At a time when the economy is devoid of the promise of a speedy recovery and conservative spending habits have overruled the prior spendthrift of the American public, the comforts of an elaborate and expensive dining experience cannot be underestimated. If it is the chic and expensive you desire, Santa Barbara is the place to peruse. In an effort to ignore the current financial situation and escape to a five-course meal replete with pampering and a posh atmosphere, I got a chance to sample the town’s most esteemed eateries and scope out the priciest – and most exclusive – hotspots in the vicinity.

Epiphany Restaurant & Bar
21 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 564-7100
Hours: Monday through Sunday: 5:30 p.m. tp 10:30 p.m., Friday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. Bar open until 2 a.m.
Price: $20+

Let’s be honest, you cannot walk into the quixotic Epiphany Restaurant & Bar on W. Victoria Street in downtown Santa Barbara without catching a whiff of the romantic.

The 19th-century building commands an experience quite unlike any other available in Santa Barbara, combining New American cuisine and European cooking styles with an elegant décor and suitable mood lighting for that special occasion. My first impression walking into Epiphany left me wondering why I’ve yet to bring that special someone to join me on the esteemed “Limo Ride” of love – a six course tasting ride with Chef Crystal “Pink” Harris.

“The Limo Ride usually consists of our daily soup, two appetizers, two main courses and then a dessert,” Taylor Melonuk, a sous chef at Epiphany, said. “Its kind of whatever chef is feeling. It’s up to our discretion of what will taste good together. It’s really nice way for people to get a feel for our menu.”

Melonuk said the white fish, prepared in an olive oil-based sauce, and the filet are the restaurant’s best sellers.

“The filet’s cognac cream sauce has been a great hit for everyone who’s tried it,” Melonuk said.

But alas, like all relationships, it’s important to know what you are getting yourself into before diving head (or better yet, wallet) first. Epiphany will take any college-proportioned wallet, smack it around a little bit and then conveniently spit it out in time for the bill. If she’s the one, then by all means go ahead and blow the dough. But be forewarned: With an accessible wine list, small portions and a menu loaded with flavorful options, expect the bill to run no less than $35 per person.

With that said, a meal at Epiphany is without a doubt a flavorful experience. At $14, the grilled shrimp starters, glazed in a paprika shallot orange vinaigrette and garnished with spiced charred tomatoes, are just shy of perfection. For those lamb lovers, myself included, the $30 grilled lamb rack absolutely does the trick, sautéed in a pomegranate reduction sauce and served with garlic mashed potatoes and roasted pistachios.

Epiphany does take reservations and I would recommend taking that route, as the restaurant can often see waits longer than two hours on a busy night for a large party.

Bistro at Bacara Resort & Spa
8301 Hollister Ave., Goleta
Phone: (805) 571-4217
Serving: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
Hours: Monday through Sunday, Breakfast 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Midday 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Dinner 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Price: $15+

The lovely Bacara Resort & Spa, nestled amongst the trees near Haskell’s Beach in Goleta, is truly a spectacular setting for a meal anytime of the day.

With incredible ocean views and a privileged atmosphere, the versatile Bistro is open basically all day, and offers resort quality food at resort level prices. If you’re one for a $9 burger at Chili’s, then the Bistro is definitely not the place for you. But if you’re willing to shell out the extra $10 for a proportionally better meal and a breathtaking ocean-side dining experience, I’d wholeheartedly recommend this spot.

I’ve always felt the true test of a restaurant is their burger, and the Bistro succeeded in not letting me down. Their Bistro “Royal with Cheese” a prime rib burger with cheese served with fries is a luscious lunch or dinnertime option. My experience with their seafood courses, the Halibut “Picatta” and Tuna Nicoise, tasted as great as they were plated and I would recommend them to resort-goers and beach strollers alike, if they let you in without your shirt of course.

In a brief conversation with David Reardon, executive chief of Bacara Resort & Spa, he said the most impressive quality of the Bistro itself is its dedication to organic, locally grown ingredients.

“We have a 1,000-acre ranch where we grow our own organic lettuces, beats and fruits, and we try to use all of those [at the Bistro],” Reardon said. “Most popular right now is our roasted beet salad. It’s very seasonal. People seem to order that. The poached lobster salad has been very popular, as well as the local halibut.”

In light of the state’s economic crisis, the Bistro has downsized its menu to offer more accessible items. Pasta and pizza items will run you $15 at the least, but that’s quite impressive for a 5-star resort and spa.

I’m most impressed by resort’s ability to use wholly organic foods grown on its 1,000-acre ranch for its gourmet creations. If you were looking for that romantic resort-like getaway meal, I’d recommend a weekend afternoon, as it is less crowded.

Blush Restaurant & Lounge
630 State St., Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 957-1300
Serving: Dinner
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to Midnight
Price: $20+

Located amid State Street’s glut of eating establishments, Blush Restaurant & Lounge has it all – great food, a full bar and even better service… did I mention the food’s great?

As a seafood lover, Blush’s take on what have become classic California seafood recipes was a pleasant surprise. Operating as a seasonal spot by incorporating locally farmed products, Blush’s herb-glazed halibut is a force to be reckoned with, served with warm butterball potato salad, Fava beans and a sweet horseradish butter sauce.

For those considerably romantic dinner plans, the restaurant’s patio is a perfect dusk-time meal spot, although the patio remains closed. Blush General manager Jennifer Brodt said the restaurant’s plans to fully open at the end of the month.

“We operate now on a seasonal basis,” Brodt said. “We are planning to open the patio Memorial Day weekend.”

If you’re not a fan of the sea, Blush has the land-dwelling options that stand up to their price. “Our most popular plates are the pork chops and the rib eye. Those have been the best sellers so far,” Brodt said.

No matter how a joint’s food can be, for me it’s all about the portion. When I’m eating a meal, especially one with a $50 bill minus the drinks, I want to make sure I’m full afterward. If your aim is similar to mine, Blush is not your restaurant of choice. The portions are small and they will leave your bank account even smaller.

Also, don’t sit down at the bar and expect to get a substantial buzz going. The bar tends to skimp on its alcoholic drinks, so I’d recommend either a beer or some wine with your dinner plate.