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Donna Polizzi

Here & There

Donna Polizzi: From Retro to Chic, Laid-Back Los Alamos Makes the Living Easy

Old West tranquiltiy and cultural sophistication are part of the draw, but don’t forget the food, wine and antiques

Jamie Gluck, owner of Bell Street Farm in Los Alamos, welcomes diners with an inviting smile and a delicious menu. Click to view larger
Jamie Gluck, owner of Bell Street Farm in Los Alamos, welcomes diners with an inviting smile and a delicious menu. (Donna Polizzi)

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Wonder where the celebrities hang out these days? Believe it or not, the answer is Los Alamos.

The quiet, rustic town is in the heart of Santa Barbara County Wine Country. It’s less than four square miles, along Highway 101, just 10 miles north of Buellton and 18 miles south of Santa Maria.

Highway 135, which is Bell Street through town, is where you’ll want to hang out. It’s home to The Victorian Mansion, a bed and breakfast at 326 Bell St., and to Gussied Up Antiques, 349 Bell St.

Two blocks away is Los Alamos Depot Mall, 515 Bell St., if you want antique, choice retro and vintage items at reasonable prices. Before you go, grab a croissant across the street at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, 550 Bell St., but give yourself ample time to browse because the place is huge, and it’s full of treasures.

Trust me, you want to eat lunch at Bell Street Farm, 406 Bell St. Owner Jamie Gluck will greet you with a big smile, a handshake and a list of the day’s delicious farm-to-table menu specials. I like to eat on the back patio, which is dog friendly.

Los Alamos should boast about being home to the 1880 Union Hotel & Saloon. The hotel is a story in itself. Walking inside is like traveling back in time to, well, 1880. There’s really nothing like it in Santa Barbara County.

Originally, the place was a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop. The hotel now has 14 rooms, each with unique themed décor but a definite Old West ambiance.

I always enjoy stopping in for a cool drink and sitting at the bar or out back in the beautiful garden with friends. But you’ll never be bored with the friendly people, pool table or outdoor giant chess set. There are so many interesting things to do and see!

Speaking of seeing things, I’ve been told by a very convincing long-time employee that the 1880 Union Hotel is haunted. She told a compelling story that seemed sincere about things being moved around when she was the only one there. She says she often stays at the hotel, but there is one room that she will no longer sleep in. All I can say is, “Who ya gonna call?”

The 1880 Union Hotel has a rich musical history. “Say, Say Say” what you want in a small town and you’re sure to hear that Michael Jackson, a Los Olivos resident who died in 2009, and Paul McCartney produced a video by that very name at the hotel. The song was released in 1983 and became a No. 1 hit in numerous countries.

The song was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. If that wasn’t impressive enough, “Say, Say Say” was No. 7 of 10 of Jackson’s No. 1 hits in a 12-month period.

Johnny Cash also sang at The Union Hotel in the 1950s.

Los Alamos effortlessly juggles antique and chic. Along with its Western feel and roots, it has some of the region’s best wine tasting, beer and food.

On any given Friday or Saturday night, while enjoying a glass of good local wine and a tasty dinner at Full of Life Flatbread, 225 Bell St., you’re just as likely to run into someone famous in this little town as you are on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

A great place that features great food, an espresso bar, local wines plus an art gallery featuring contemporary art by local artists, is Café Quackenbush at The General Store, 458 Bell St.

Few small towns can offer old-town tranquility and cultural sophistication as seamlessly as Los Alamos.

Another jewel is Terramonary Porcelain Dinnerware, 273 Bell St. Its collection is world class, and features porcelain dinnerware, ceramics, gifts and books. 

If wine tasting is your thing, Casa Dumetz, 388 Bell St., is a fun place. On Friday nights, you’re likely to run into Emilio Estevez, a close friend of the owner. Oh, and the wine isn’t bad either. On the weekends, there’s often live music, as well.

Next door is Bedford Winery, 448 Bell St., featuring local wines from the Valley. The staff is like running into old friends —personable, friendly and knowledgeable.

Los Alamos is easy to find and well worth the drive. It’s right off Highway 101 in between the Santa Ynez and the Santa Maria valleys, adjacent to horse ranches, wineries and rolling hills.

It is evident what attracts the rich and famous to live, and play here. But it’s really the locals who make this place shine. Los Alamos has good old-fashioned neighborliness, where everyone knows everyone, the vibe is relaxed and laid back, but with its own “buzz” that never seems to stop.

— Donna Polizzi is a regional travel expert and founder of Keys to the Coast, a Central Coast travel resource providing members with a customized list of recommendations on the best places that locals want to go. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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