Fresh bluefin carpaccio is a tempting starting point at Convivo at the Santa Barbara waterfront. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
Fresh bluefin carpaccio is a tempting starting point at Convivo at the Santa Barbara waterfront. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)

Convivo Restaurant & Bar is creating culinary excitement on the Santa Barbara waterfront with its unique food, great cocktails and superb location, and chef-owner Peter McNee is a man living his dream.

“If you’d told me when I was a kid working in a burger joint in Minnesota, that someday I’d have my own restaurant across from the beach … well, that would’ve been remarkable,” McNee said in his understated way.

McNee calls his food “Nomad Italian,” describing not only the cuisine but his own journey getting here.

“Convivo means feast in Latin,” McNee explained, “and our focus is on food from the broader Mediterranean with influences from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East.

“But everything is with an Italian sensibility,” he added, “we don’t want to make it ingredient-heavy or complicated.”

When the Santa Barbara Inn — where Convivo is located at 901 E. Cabrillo Blvd. at the intersection of South Milpas Street — completed its remodel in 2016, McNee came to check it out.

“I was completely inspired by the architecture,” he said, referring to the Moroccan/Mediterranean look of the hotel.

  • Convivo chef and owner Peter McNee with the Za’atar flatbread with baba ghanoush, labneh and chickpea spread, the first thing that went on the restaurant’s menu. Calling his food “Nomad Italian,” he says “everything is with an Italian sensibility. We don’t want to make it ingredient-heavy or complicated.” (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • The charcoal avocado salad features a splash of color and taste. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • Za’atar flatbread with baba ghanoush, labneh and chickpea spread. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • Convivo mixologist Devyn Licon is ready to serve. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • Convivo cocktails are artistic and colorful. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • Summer peach pizza with jamon, serrano gorgonzola and carmelized onions is a year-round favorite. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • Salatasi salad with tomatoes, cucumber, tahini, kale and crispy chickpeas. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • General manager Rich Hollowell delivers with baked whole vermillion. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • The open kitchen is the anchor point of Convivo’s elegant dining room. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • Fresh bluefin carpaccio is a tempting starting point at Convivo at the Santa Barbara waterfront. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)
  • Party near the beach. (Rob Raede / Noozhawk photo)

One look at the menu — or better, a thorough tasting — tells the story.

Flatbread with baba ghanoush and labneh, followed by the Salatasi salad, Seaweed Malfadini pasta and the roast chicken with harissa and chermoula is like a Mediterranean cruise in a meal.

Team Let’s Go Eat has been hearing for months now how good this place is, but trying it that first time required overcoming a certain stereotype.

Meaning: Restaurants near or on the beach can often be guilty of, shall we say, relying heavily on their location.

McNee laughed when we mentioned that to him, and said, “Yes, we do have the quintessential Santa Barbara location. But my job is to defy that stereotype … to create great food that is delicious and won’t kill you when you get the bill.”

At the end of our first dinner there we were wondering why there was ever a question.

The journey from small town Minnesota kid to owning that beachfront restaurant you’ve dreamed of was, well, nomadic.

After college, and having worked a few part-time restaurant gigs during school, McNee headed west to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

After graduation he stayed in the Bay Area, working at Stars in San Francisco and Tra Vigne in St. Helena, but decided he needed more authentic polish on his skills.

So he moved to Italy for a year, working in restaurants near Lake Garda and Tuscany.

“I knew at an early age I wanted to be a chef, but it wasn’t until Italy that I realized how exciting this career could be,” McNee told us.

Back in the United States, he put his newly refined skills to work, landing the executive chef gig at Poggio in Sausalito, owned by Il Fornaio founder Larry Mindel.

Working for someone else is one thing, McNee said, but “being co-owner at Convivo (with Mindel) and building the place from scratch, that’s a whole ‘nother thing. This menu had never been written before.”

And it’s a menu that relies heavily on local sourcing.

“The farmers market is the backbone of this restaurant,” McNee told us.

“Our food is designed to not weigh you down, and that comes from the preparation,” he added.

The word that comes to our minds regarding Convivo food is “beautiful.” Presentation is clearly a priority here, for both the food and drinks.

“Guests judge the food by how it looks before they eat it,” McNee acknowledged.

In recent years he and his team have also raised their bar game considerably, under the careful eye of general manager Rich Hollowell and top mixologist Devyn Licon.

There’s a nice synchronicity of ingredients between the food and the cocktails, often using the same fruit and seasonal ingredients. 

This combination of eclectic food, creative cocktails and the waterfront location is creating a loyal following.

“We have a lot of regulars,” McNee said, “and I’m one of them. When we have friends visit, we bring them here.”

When you own a place that offers all this, why go anywhere else?

Locals Only

Make sure you check the nightly specials, which can be exceptional. And bring friends, because you’ll want to try lots of dishes. And definitely sit on the patio.

When You Go

Convivo — located at 901 E. Cabrillo Blvd. on the ground floor of the Santa Barbara Inn — is open daily, with breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m., brunch from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and lunch and dinner from 1:30 to 9 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Reservations are accepted.

Rob Raede switched to solid food at a young age and never looked back. He and his wife, both UC Santa Barbara grads, say their favorite form of entertainment is talking with the wait-staff, bartenders and owners at restaurants and bars. Rob’s also on a lifelong quest to find the perfect bolognese sauce. The opinions expressed are his own.