Los Alamos, CA: The Weekender's Guide
It would be way too easy to breeze past the exits for Los Alamos on a road trip through California’s central coast. We were guilty of doing just that several times when we first moved here. Coming from the DC area, one of our biggest adjustments to life here, as much as the area has to offer in terms of natural beauty and outdoor activities, was a comparative lack of dining and shopping options. We’d hop on 101 (or “the 101” as I’ve been corrected to say) and head to Santa Barbara not thinking much about the towns we passed on the trip south. What a mistake! A blend of uniquely captivating influences, Los Alamos is Joshua Tree marries the Wild West in the heart of California wine country. This marriage works perfectly (and the vineyard venue is superb.) A 2.5 hour drive up the 101 from LA or in our case, an hour drive south from San Luis Obispo, delivers you into the Santa Ynez valley - a place you could easily spend a weekend perusing a few of the 100 wineries that blanket the rolling hills (If you visit in the spring, these hills are a gorgeous emerald.)
Unpretentious and welcoming, Los Alamos (Spanish for “the cottonwoods” but affectionately translated as "lost, almost" by locals) is a necessary respite from the heavily touristed coastal areas nearby, catering to foodies, artists, and antique collectors. A former stagecoach stop and a one-road town with just three walkable blocks, you can drop your car for the weekend and explore on foot, an ideal setup as you manage an obligatory wine buzz. The locals are genuinely kind and down-to-earth, some born and raised and others who chose the laid back town as an intentional divergence from big city life - everyone equally happy to tell you why they love it. Much to my delight, we saw more than a few dogs traveling happily in pickup truck beds, curled up in tasting rooms, and welcomed virtually everywhere. As one of our favorite weekend getaways, the entire town’s dog friendliness is a major plus (not dog friendly like, “I guess we’ll tolerate your excited beast creature,” but dog friendly like, “Omg, what’s her name? Here’s a water bowl. Can she have a treat?”) You might recognize the area from the movie Sideways, where a group of guys embark on pre-wedding road trip through Santa Ynez wine country, navigating predictable calamities in the gorgeous countryside.
Where to stay
The Alamo Motel - Right on the main drag, this formerly run-down 1940’s motel has been lovingly remodeled in minimalist desert-chic style. We loved our stay so much that I dedicated a separate post to it!
Skyview Los Alamos - This remodeled roadside motel (think mid-century modern + desert chic) sits just outside of town, a little further south on 101. You can’t miss the iconic yellow sign as you pass it in either direction. With sweeping views of wine country, dog-friendly suites, and the well-rated Norman restaurant on-site, Skyview will be on the itinerary when we head back.
Bodega House - The newest Airbnb addition to Los Alamos just opened in March 2019. Located above the Bodega wine garden facility, this freshly updated 1920’s guest house is a relaxing but eye-catching combination of vintage and modern minimalism complete with a private patio and all the backyard benefits of sharing space with the Bodega wine bar.
In recent years, laid-back Los Alamos has lured in a number of LA-based star chefs who have helped transform the town into a foodie heaven. You never know which chef behind the scenes of a humble-looking establishment has Michelin star experience under his belt. Hint: it’s Drew Terp at Pico.
Pico - Universally recommended (and for good reason), this upscale farm-to-table restaurant serves only dinner (an eclectic spin on traditional comfort food) with an infamous burger night on Sundays. Pico is located in the historic Los Alamos General Store building and was created by a husband and wife restauranteur/winemaker duo dedicated to local sourcing from farmers with sustainable and ethical stewardship. They’re also known for an equally impressive wine and cocktail menu, serving Santa Barbara’s beloved Lumen wines and refreshing farm-fresh cocktails. Reservations are a definitely a good idea and if you’re on their email list, you’ll get first-come preference. Try the pork cannelloni appetizer and the seared scallops entree, saving room for a dessert of homemade ice cream and chocolate chip cookies. Snag a seat on the back patio and you can watch the restaurant’s chickens meandering through the gardens. Note that they’re closed on Mondays.
Bodega - This open-air wine and beer garden is total #backyardgoals and consequently, my favorite stop. Not only do you get to sip your wine surrounded by California oaks and olive trees, there’s a charming whitewashed greenhouse calling out to my inner plant lady and to top it off, they also serve one of my favorite central coast finds - sheep’s milk ice cream from Negranti Creamery in Paso Robles. Add in a fire pit and bocce ball and I’m not sure there’s a better way to spend an evening.
Full of Life Flatbread - We went here expecting… well, flatbread sandwiches. We basically blundered in after noticing that the place was packed and I found myself with some observational FOMO. As it turns out, they serve wood-fired pizzas baked to perfection in a 22 ton oven resting in the center of their dining room. Though the pizza shouldn’t be missed (we devoured two), I also had delicious cauliflower mac and cheese that stands alone in my “best ever” category. Try the Coachella Valley date and bacon flatbread - a heavenly combo of the former along with walnuts, smoked leek sauce, blue cheese, and onions. My FOMO was justified.
Bob’s Well Bread Bakery - Head here for a morning pastry or all-day breakfast sandwich (until 3) or grab a coffee and snag some delicious small-batch bread to take home. Meticulously managed by former Sony marketing exec Bob Oswaks, who after being fired from his job at Sony, slowed down, retooled and spent his savings refurbishing the 1920’s gas station that now houses Bob’s Well Bread. Apparently he’s happier making bread than he ever was at Sony - I love/respect/am envious of stories like these. They haven’t earned national recognition by accident, but note that they’re closed Tuesday and Wednesday and have been known to have a long line, often selling out early, so it may pay to call before you stop in. You can also Airbnb a night in one of two cottages directly behind the bakery in case closer proximity to pastries is selling feature for you.
Muni Wine - Unquestionably designed to appeal to the young hipster crowd, this cozy Municipal Winemakers tasting room is on-site at The Alamo Motel (reviewed here) so it was the first place we stopped after dropping our bags. With its upcycled interior, popcorn maker, vinyl collection, and tree swing, it was certainly Instagram-ready. The service was super friendly and the flight price on par for the region - the whites (especially the Zin) were our faves. This location is much quieter with a more chill vibe than the companion Santa Barbara location. Note that they’re open Thursday - Sunday.
Babi’s Beer Emporium - If wine isn’t your thing, there’s certainly enough craft beer and cider here to keep you entertained. You’ll find a worldwide selection curated from the favorites of various travel adventures and a bonus taco-tasting counter courtesy of Valle Fresh.
Plenty on Bell - With a quaint bistro vibe and side patio seating, this was a great breakfast stop, though they serve lunch and dinner as well. This is a great alternative to Bob’s Well Bread if you find yourself facing a long line there. Our breakfast of champions included the short rib hash, chorizo (pork, beef, and bacon), avocado toast, and the spinach and goat cheese scramble, all of which were delicious.
1880 Union Hotel - Straight out of an old western movie (or, more accurately, straight out of the music videos for Michael Jackson’s and Paul McCartney’s “Say, Say, Say” and Bon Jovi’s “Bang a Drum”), the 1880’s Union Hotel was a former Wells Fargo stagecoach stop and is currently a saloon and special event venue that was frequented by Johnny Cash and other Hollywood elites back in the 1950’s. Rumored to be haunted, you can no longer book a room for the night, but you can rent the building and its nine suites for special events. You may not be able to stay, but you can have a drink and grab a burger in the saloon that has been serving for almost 150 years. Note that they’re closed on Tuesdays.
Winery Tours - Smaller, more intimate, and more affordable than wineries you’ll find in Napa or Sonoma, the Santa Ynez valley offers over 100 wineries to explore in addition to the tasting rooms you’ll find right in Los Alamos, so this area truly is a “choose your own adventure” of day-drinking delights where you sincerely can’t go wrong.
Antiquing - Treasure hunters won’t be disappointed by the opportunities to forage for goodies and satisfy their inner Fixer Upper. Sisters Gifts & Home is a historic home-turned-antique-store where a dozen antique vendors and local artists share space, each in their own bedroom of the house. I got lost in the enormity of The Depot, which is much larger than the outside would suggest. You could easily spend hours sifting through old records, china, postcards, furniture, and calendars. I had a nostalgic walk through my 1990’s childhood as well as several sobering reminders about why it was so depressingly easy to fill The Jim Crow Museum with artifacts (see the last part of this Vice episode for context.)
Sky’s The Limit Hot Air Balloons - If you’re an early riser and a hot air balloon ride happens to be on your bucket list, soaring over coastal wine country wouldn’t be a bad way to check that off your list. This location only offers morning flights (you meet at 6:30) and you’ll need 3-4 hours for the whole experience (45 mins - 1 hour of this is the ride itself.) If you’re visiting in the spring, you’ll get to see the gorgeous rolling green hills of the Santa Ynez valley and they market a glimpse of Neverland Ranch as part of the experience, though I suspect that has lost much of its appeal if you’ve seen Leaving Neverland. They also offer a post-flight continental breakfast and champagne toast along with the option to pair the balloon ride with winery and vineyard tours that include a picnic lunch and cover the tasting fees for up to 4 wineries.