In the cluster of towns that make up Santa Ynez Valley—the next big food destination for Los Angelenos wanting to escape the city, about an hour north of Santa Barbara—it's not uncommon to see a restaurant hosting a pop-up or cooks from one eatery manning the kitchen of another on their night off. Chalk it up to the region’s vibrant collaborative culinary scene.
On Saturdays in the lot behind the French-inspired bistro Bell’s in Los Alamos, for example, 31-year-old pitmaster Nicholas Priedite sets up his smoker and serves pork ribs, ranchero sausage, and brisket tacos on beef-fat flour tortillas. Come Tuesday evening in nearby Los Olivos, the seafood destination Bar Le Côte transforms into Na Na Thai, a makeshift Thai restaurant run by husband and wife Nik and Ashley Ramirez. (The couple, who moved to the Santa Ynez Valley with their young children after a four-year stint in Bangkok, regularly sells out their som tum, wok-fried noodles, and Thai iced tea.) Every now and then at The Backroom bar in Solvang, Luis and José Gomez, two (unrelated) sous chefs at Bar Le Côte, dish up tortas, tacos, and ceviches under the moniker Gomez y Gomez. All three projects are mentored by Daisy and Greg Ryan, owners of Bell’s, Bar Le Côte, and the brand-new Los Olivos beer and wine bar, The Other Room.
When the Ryans moved to the sleepy winemaking region, it was a homecoming for Daisy, who grew up in Santa Ynez. The couple had spent over a decade working in restaurants in New York (including Per Se and Gramercy Tavern) and Austin, and they had a new baby, Henry, to raise. Instead of opening their own place in a major city, they decided to give it a shot in the Valley, where they’d be closer to family. The choice paid off: now, five years later, Bell’s has a Michelin star and Bar Le Côte is a smash hit of a sister restaurant. As a result, the Ryans have attracted culinary talent to the area—and they’re hoping those seeds take root.
For their peers behind Priedite BBQ, Na Na Thai, and Gomez y Gomez, they lend their space, advise on business matters like social media, and help formulate a long-term vision. “It’s a little selfish,” jokes Daisy (who was hailed one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2020). But the Ryans know firsthand that it’s possible to find success in a small town as restaurateurs and chefs, and they want to show others how to do the same. When they first started hosting Priedite BBQ at Bell’s, “we looked at [Nick] and were like, ‘what would we have wanted when we were 29 years old and excited to do something?’” says Greg. He and Daisy also want to build up their local food community—for themselves, for the young winemakers lured to the Santa Ynez Valley by more affordable plots of land, and for families like theirs, some of whom have settled in the Valley since the pandemic normalized remote work. “We want to continue to make sure that people who are young, who are ambitious, who have intent, want to remain living and working here,” explains Greg.
“They’re kind of like our record label, and we’re the artists,” says Priedite, whose barbecue business was the first Greg and Daisy incubated. Since he and his partner Brendan Dwan started slinging smoked meats at Bell’s in the spring of 2020, they’ve expanded their repertoire to include weekly burger nights at Storm Winery and yakitori pop-ups at Stolpman Vineyards’ garage tasting room, both in Los Olivos. Priedite’s collaborative nature extends beyond the duo’s partnership with Greg and Daisy to include team-ups with other creative and culinary talent in the area. They’ll tap a pie maker to supply dessert or work with local tattoo artists on posters, for example. “Having a food and beverage collaborator is great creatively because it helps spark new thoughts on where the food can go,” Priedite says.
Priedite and Dwan hope to eventually open a brick-and-mortar, but one that makes room for constant creativity—perhaps serving barbecue on weekends, burgers on Tuesdays, and Monday night smoked chicken—and encapsulating the experiential energy they’ve cultivated. “We’ve noticed that there’s this big group who are of our generation and hungry to be out and doing things. And they have this itch to be involved in a community,” Priedite says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in a seafood tavern eating a bowl of pad Thai or in the alley of a winery popping a bottle of wine and eating a burger off your lap.”
Residents of the Valley have welcomed the growth in culinary diversity. “Every week we get people saying ‘thank you so much for doing this here, we have been dying for any kind of food like this,’” says Ashley Ramirez of Na Na Thai. Luis Gomez, who like Daisy and his co-chef José was born and raised in the area, says he recognized the need for high-quality Mexican food when he moved back in 2019 after cooking in Santa Barbara and L.A. The pair started working on Gomez y Gomez in March of that year with encouragement from Greg, who noticed them riffing on dishes that didn’t necessarily fit with Bar Le Côte’s Spanish-influenced menu. They cook food they grew up eating at home, like braised barbacoa with handmade tortillas and torta pambazo. “We met a guy who was like, ‘yo, that pambazo took me back to my grandma, who made it for me back in Mexico City when I was 10,’” Luis says.
Although the Santa Ynez Valley has become more popular as a tourist destination—especially since Bell’s was awarded a Michelin star last year—Greg says about 70 percent of the clientele at pop-up events are locals. A lot of them work in food and wine and are busiest on weekends, so the Tuesday night pop-ups are a great way for industry people to socialize with their peers over larb moo or brisket cheeseburgers.
Since it's a winemaking region, many of these pop-ups are held in tasting rooms. And now the Ryans have The Other Room, which they opened with Emily Blackman, the wine director of Bell’s and Bar Le Côte, and the folks behind The Backroom. It’s another notch in the burgeoning food scene: another place where up-and-coming culinary talent can express themselves while catering to the local community and visitors alike.
“There’s a different pulse out here now,” says Ramirez. “I feel like we’re onto something.” Luis Gomez agrees: “It seems like everyone is stepping up their game. Everyone is excited about the food scene in the Valley.”