When in Santa Barbara, it doesn’t take long to start craving a Margarita. Credit the sun-soaked beaches, the stroll from Stearns Wharf to the Funk Zone to State Street, or the gorgeous Mission Revival architecture. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of bars and restaurants in Santa Barbara serving excellent takes on the classic—here are some of my favorites.
The Hotel Californian’s intimate Moroccan-style lobby bar doesn’t have a Margarita on its menu. However, the bartenders are creative and skilled enough to invent their own version on the fly. During a recent visit, bartender Will Caird shook up a fall Margarita. It was sweetened with St. George spiced pear liqueur and a housemade pumpkin spice syrup, which was originally created for their September full-moon event cocktail.
This cocktail bar by night/coffee shop by day opened just this year. But it’s already topped my list as a must-visit drinks destination. The cocktail menu by beverage director John Hardin stands out not only for its fun and varied offerings but for the housemade ingredients: liqueurs, infused spirits, and flavored salt and sugar for rims. Harden prefers making his own ingredients as it allows him to better control his cocktails’ flavors. For his Picante Amante, a prickly pear Margarita, he makes a prickly pear cordial, habanero tincture, and peppercorn salt.
After touring the red tile–roofed historic landmarks around downtown, duck into the Kimpton Canary Hotel off State Street. The lobby’s restaurant bar, Finch & Fork, offers cocktails made with local ingredients and spirits by the nearby Ventura Spirits and Cutler’s Artisan Spirits. Relax on one of the barstools or sink into a sofa in the lobby with the Smoke & Honey (tequila, mezcal, bitters, local honey, and lemon juice). Or order one of their seasonal drinks, such as the Hot Pink, a spicy watermelon Margarita.
A variety of Margaritas—fruity riffs, spicy variations, and even a $120 “VIP” take (made with a premium añejo tequila)—fuels the festivities at this popular beachside eatery by local restaurateur Carlos Luna (Santo Mezcal, Taqueria La Unica). For those who can’t get a seat at the bar, servers wheel a Margarita cart around the restaurant, ensuring that everyone is treated to a tableside show. Can’t decide which drink to order? When he’s behind the bar, bar manager and drink creator Marcos Altamirano will happily walk you through the menu. Or, if ordering from the cart, check with Frankie Carachure, who also mans the cart at Luna’s other restaurant, Los Agaves on Milpas Street. Personally, I recommend the Margarita Tamarindo Con Chile made with serrano-infused tequila, tamarindo syrup, and fresh lime juice.
This award-winning bar in the Arts District is my go-to for some of the best cocktails in town. Skilled bartenders mix drinks using produce from local farms and quality spirits. And anyone is sure to find a new favorite on the extensive menu, which includes “Current Hits.” There’s also a list that cites every classic cocktail by category. But their Jaguar Moon is a fresh take on the Margarita, combining blanco tequila, manzanilla sherry, green pepper, cucumber, lime juice, pineapple juice, and soda.
This Funk Zone tropical bar (by the same hospitality group behind The Good Lion and Shaker Mill) features nautical decor, boozy slushies, and ample lounge and patio seating. And although it’s known for fun and inventive drinks like a Thai iced tea–inspired cocktail garnished with passion fruit bursting boba, its Spicy Margarita warrants a visit. Made with blanco tequila, lemon juice, golden beet, ginger, honey, pineapple juice, and citrus bitter, you can order it to be as spicy as you dare. They give you a scale of 1 to 5, with the latter being “mouth on fire” spicy.