Whether you’re headed full speed ahead for “Lost Almost”, “Little Los Angeles”, or more accurately, Los Alamos, know that no matter what good things await. Located just 2 hours north of Los Angeles, Los Alamos is a funky little legitimately old western town that has become quite the little destination over the past few years for California road trippers and Angelenos in need of a change of pace from big city life. Much of the town’s history and old-timey facades remain intact which makes up for a huge portion of the town’s charm, but what they offer in IG worthy backdrops they double in fantastic restaurants, shops, and tasting rooms. But as Travel & Leisure perfectly puts it, “it doesn’t need a ton of bells and whistles to be cool. It just is.”
I’ll never forget the first time I visited Los Alamos. It was about 5 years ago, when the town was just starting to pick up steam as a fun stop along your drive through the Santa Ynez Valley. And I remember thinking “what a freaking gem”. It was odd but not cheesy, small but not sleepy, and it was packed with potential. Every time I’ve visited since something new has opened up that always makes it worth coming back for even more. Quite a number of ex-Angelenos have moved to the Los Alamos area to sprinkle their talents around the town. And let’s just say – I can see why. I “joke” that this blog might turn into Love & Loathing Los Alamos someday but until then, here’s what you need to know about visiting:
GUIDE TO LOS ALAMOS
- Los Alamos is at the “entry” of the Santa Ynez Valley, which is about 2 hours north of Los Angeles off the 101 freeway
- the town has a population of around 2,000 and consists of about 7 blocks (teeny tiny blocks at that)
- it was founded in 1876 by two ranchers when the stagecoach line was rerouted to the area
- the historic 1880 Union Hotel, originally built in 1880 (and once again in 1915 after a fire) is STILL there, and is STILL a functioning business that you can still totally stay at (events only), or get married at, or just drink and dine at
- it’s a total foodie town. Whether you want something casual or something award winning, or if you want French, sandwiches, Dim Sum, what have you – Los Alamos is doing it all
- being located in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos is another great stop to make on any wine tasting adventure – there are fantastic tasting rooms right in town, or you’re 5 minutes from some great wineries as well
- this probably comes as no surprise but Los Alamos is a great spot to do a little antiquing
- remember Los Alamos is only 7 blocks, there’s not a ton to do in the center of town to keep you totally occupied for a whole day (unless you can sit at a restaurant or bar all day, no judgment I can too), but more charming towns are right around the corner to explore like Solvang, Los Olivos, and Santa Ynez
WHERE TO STAY
I feel like I’m about to give away my best-kept secret, the deets on my own personal oasis, but if this place brings ME this amount of joy, it really should be shared with the world. Friends, allow me to introduce you to Skyview Los Alamos. Skyview is a modern boutique hotel born from a historic 1950’s style motel, it’s perched up on a hill that you can see from the freeway and is everything you’d hope for and expect in a town like Los Alamos.
The motel was recently renovated and reinvented, and usually when I hear “renovated motel” I am still skeptical – “I’m still going to hear every conversation, footstep, and bed creak in the whole damn hotel aren’t I.” Not at Skyview! I haven’t slept so peacefully at a hotel, maybe ever – bless them for not skimping on the mattresses and bedding. It was like sleeping on a cloud, and that’s a rare statement coming from Princess and the Pea over here.
But wait there’s more.
So the property is gorgeous, the views stunning, the rooms cozy and quiet (some even come with fire pits and outdoor showers), and that would typically be enough for me to be happy but on top of all of that, Skyview also has an amazing pool (that is always heated) and a fantastic restaurant, Norman, worth visiting alone. Our recent pool day, filled with sunshine, snacks, and (several) Spritz will go down in history as one of the best days of 2020 for me – which are kinda hard to come by these days, amiright.
Oh, and the icing on the cake, it’s fairly priced for the experience you get. I don’t know if I’ve made this obvious yet so just in case, I’ll just go ahead and say that Skyview is probably my favorite hotel in California now, period.
UPDATE: Skyview has a new sister property nearby called Hotel Ynez, and she is just as fun and gorgeous, she just happens to be located 15 minutes away in Santa Ynez/Solvang! Similar bells and whistles, same gorgeous luxurious bedding, same excellent price point, just a few more fire pits, and hammocks. Once again, highly recommended.
WHERE TO EAT
[Breakfast, Brunch, Lunch]
You haven’t truly experienced bread… fantastic, perfect bread… until you’ve visited Bob’s Well Bread. Bob, an ex Sony exec, is officially now a yeast whisperer, and the world is a better place thanks to his talent and craft. Not to mention, the bakery is just an amazing casual spot perfect for a breakfast/lunch under some tree shade. There’s not a single item on the menu that won’t blow your socks off, but if you’re there for breakfast be sure to grab a pastry and order one of the Egg In A Frame dishes. But again – can’t go wrong at Bob’s.
[Dinner, Pre Fixe, French]
I’ll be honest, this past trip I pretty much planned just so I could finally have a meal at Bell’s. After all of the accolades expressed by my “foodiest of foodie friends”, I couldn’t take one more, “you haven’t been to Bell’s???” So dammit, I did it – #willtravelforfood. Bell’s is run by a husband and wife duo (Per Se alums, ex-New Yorkers/Angelenos/all sorts of places) and chef Daisy was just named Food & Wine’s BEST NEW CHEF OF 2020!! What a freaking accomplishment, and after that beautiful “#veryfranch”, French bistro-inspired meal I now fully understand the hype. I don’t think a trip to Los Alamos will ever be complete without a dinner and wine at Bell’s from here on out.
[Lunch, Early Dinner]
dim SAMA is a casual little dim sum pop-up located inside of Babi’s Beer Emporium, which makes it feel like a secret underground treat that only certain people are privy to. Their hours vary (as do their days of business), but if you’re lucky enough to find yourself hungry while they’re steaming some buns, don’t skip the opportunity. dim SAMA is serving a specially created menu for Babi’s featuring dumplings, bao, sticky rice, mango pudding, and other perfectly delicious handmade items. (Emphasis on the delicious because holy sh*t. I went two days in a row for this!)
[Lunch, Weekend Brunch, Dinner]
Typically there’s not much that can make eating pizza all that wildly unique, but that’s simply just not the case with Full of Life. I’ve genuinely never had any (flatbread) pizza quite like it – and I mean that in a very good way. Their pizzas are cooked in a 20-ton hearth in the middle of the restaurant. And are as advertised: more like flatbread with a flaky, soft yet crunchy crust. It’ll be hard not to want to order at least 4 flatbreads (the toppings choices, many of which they source from their own garden, omg) but contain yourself. Be sure to save room for a few of their other beautiful, simple, and locally sourced dishes.
[Lunch, Dinner, Drinks]
Norman, that’s Mr.Norman Bates to you, is the gorgeous restaurant perched at the top of the hill inside the Skyview Hotel and features a menu full of fresh and familiar eats along with an epic cocktail and local wine program. We had lunch, drinks, AND dinner at Norman during our two-day stay. And if you’d told me I had to dine at Norman for every meal I’d actually be thrilled. (That burger… MM!!) While dining inside still isn’t an option, for the time being, there is a cute and cozy little outdoor patio. Or you are welcome to dine for lunch poolside in a lounge chair (if you’re a guest of the hotel that is). Whatever happens though, whatever meal you’re enjoying, don’t miss out on their cocktails! A+ work happening up there on the hill, A+.
[Dinner, Fine-ish Dining]
The level of care that goes into the dining experience at PICO is just downright incredible, if not inspiring. PICO is known for their scratch cooking. Their humane practices, and their massively locally sourced goods (that goes for spirits and wine too) which allow for a truly one-of-a-kind Los Alamos experience. Their garden space is beautiful right now and would make for the perfect date night.
[Breakfast & Lunch Tues-Sun, Dinner Fri-Sat]
Plenty On Bell is just a perfect “neighborhood” type restaurant that knows exactly what to fix you for breakfast or lunch to make you feel comfortable and at home. Think classic egg dishes, sandwiches, coffee, tea, a comfortable and casual setting, and of course a great patio to boot.
[Dinner, Weekend Brunch, Cocktails/Bar, Patio Seating]
The Maker’s Son is the most recent restaurant to open in Los Alamos and has taken over one of my favorite spaces in town – the restored 1920’s gas station right on Bell. They have one of the best patios in the area with plenty of seating, and also it’s one of the best spots to grab a craft cocktail versus a glass of wine or a beer. I’ve now had two great experiences at The Maker’s Son and cant wait to come back to try their weekend brunch situation.
WHAT TO DO
Casa Dumetz was my first Los Alamos experience and since then, not only have we become wine club members, but we make it a point to drop in and say hi to the team every time we come to town. Owner and winemaker Sonja Magdevski pours really fun Rhone varietals and single GSM blends she calls The Feminist Party. But conversation with Sonja herself is half the fun of the experience (she’s a riot). You’re going to LOVE this tasting room. Enjoy a glass of Grenache Blanc for me!
Bodega is basically your dream Pinterest board brought to life. It’s got the design, the decor, the gorgeous patio. The bocce ball court, the fire pit, the greenhouse. The music, the vibes, the funky wines, and beers – everything. Clearly, it makes for an incredible event space. But the day-to-day business at Bodega serves as a great place to come and relax. And sip on a refreshing beer or glass of wine – maybe even have an ice cream! Bodega is the place where the term “Little LA” will make perfect sense.
If you find that wine isn’t speaking to you but beer is, post up at Babi’s Beer Emporium. They have a great outdoor patio, perfect for a relaxing afternoon in the sun (or shade). And as expected, they offer an incredible array of local and imported beers on tap and in bottles. And as previously mentioned if you’re lucky enough to find yourself there at the right time, be sure to sample some items from their pop-up partners at dim SAMA. (Babi’s also happens to be attached to Casa Dumetz. So you can have your wine and drink beer too.)
In a town that looks like Los Alamos, it’d almost be a crime if they didn’t have some antique shopping available. Fortunately, you have two options in town to check out. And they’re both really fun spots to pop in and peruse history. While you’re meandering down Bell be sure to drop in at Sisters Gift and Home for vintage glassware, books, china, and more. For a seemingly never-ending supply of fun and interesting old things drop in at the Depot Antique Mall.
*UPDATE – I’m under the impression that the saloon/hotel is only open for private events, but I’m going to keep this here in case that changes!
Is it clear yet that in Los Alamos we like to drink? And similar to the variety in dining options, there’s a variety of ways in which to enjoy an adult beverage! If you were feeling something besides wine and beer, or just wanted to get into the cowboy/western theme and esthetic, grab a cocktail at the 1880 Union Saloon. (Indoor imbibing at the Saloon is sadly still not an option. But they are offering takeout at the moment. And when the opportunity to visit them again arises I’ll be the first to let you know. Just keep it on your radar!)
When you’ve seen and experienced enough for a day on Bell St, why not head out to one of the gorgeous local wineries! If you’re looking for something truly picturesque with a more drawn-out all-encompassing experience, visit Presqu’ile Winery (reservations required, includes a FANTASTIC “picnic” food pairing, known for their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc). For something a little off the beaten path with sweeping views and some of my favorite wines in the area, be sure to visit Cambria (and say hello to my friend and badass lady winemaker, Jill). For something super close by, fun, and down to earth, visit Martian Ranch and Vineyard for their biodynamic wines. And lastly, for something out on the country road, pretty, and sustainable, be sure to visit Foxen Winery (known for their Burgundian and Rhône-style wines in a solar-powered tasting room).
Latest favorite winery in the area: Peake Ranch. Stunning design, epic views, and probably my favorite wine in the valley.
If you think Los Alamos is charming, just wait till you pull into Los Olivos. It’s another one of those cute and quaint little towns that could very well double as a movie set. Los Olivos just has a little bit more small-town cozy charm than old western charm. The thing with Los Olivos is that a lot of the downtown area is made up of small tasting rooms. Which makes it a great place to kill a couple of birds (or bottles) with one stone. There’s a lot of tasting to do here, but my personal recommendation would be Liquid Farm (Chardonnay and Pinots mainly), Storm (across the way from Liquid Farm, they do mostly Pinot, Chardonnay, and Sauv Blanc), and Story of Soil for something totally different (also hello, another badass lady winemaker).
I’m sure you’re at least familiar with it or have heard of it. But Solvang is just one of those towns you have to see to believe. It’s Danish Disneyland, basically. And though a bit odd (or awesome?) in theory, it’s certainly not lacking in charm and uniqueness! You could spend a whole day walking around town. Popping in at vintage shops, grabbing pastries at famous Danish bakeries. Sipping on beers and eating sausages. And simply just taking in the unusual scenery. I am in the middle of working on an entire guide to Solvang.
Be sure to check out my FULL Getaway Guide to Solvang blog post! These two posts kind of go hand in hand are they’re within minutes of each other!
Also check out my Getaway Guide to San Luis Obispo if you feel like traveling up the coast a bit further!