Not too long ago, if you knew of Los Alamos, California, at all, you thought of biker bars and an incongruous, spooky hilltop motel. Now 150 years after Zorro inspiration Salomon Pico last left his hideout in Los Alamos Canyon, the town of Los Alamos is a bona fide destination if you’re looking for wine, good food, and a reprieve from the pace and noise of city life. And that spooky hotel? It’s still there with its commanding views, but now newly renovated and landscaped, The Skyview Los Alamos offers an inviting idyll amidst the rolling farmland of the Los Alamos Valley.
Los Alamos lies between Solvang and San Luis Obispo and has long been on the way to somewhere else. In the late 1800s the bandit Pico raided traders from the north who came south along this path bearing newly-mined gold to purchase cattle used to feed growing hordes of miners. Much of the gold ended up in Pico’s pocket, exploits which gave rise to the legend of Zorro. The town became a stagecoach stop between San Luis Obispo and Los Olivos, and later a train stop and depot connecting the two towns. The historic depot remains one of the largest antique emporiums in California.
Until recently, most people traveling this stretch of the 101 passed by blithely unaware of the timeless gem just over the low rise of the Solomon Hills. Now however, Los Alamos is the perfect place for a quiet food and wine-laden respite. Recently, we spent a couple of days enjoying the atmosphere and a lot more the town had to offer.
Relax and Slow Down.
Arriving on a beautiful Friday afternoon in January, we exited the 101 and turned onto Bell Street, heading toward our first stop at the Casa Dumetz Wines tasting room. Located in a charming period structure (like most of the main drag), the tasting room shares space with a craft beer emporium and a quirky dim sum house, all owned by winemaker Sonja Magdevski. We sat outside on a charming patio area, enjoying the cool air and warm sunshine. Flights dominated by Rhone varietals followed, with expert curation by Magdevski’s cousin Lauren, and accompanied by a deliciously appropriate mushroom medley, char siu bao, and turnip cakes that will have you asking for the recipe. It was a perfect marriage of food and wine, and a great start to our getaway.
From there, we crossed the street and walked south a few blocks to Los Alamos Depot Mall Antiques & Pub. The Depot Mall is a vintage train depot that houses one of California’s largest antique emporiums with more than 60 vendors, and a bar and live music venue anchoring one end. On this particular day, Carole and Jeffrey Bloom were overseeing the construction of a stage at one end of the venue. The Blooms, refugees from a fast-paced LA life, are the founders of the Los Alamos Theatre Group. Founded in 2018, the volunteer organization is bringing together its fourth production, “Trash,” a musical written by Jeffrey that opens on April 30.
Dinner that night was at Full of Life Flatbread. Here Chuck Staub has been making artisnal flatbread pizzas for 16 years in a classic wood-fired oven. We were fortunate enough to be seated directly opposite – where it was both cozy and entertaining. The jolly warmth of the oven and the deft rhythm with which the beautifully laden flatbreads went in and out was mesmerizing. Not so much that we didn’t enjoy a mushroom and carmelized onion flatbread crisped to perfection. The showstopper however is “the beast”. A giant S’more left in front of the fire to meld into gooey perfection before being delivered in all its massive glory to your table. Don’t be scared, just get it.
After dinner, we checked into our room at Skyview Los Alamos. Dating back to the 1950s, the Skyview got a complete makeover and reopened in Spring 2018 with 33 rooms, including two suites and 16 deluxe rooms with private decks and fire pits. The full-service restaurant Norman is on-premises, serving local wines and farm-fresh fare, and there is a complimentary continental breakfast available in the lobby.
We arose early Saturday morning and headed to the lobby for coffee. Outside the air had a bit of bite in it, and the famous Tule fog wrapped everything in a gray mist with a few farmhouses just visible, nestled in the hills across the way. As the sun rose the gray clouds retreated, leaving the fog to top the surrounding mountains like a cotton crown. After enjoying the bucolic view and a few meditative moments, with a big day ahead we made our way down the hill into town.
A wealth of Wine Tasting Options, Plus Avocado Toast.
We had breakfast at the charming Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. Seeking respite from the hustle-and-bustle of Los Angeles, Bob Oswaks founded the bakery along with his wife Jane. Housed in a redone historic 1920s gas station, the Oswaks pride themselves on using the finest ingredients, seasonally appropriate and locally sourced. Don’t miss the avocado toast. Sure, it’s a fad, but Bob’s is one of the reasons it’s so popular!
After breakfast, we checked out the eclectic vintage offerings on hand at Sister’s Gift and Home on our way to Lo-Fi Wines for the first tasting of the day. A partnership between two lifelong friends, Lo-Fi is about making accessible, unpretentious wines that “are meant to be enjoyed not collected.” That, and spinning some vintage vinyl in their casually-appointed tasting room. The hip, youthful vibe and quality of the wine is born out later in the night when Lo-Fi commands the largest crowd on Bell Street.
Lunch at Bell’s followed our tasting. The product of husband-and-wife team Greg and Daisy Ryan’s passion, Bell’s is a taste of France on Bell Street. With a shared background in culinary school and restaurant experience, the Ryans opened Bell’s in 2018. For appetizers we had goat milk cheese and citrus olives, along with delicious escargot and a local chardonnay. We shared the French dip with Emmental cheese and caramelized onions, making for a perfect continental lunch. As we were discovering throughout our visit to Los Alamos, this was yet another family affair built around a way of living inimical to the pace of downtown LA.
After Bell’s, we enjoyed a tasting at Bodega Los Alamos, just a few doors down and across the street. This delightful event space with its large trees, fire pits, and comfortable outdoor seating serves a number of wines from local vintners, as well as craft beer and cider.
Since three is a charm, we ended our tasting adventures at Lumen Wines back down Bell Street a few blocks. The popular restaurant Pico shares space with Lumen, and, following a a remodel and brief March reopen followed by a Covid close, is now back with dine-in seating available. A partnership between Lane Tanner, the first independent female winemaker in Santa Barbara County, and Will Henry, who’s father founded the Henry Wine Group, Lumen Wines specializes in Pinot Noirs that display a distinct Old World style that ages gracefully over time.
For dinner, we made our way to Cisko Kid Los Alamos. Like everything else in Los Alamos, it’s conveniently located on Bell Street and was opened in 2019 by Chef Conrad Gonzales, who began in town with a taco stand in 2016. Gonzalez’s innovative Mexican cuisine will appeal to everyone with offerings such as pork belly and goat cheese tacos, as well as a vegan mushroom version—all served on house-made tortillas. Or go big and dive into a plate of amazingly tangy and caramelized, crunchy fall-off-the-bone-ribs.
Fully sated, we made our way back down the street to our cozy little bed-and-breakfast located directly behind Lumen Wines. The eminently comfortable one-bedroom space with a full kitchen and lovely garden sitting area—Pico Cottage—is owned by Lumen wines.
We got up the next morning anxious to “get back down the hill,” but reluctant to leave on an empty tank we stopped into Plenty on Bell for breakfast. Located in another Bell Street architectural gem, this welcoming spot helmed by Chef Jesper Johansson serves classic American comfort food kicked up a notch. Sure, there is avocado toast and a breakfast burrito, but the fire-roasted salsa and pickled onions separate them from the rest.
We packed a lot into a two-night stay, but the convenient proximity of everything kept the pace delightfully easygoing. Call it a busy two days in the slow lane. Now that we know this little secret is just over the hill, we’ll be back. The next time we go north, Los Alamos won’t just be on the way to somewhere else.