Paradise Cafe Is a Classic Reborn

Ever since I first laid eyes on Paradise Cafe, I wanted to go there. And every time I’d look at the menu, I’d decide to eat somewhere else. The restaurant was stuck in another time, and not in a good way. It didn’t help that no one I know who loves food ever mentioned the place.

So the news that longtime owner Randy Rowse was selling Paradise to Acme Hospitality—the company behind the Lark, Loquita, et al—was highly welcome. Acme seemed like the perfect fit, able to upgrade the experience without ruining what makes the restaurant special.

Of course, I can’t say what has changed, because until recently, I never got farther than the front door. “It’s certainly cleaner,” said a customer at the table next to me one day, and that sounded right. The restaurant still feels as if it’s been there since 1983, with a laid-back, no-fuss atmosphere, but it also gleams. The outside tables are more appealing than the ones inside, and if there’s a prettier place to eat downtown, I don’t know it. One caveat to all my enthusiasm: the grim carpeted section, not shown here.

Setting isn’t everything, however, and Santa Barbara is chockablock with restaurants that satisfy only the eye. Wisely, the menu at Paradise Cafe doesn’t get very ambitious, and it doesn’t even change all that much from lunch to dinner. (Breakfast and brunch are somewhere on the horizon.)

During my three lunches there, the burger was the one standout meal. And with the exception of the fish tacos, everything else—the tri-tip and chicken sandwiches, the salmon and beet salad, the green pea falafel burger—was good enough. That’s not faint praise. Good enough is possibly ideal for an easygoing, all-day hangout; no one wants to see Paradise Cafe in the Michelin Guide. Perhaps the most important metric for a place like this: the fries were consistently excellent. The second most important metric might be the service, and all three meals ran smoothly.

I’m sure there are longtime patrons kvetching over the prices, because that’s what happens when any restaurant upgrades. For my money, $15 is reasonable for a terrific burger, with a friendly server, in a lovely setting. But I haven’t been able to persuade my husband to try the restaurant for dinner, so I can’t say whether the entrées in the $30s are as successful. I will say that I was surprised one night when I stopped in for a drink. A small pour of Johnnie Walker Black, with middling ice in an undistinguished glass, was $15. (A cocktail that actually takes work, such as a mai tai or an old fashioned, is $10.50.) If you have to be taught a lesson, it might as well be while sitting at a bar….

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