For a quarter-century, one of Santa Barbara’s best restaurants has been Bouchon, just off State Street in the heart of downtown.
“Consistently delivering the home-run experience is what’s allowed us to stay in business 25 years,” said Mitchell Sjerven, owner of the restaurant at 9 W. Victoria St.
Sjerven’s “home-run experience” has nothing to do with baseball fantasy camp, and everything to do with his passion for food and wine — especially if it’s local.
“The joy for me,” he said, “is being in the restaurant, interacting with the customers and showing them new wines, hearing them tell us how much they loved their meal.
“We’re expensive, and people come with high expectations,” he added. “Our customers trust us and feel comfortable here, knowing they’re going to get what they want.”
What they want, Sjerven said, is food they can pronounce and understand, executed at a high level by a kitchen staff that knows what it’s doing.
It may be “fine dining,” but Sjerven told us “Bouchon is not a stuffy, fancy place.”
“We’re much more of a convivial bistro-style atmosphere,” he told us, “and we want guests to come dressed as they’re comfortable.”
The carefully curated wine list, heavily weighted toward local wines, certainly added to our conviviality on a recent visit.
“We actually have two wine lists,” Sjerven explained, “our longer list of local Santa Barbara wines, and what we call ‘The Outsiders’ list,” which adds wines from Paso Robles, Napa and Europe.
“We want our guests to have a wine they love, even if they’re not familiar with local wineries,” he said.
To help educate customers on the local wine offerings, Sjevren said Bouchon (which means “cork” in French) has an extensive wine by the glass menu “so people can try wines/grapes/varietals/blends/vineyards they might not know yet.”
As for the food menu, the main items don’t often change. Some — like the Rack of Lamb and Duck Duo — have been on the menu for years. And everything is complimented by fresh seasonal produce from the farmers market, purchased daily.
If there’s local fish on the menu at night, “its because it was fresh off the boat that morning,” Sjerven added.
“Our core recipes are passed down from chef to chef, and we always try to have someone in training to take over for when a chef decides to move on,” Sjerven said.
“Consistency is key.”
Sjerven grew up in Minnesota, but visited his grandparents often in Carpinteria, and knew from an early age he wanted to live here, he said.
So he enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, and worked his way through college waiting tables. After a short flirtation with the notion of law school, he wisely decided to pursue his true passions of food and wine.
From 1992 through 1996 he worked at various restaurants in Santa Barbara, including a stint at the Wine Cask, where, Sjerven said, “I truly began to understand the joys of fine dining.”
Along the way he met his now-wife, Amy, and after a short-lived starter effort, opened Bouchon in 1998.
“When we opened, there was no ‘Theater District’,” Sjerven said. “The Granada was boarded up, the Ensemble Theatre was the Unity Shoppe, and the Arlington (Theatre) was it.”
Despite the sparse neighborhood back then, Bouchon has prospered, in no small part, Sjerven said, because of the staff.
“We have some employees who’ve been with us over 17 years,” he said, adding, “I believe in educating by showing and telling, not yelling.”
The work/life balance and flexibility that Sjerven offers his staff “is a real competitive advantage,” he said.
“I get good people from other restaurants because of that,” he added.
If all of this sounds like someone who has restaurant ownership down to an art, it might be because Sjerven does — passing that knowledge along these days by teaching a class at Santa Barbara City College.
The name of the class? Restaurant Ownership.
“The Food Network makes the business look cool, fun and sexy,” Sjerven said. “Then the students realize it’s a lot of really hard work.”
So, we asked, what’s next?
“I still love it,” Sjevren said. “I’m nowhere near retirement.”
Good, because we’re nowhere near done going to Bouchon.
Let’s Go Eat
Bouchon, 9 W. Victoria St. in downtown Santa Barbara, is open daily from 5 p.m.