A reservation at the hottest spot in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, The Lark, is hard to come by. If you’re willing to share a table with 20 other strangers, a walk-in is rewarded with the best new American cuisine in the region.
Choosing a restaurant for my only night in Santa Barbara was a tough decision. Santa Barbara has no shortage of great restaurants. Having voluntarily narrowed the choice to four, the UCSB graduation weekend narrowed our choice even more, as tables anywhere were hard to come by. But with a number of enthusiastic endorsements and top reviews of The Lark and the possibility of snagging a space at its communal table, we took a gamble.
A short walk to the vibrant and hip Funk Zone later, we found our oasis near railroad tracks. One has to look a bit hard for curb appeal at first glance, but a garden-like patio and open windows give way to a reclaimed wood and subway tile interior that screams farm to table. With a long wait list, the hostesses recommended we look for seats at the communal table.
Communal it is. The large wood table sits about bar height near the bar itself, and at that time, both the table and bar were packed. Like vultures, my friend and I waited for a duo to vacate seats, which we snagged instantly.
Our fellow diners were friendly and willing to share tips on best dishes, which were helpful as we wanted to try everything on the menu.
I ordered a ginger jar cocktail, an original and refreshing combination of Pisco, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, and Meyer lemon ginger jam. I highly recommend it.
We started with Brussels sprouts, which came highly recommended. They were roasted and tossed with a soy, lime, and sesame sauce that hit all five taste buds. Brussels sprouts are so ubiquitous now that good execution is easy to find, but outstanding and memorable are rare. The Lark’s ability to work in umami and sour in harmony was an achievement.
We next went for a vegetable Tartine (an open-faced sandwich) with green garlic mascarpone, topped with assorted vegetables and squash blossoms. It was simple and fresh, its presentation a colorful impressionist palate of late spring colors.
For a main course, we ordered beef short ribs. These were not what I expected. The meat’s texture was more tenderloin than a typically slow cooked, fall-off-the-bone, heavily sauced version. The meat was sliced into slivers of steak, cooked to a perfect medium-rare and served with summer squash, zucchini, and a tomatillo salsa.
We were surprised at the size of the portions and were quite full at that point; however, we couldn’t resist the dessert menu after seeing fellow diners with a tantalizing chocolate tres leches cake. Presented with the menu, we ultimately chose a delicate banana pudding that was a light and sweet end to the meal.
A word on portion size: The restaurant advertises that it serves its dishes family-style, intending them to be shared; a few unfortunate reviewers online felt the term was a misnomer and chastised the restaurant for small portions. Ultimately, we made a good decision by starting with two smaller (or so we thought) plates and a meat dish. The portions turned out to be much larger than the negative reviewers claimed. Perhaps “family-style” conjures heaping portions of pasta at chain restaurants like Bucca di Beppo, so in that respect, The Lark’s portions do not compare. Nonetheless, the portions are sizeable for a restaurant of its caliber. Given the quality and portion size, any assertion that it is overpriced is a bit off-based (have these people ever eaten a fine meal in California?).
Looking around at our fellow diners, their choices were equally sumptuous in presentation and (we heard) flavor. Debates aside, The Lark delivered a near-perfect meal. I look forward to making a return trip.