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Is This Santa Barbara's Dog Patch?

In a town known for manicured lawns and UC bars, a bold new neighborhood brings on the funk.

The mural at AVA Santa Barbara's tasting room.
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Art spills out of the Surfing Museum and Mvevum.
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The lively patio at Corks n' Crowns.
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Mod interior at Drake Wines.
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Locals soak up the sun at East Beach.
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Proprietors Eric Railsback (left) and Brian McClintic sip syrah in front of the Lucky Penny.
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An artist adds another mural to the Funk Zone's cache.
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I feel as if I’ve just arrived at a suburban block party in Los Angeles circa 1950. Newlyweds mingle beneath a postcard-perfect sky as kids scratch a hopscotch court onto the sidewalk with neon chalk. Dogs bark at the droves of pastel cruisers wheeling by, and everyone’s skin is the color of caramel. But instead of a Weber loaded with Oscar Mayer franks, the beloved yellow Burger Bus is grilling organic burgers for a line of ripped surfers, and people are swilling cherry red pinot in bulbous glasses. Better yet, I’m not surrounded by cookie-cutter sprawl: I’m in the Funk Zone—a wonderfully strange new mix of tasting rooms, restaurants, and art galleries that blends scrappy Central Coast surf culture with wine country panache. And it’s all within a stumble-able three-block radius, a stone’s throw from Santa Barbara’s mellow East Beach.

When relentless development began gobbling up State Street two decades ago, artists sought refuge in this gritty tract—the backwater to Santa Barbara’s iconic lush mountains and warm terracotta roofs. In the ’90s, a couple of artsy outposts sprang up: Jim Mahoney opened his cultish Surfing Museum, and MichaelKate Interiors, a furniture store, began moonlighting as an art gallery. Santa Barbara Winery quietly housed wine, but still, the area wasn’t known for much other than the Spearmint Rhino strip club.

Then, last year, a group that included Mayor Helene Schneider and the president of the Arts Collaborative, Nathan Vonk, called upon the artists to come out of hiding. “Santa Barbara has pristine beauty, but the Funk Zone has the beauty of artistic diversity,” Vonk says. Artists began splashing condemned buildings into a jungle of murals that Santa Barbara proper would never tolerate. Mahoney opened his second museum, Mvsevm, where stuffed boars watch over a new trove of quirky California historic treasures—like cowboy and native American paraphernalia from the 1800s. “It’s become very Shangri-la,” Vonk says. true, it feels far from the Waspy ethos of State Street.

Over 15 quirky wine-tasting rooms have joined the party, each its own little universe, with loungey setups designed for lingering. At AVA Santa Barbara, a sprawling chalk mural maps SB's 29 miles of microclimates. While pouring me a splash of grenache, the vintner’s wife, Magan Eng, unscrews a jar of soil from one of their vineyards. “We want people to taste the wine, feel the soil, then look at the map and connect the dots,” Eng says. Crowds gather on Sundays at Corks n’ Crowns’ front porch for people watching and cupcakes with bubbly pairings. Drake Wines looks like a mod dollhouse, and Municipal Winemakers is layered with vintage school decor.

But the pinnacle of the Funk Zone is opening this month in a new complex where nine artisanal operations are taking over a defunct fish market. Next to the Amtrak train that still blows through each day, a posse of notable chefs, distillers, and designers (many hailing from San Francisco) are refining the beachy oeuvre with cosmopolitan swag. Master sommelier Brian McClintic, a Ryan Gosling doppelgänger and star of the new documentary Somm, and former RN74 somm Eric Railsback are putting the final touches on the Zone’s first wine bar, Les Marchands, designed by Town Hall’s Doug Washington. It will bring in European wines and highlight the best local varietals. “Santa Barbara is coming out of the Sideways pinot craze, and now its diversity of world-class wines is getting noticed,” McClintic says. “The Funk Zone is our place to experiment with introducing those wines to the public.” Things really kick off with their Futures Festival on August 10.

In the same complex, the Zone’s new restaurants—the Lark, an upscale spot, and the casual Lucky Penny—are bending the town’s burger-and-fries palate toward calamari cassoulet and pork-fennel meatball pizza. Les Marchands will assemble the wine list for the Lark, and the Lark will curate the menu for Les Marchands. Between the two is a demonstration kitchen where the restaurants’ chefs (formerly of rn74 and Salt House) will lead workshops on pasta making and whole-animal butchering. McClintic and Railsback will join in with wine-focused classes.

Washington has decked out the lark with as much unorthodox decor as his taste permitted: church pews in lieu of boring chairs and an intact confessional hauled in from France. Across the sprawling patio, Lucky Penny is covered in copper coins, glistening like the tan, salty bodies devouring wood-fired pizzas in the afternoon sun.

Other incarnations of funk moving in this summer are Guitar Bar’s jam pad, the handcrafted whiskeys at Cutlers Artisan Spirits, and the beer garden at Figueroa Brewery. If it weren’t all within a few blocks, you’d never be able to pack it into one weekend. En route to homemade pastas at Anchor Woodfire Kitchen, next to the art-themed Hotel Indigo on the western fringe, I notice a mural with a plaintive reminder that as the Funk Zone takes off, people shouldn’t lose sight of the reason it cropped up in the first place: “Look what you’ve done to State Street... don’t destroy my Funk Zone, too!!!”

5 Things To Do Outside The Funk Zone

Sip. The epic view from the balcony at El Encanto is rivaled only by the afternoon tea that comes with housemade pastries.

Stroll. One of the most diverse botanical gardens in the country is at Montecito’s Lotus Land, with over 3,000 plant species covering 37 acres on the grounds of an old estate.

Learn. Good Land Organics—the only coffee farm in the continental U.S.—now hosts tours during which you’ll hike through Arabica groves, taste fresh-picked coffee berries, and sample brewed goodness.

Explore. Day trip to the Channel Islands National Park, where you can snorkel and kayak through kelp forests or hike the undeveloped Santa Cruz Island with wild foxes and bald eagles.

Shop. Pick up some local flavor at Isabella Gourmet Foods, choosing from a slew of local artisanal products like cold-pressed juices, handmade syrups, and rustic loaves.

 

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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