Margerum Wine Company is typical of many of the small, boutique winery tasting rooms that dot the Santa Barbara wine region. As a follow up to Santa Barbara being named Wine Region of the Year in 2021, Doug Margerum was recently designated as one of the finalists being considered by Wine Enthusiast Magazine as Winemaker of The Year for 2022.

At Margerum, you will enjoy a selection of small lot, elegant, hand-crafted wines. Doug produces exclusively Rhône varietals from his own estate vineyards, and sources other varietals from some of the area’s most well regarded vineyards. The tasting menu offers a few different tasting options, and if you want to delve into more specifics, check out Margerum’s private tasting options. Margerum also offers cheese and charcuterie platters, along with a complete menu, to accompany your wines.

One of my favorite Margerum wines is their Estate Picpoul Blanc. Once tasted, you’ll be craving more. And yes, I did make a special day trip to Santa Barbara weeks ago just to pick this up!

After tasting at Margerum, inside their comfortable tasting room or on their outside patio, you will understand why Doug is being considered for winemaker of the year. Cheers.

Melville Winery

Melville Winery with vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, produces primarily Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. When tasting at Melville, if you are fortunate, you will get a splash of their estate Chardonnay Sparkling wine! Refreshing, teasing on the palate, and a great way to start a tasting.

We were greeted by Amanda at their Funk Zone tasting room; there is nothing Funky about Amanda…. but she certainly is spunky! With a personality that doesn’t stop, Amanda’s knowledge and passion about Melville in specific, and wine, in general, is infectious. Speaking several languages (including Italian, French and some Russian), Amanda also speaks the language of wine, with the goal of becoming a certified sommelier. She will pour and explain the nuances of the wines on the tasting list, and when it comes to comparing the same varietal from different parts of the vineyard, you will get an education and understanding of what terroir means, and how it influences the bottled product.

On the day I tasted, there was a Chardonnay, three different Pinot Noirs, and an estate Syrah. However, the tasting menu changes frequently, so you will never get bored with re-visits. This is a true exposure to one of Santa Barbara County’s well-regarded AVAs, the Sta. Rita Hills. 

To accompany your tasting take a look at their food menu. From small snacks to a cheese platter and (yummy) Chocolate truffles…you will be transported to a mouthfeel of nirvana. And, if you see Amanda, say Hello to her from me!

The Valley Project

The Valley Project is unique and NOT to be missed if you want to be able to more fully appreciate the diversity and personality of Santa Barbara County’s AVAs. As they proclaim: “Visit us and taste your way through Santa Barbara County One Glass at a Time.” 

On our visit, Jason (who has been in the industry less than a year) walked us through the various AVAs with wines from each. Jason may be new to the wine industry, but like Amanda at Melville, Jason is full of knowledge, passion, and personality. The Valley Project sources grapes from selected vineyards in each of Santa Barbara County’s AVAs. A tasting here is “a trip” where you will experience how differences in climate, soil and geography influence the wines. On the wall, there is an amazing mural that depicts the area, with lots of fun facts about wine, climate, and history. It shows the geology of the various AVAs, and climactic conditions. Tasting, you will visually understand why certain areas are able to grow specific types of grapes. Viewing the mural, you may also learn that red sea urchins live up to 200 years, and that Yanonali (the street that the project’s tasting room is on), was a Chumash Indian Chieftain.

As you are tasting, take time to look at the label on the bottle. The front will highlight (in orange) the AVA, and the back will give you additional information. 

Whether you are a beginner learning about the wonderful world of wine, a long-time taster, or “wine geek,” the Valley Project is a must visit! You can taste outside, but honestly, you’ll want to try to be up close inside so as you travel from glass to glass, you can follow your journey on the amazing mural. Thank you, Jason, for making this a memorable experience!


Where to Dine

The Helena Avenue Bakery

Photo Credit: Ali Beck

Start your day off (you may have to wait a bit) at the Helena Avenue Bakery. Whether you’re in the mood for specialized, mouth-watering baked goods, a yogurt and granola bowl, avocado toast, a breakfast sandwich on brioche, or other early day delicacies, along with artisan coffee or tea, you’ll have plenty to choose from to fuel yourself up as you get ready to explore The Funk Zone.

Photo Credit: Ali Beck

If you crave a buttery, flakey chocolate croissant, theirs will not disappoint. And, while at the Helena Avenue Bakery, check out their selection of salts, spices, and fun little foodie items. Bread items are baked on-site, and most ingredients used are sourced locally and are the highest quality. Sit inside or outside on the spacious patio as you enjoy one of the delicious menu items-and get ready for a full day in the zone! (Note: Entering at the address on Anacapa Street, you wander to the back of a maze that includes Lucky Penny, The Lark restaurant, and other stores, or you can enter directly from Helena Street).

The Lucky Penny

Photo Credit: Ali Beck

After you’ve had a few hours exploring and wine tasting, you may want to return to the same complex to enjoy lunch at Lucky Penny. You can’t miss this small take-out restaurant whose outside walls are adorned with 164,456 shiny pennies. Step inside to order, then find a seat in the shade covered patio and your food will be brought to you.

What to order? Bring your appetite and be forewarned: Most portions are big enough to share (unless you want to take home leftovers-which you may well want to do). 

In the mood for a fresh salad? You won’t be disappointed in the salad selection, featuring the freshest of ingredients, utilizing many locally sourced farm to table fruits and vegetables. Feel like a sandwich? Then order one of the mouth-watering paninis on freshly baked ciabatta (chicken or cheese), or a smoke pork meatball sub on a baguette.

As if these choices aren’t special enough, if you love pizza (and I LOVE pizza), you must order one of the Penny’s wood-fired pizzas. Yes, MUST! With close to a dozen pizzas on the menu, you’ll be hard pressed to choose only one (so if you are in a larger party, order several to share).

Photo Credit: Ali Beck

On this trip we ordered the Margherita pizza. Topped with (amazing) burrata cheese, fresh, local grown cherry tomatoes, basil and marinara sauce-with the crust wood fired perfectly, as the expression goes, this pizza “was to die for.” Unfortunately, we ordered one to share-because it would have been great to take some home. 

Now I don’t profess to be a professional food critic, but this may well be the BEST margherita pizza served in Santa Barbara, and if you have another candidate, please feel free to hit me up and tell me who and where, I’ll be happy to try it!

There’s no “luck” involved in the ingredients, food preparation or personality at the Lucky Penny. The staff is professional, fun, and creative, preparing just downright delicious foods that will make you come back repeatedly.

But…. don’t overdo it at lunch, because after some more wine tasting and exploring, you’ll work up another appetite for an amazing dinner!

Flor de Maiz

Located on the fringe of The Funk Zone, on Cabrillo Blvd, treat yourself to a creative culinary experience at Carlos Luna’s restaurant where the food is described as the “flavors of Mexico.”  You may want to sit inside, but on a perfect afternoon or evening (which most are in Santa Barbara), try to grab a table on the patio, to gaze out at the sparkling Pacific while you dine.

Following our day of exploring and wine tasting, we ended up at Flor de Maiz-late in the afternoon on a perfect early fall day. Although we had been wine tasting, we couldn’t pass up one of their signature adult beverages, the Margarita de Guadalajara. Refreshing, intertwined flavors, this was the perfect sip while perusing the menu. Whatever you order, be assured you are enjoying a dish that is not only creative with enticing flavors, but is also a piece of edible art. As there were four of us, we (thankfully) decided to share a few dishes. We began with the house made guacamole – GREAT decision! The entrees were the enchiladas del mar and lobster tacos. The freshness and quantity of the shrimp (in the enchiladas), and flavors brought out a symphony of tastes for the senses. The Lobster Tacos (or Tacos Langosta) are filled with lobster meat, panela cheese and black beans, drizzled with an avocado aioli-definition of divine. Flor de Maiz is a definite destination for our next trip to Santa Barbara, so we can explore more of the essence of Mexico that are so imaginative, inspired, and artistic. 

Where to Explore

In addition to tasting rooms plus choices for good food, the Funk Zone has an eclectic mixture of other venues to visit. Adult beverage purveyor Cutler’s Artisan Spirits (Santa Barbara’s first legal distillery) and the SB Biergarten, where you will find an  American spin on a classic German biergarten are just two examples. Also, explore small art galleries, and various specialty shops. One such retailer you will want to allow some time for is The Blue Door; this is a store like no other.

The Blue Door

Explore three floors of eclectic, fun, interesting, nostalgic collectibles, furnishings, and interesting paraphernalia. You can spend hours going through the items on display – and will most likely take something home with you. Allow your eyes to wander as you wander, discovering books, old and new, vintage clothing, modern furniture, pieces of art, jewelry, posters, nick-knacks, world globes from the 50’s and so much more. And yes! Even guys will be enthralled by the items displayed, this is a store where even men want to shop! Make The Blue Door a destination on your Funk Zone adventure.

So…. get ready…. set and GO! Plan a visit to The Funk Zone in Santa Barbara. Experience a special area that not only lets you enjoy the uniqueness of Santa Barbara’s wine country with its many tasting rooms, but also lets you experience a unique area where wine, spirits, food, art, culture, and “crazy” blend seamlessly together for one grand adventure. Day trip-long weekend-repeat! Get down and Funky in the Zone.

Don Sonderling is a freelance writer covering California’s Wine Country lifestyle, and culture. He and his wife are constantly sipping their way from Santa Barbara to Napa, focusing on Paso Robles and the Central Coast, where they have explored for about 25 years. Don has earned his WSET2 (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) certification, has completed the Bourgogne Masterclass through the Napa Valley Wine Academy, and is a member of the LA. Wine Writers.

Focusing on the people and unique experiences to be had, Don’s goal is to have people read about California’s amazing wine country adventures, seeing it through his eyes, and say: “I want to go there, try that, meet them,” and enrich the lives of others as his has been, by exploring California’s wine roads.