Gala Brings Style and Buzz to Santa Barbara’s Restaurant Scene

Anyone opening a restaurant will invariably be asked what kind of restaurant it will be—indeed, while I was interviewing Tara Penke at Gala, several folks wandered in with that very question. Penke has been struggling with how to answer, however: Gala isn’t a Spanish restaurant, per se, despite the fact that she and her husband, chef Jaime Riesco, spent nearly two decades in Barcelona and have a restaurant there. And it’s not Chilean, even though Riesco was born in Santiago. What it is, at least in my view, is the kind of restaurant you see more in big cities—a place where the chef-owners cook the food they love, whatever its inspiration may be. “Jaime is a one-man show in the kitchen for now, and I handle the front of house,” says Penke. “We’re a true mom-and-pop.”

The concise menu will change daily, depending on what looks good at the farmers’ market and what local divers are bringing in; right now, that means pickled anchovies, shrimp croquettes, gravlax “toasties,” burrata with salmon roe and bottarga, fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with halloumi, duck confit, and more. “Santa Barbara uni will be a frequent special, as well as local spiny lobster and rock crab,” says Penke. “We also have razor clams coming next week from the East Coast.”

Penke is a third-generation Santa Barbaran who moved to Spain, where she met Riesco, after graduating from UCSB. During a nine-month stint in New York (Penke at Jean Georges Vongerichten’s JoJo and Riesco at Public), they realized restaurants could actually be a career, and after moving back to Barcelona, they opened the brunch-focused Picnic in 2010. By 2017, with Picnic buoyed by a boom in tourism, they decided to move back to Santa Barbara part-time, spending six months in each city and working toward opening a restaurant here. Covid scrambled their plans, and the appeal of Santa Barbara only became clearer, especially as their kids entered school. So they moved here full-time. “We still have friends in Spain, of course, and we even bought land there that we hope to build on one day,” says Penke. “But we have roots here, and it feels good to be home.”

Gala has been years in the making. “We’ve been saving for this project for eight years,” says Penke. “Obama was president when we started looking for a space!” Their patience and perseverance paid off once the former Low Pigeon café at Anacapa and Ortega became available. With help from Kevin Moore Architect, Casey Geeb Interior Design, and Southwest Construction, they kept the large bar and cement floor, and they added a pretty wooden screen (Rock Mill Tile & Stone is on the other side), arched shelving, banquettes, and photographs taken by Penke’s grandfather in the 1950s. Gala seats around 50 inside, and 50 more outside once stairs to the lower-level terrace are built. The name was inspired by Salvador Dalí’s wife, Gala, and Penke and Riesco’s love of the Costa Brava town of Cadaqués, where the Dalís lived.

Penke and Riesco want Gala to be a true neighborhood restaurant, where lawyers and surfers rub shoulders. To that end, the cocktail list includes a $10 house margarita and Pisco sour; the wines—which are local or Spanish—are affordably priced; and happy hour launches this week. The night I went, the room was hopping and the crowd was dressed for it.

Gala is currently open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Weekend brunch service should begin in a few weeks (see menu below), followed by breakfast and lunch. Reservations can be made via the restaurant’s website or Instagram, and Penke says they’ll always save space for walk-ins.


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↓↓↓ A Stylish New Taproom in the Funk Zone


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For those of us with bad eyesight it would help if the menus were zoomable. I can’t expand it with my fingers or zoom in when I click on the pages. Thanks.


Just screenshot it, save it and then you can enlarge. Takes a second. Easy workaround.


Looks wonderful, I wish them the best – that spot has been tough historically but I hope this sticks around.


Looks lovely! Congratulation! Not to be obnoxious, but the brunch menu says 9pm – 3pm…fyi to the new owners, if you’re reading this.


The most ridiculously overpriced and pretentious restaurant in town! Service is confused, the portions are smaller than a child’s appetizer menu, drinks are small and insanely priced. A recent visit with spouse: 4 .00 each oysters that were the size of a kernel of corn, horrendously salty fish entre’: (4-5 bites) Crab entre’ ‘cannoli style’ 2-3 small bites (size of a small ‘taquito’ , confused service with entres appearing at different times. The experience was a Seinfeld episode where everything goes wrong. The theme of the menu should be: “What happens when the kitchen runs out of food”. (‘Dinner’ for 2, 1 drink each- $140.00.) . Not only an insult to customers but an embarrassment. However if your intent is to show off how precious and pretentious you are to your fiends, while the occasional homeless person walks by, this is your place! –while it is still open