Tapas Restaurant: Santa Barbara. Enjoy the unique flavors of Spain, an unparalleled atmosphere, and unforgettable cocktail menu at Loquita.
On a charming corner of Santa Barbara’s main drag, State Street, is a quaint stucco building whose mission-style architecture blends pleasantly into the palm-lined and terra cotta-paved avenue. It is unassuming yet inviting with large paned windows, and in simple block lettering on its cornerstone is painted the restaurant’s name: Loquita. Inside, the tasteful wood and exposed brick, warm lighting and sparkling bar invite you to merrily imbibe with friends and share tapas. It is exactly the type of place one hopes to find when venturing out in a hip Southern California town, suited to tourists and locals alike.
Loquita opened in 2016 and has quickly become one of the hottest spots in town—a tapas bar with craft cocktails and great wine (including several varieties of sherry), a trendy atmosphere, and of course, exquisite cuisine. Such places are easily taken for granted in high-income districts, but creating that perfect scene is not as easy as the folks at Loquita make it look. Parent company Acme Hospitality knows it takes finding the right people, and part of their key to success with businesses like The Lark, Santa Barbara Wine Collective, and Helena Avenue Bakery, is their willingness to step back and let that right person do their thing. They found their Mr. Right for Loquita in Executive Chef Peter Lee.
After finishing culinary school, Peter’s lofty career goals came with a prerequisite – he had to find a job in a really nice kitchen. “Like, really nice.” In the high-end restaurant industry, the traditional job-hunting method of walking in through the front door, resumé in hand, just doesn’t work. So with the help of his girlfriend (now fiancé and sous chef) Felicia Medina, he decided to try walking in through the back door. “We went to a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Santa Monica, and I was standing there outside the back door scared, building up the courage. Felicia came up behind me and pounded on the door…and then she ran,” said Peter as he recalled being left alone at the back-alley kitchen door of an award-winning restaurant. Shamelessly, Peter asked to see the chef, and convinced them to let him work in the kitchen a few days for free. Just like that, Peter had both feet in the door. He proved his competence and work ethic this way in several other reputable kitchens until he had multiple job offers.
By the time an old coworker called him up about starting Loquita, Peter was about a year into working at a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars – the top tier for a restaurant, and a dream-come-true for most chefs. Ultimately wanting to become an executive chef and also one day open his own restaurant, the opportunity proposed by Acme Hospitality offered two birds with one stone. It took some convincing to leave his perch at the 3-star restaurant, but Peter finally agreed.
Determined to make a lasting first impression, Peter took the passionate, perfectionistic approach of his role models. He held an intense week of training in which all of the cooks learned how to make every dish on the menu. Peter fastidiously went over each dish step by step, explaining his reasoning behind each move, how to prep, how to cook, and how to present. After the trainees had tasted everything, it was their turn to cook. “We had them cook it, we watched them cook it, and we kept throwing it away until they made it right,” recalled Peter. Little did they know, this demand for perfection would continue past training week, even as the restaurant was already open to customers. In hindsight, Peter said, “This may have been a little too cutthroat for this town.” They saw a lot of employee turnover in the first month. But, he also knew full well that if they didn’t get things right on the first try, it would be his personal reputation on the line, and his restaurant would not succeed. Clearly making a great restaurant is not for the faint of heart.
When asked about his favorite dining experience ever, Peter described visiting a Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco. Interestingly, he said that his favorite part about the experience was not the food, though it was outstanding, but the phenomenal level of hospitality that he received. “The maître d’ greets you by name, they seat you, talk about it, then you start getting your first courses…The service staff came around every 30-40 seconds, and it was a new person every time.” He noticed that every single employee coming out of the kitchen could execute any single task to a tee. There was not just one server per table, but rather a constant stream of them ready to answer any question, fill any glass, present any dish. He even tried to stump several of them by asking how certain items were made or specific ingredients prepared. “They could all do everything. No matter what question I asked, I couldn’t throw them off…they all knew the answer right away.” That level of knowledge and effort from the front of the house left a lasting impression on Peter. It was also, in fact, the chef at this very restaurant who inspired Peter’s work-for-free strategy in gaining employment.
The Loquita experience reflects Acme’s emphasis on hospitality. While it may have embraced the more laid back SoCal culture in contrast to an exclusive establishment in San Francisco’s financial district, one cannot help but feel the employees genuinely want their patrons to have a good time: to enjoy their food, their drink, their experience. Without spending hundreds of dollars per person, one can still expect to have each small plate explained at length and every question eagerly answered. This is, in part, because Peter values collaboration among his culinary staff. He holds a meeting each month and delegates a dish to each chef, giving them the freedom to improve it. “If they have ownership and put something on the menu, they’ll take more pride in it.” His personal favorite on the menu right now? “The bone marrow. That was a dish in progress for about a year. That one just exceeded my expectations.”
It’s clear today that Executive Chef Peter Lee did make the first impression he had hoped would keep patrons coming back. Wander into the restaurant just about any night of the week and you’ll find it buzzing with energy. Come on a Friday or Saturday, and you’re sure to have a bit of a wait—but trust us, Loquita is worth it.