Aah, the great outdoors… outdoor dining that is. Is there any better way to celebrate the California sunshine than to take in the local food scene — drink in one hand, forkful of deliciousness in the other — with the breeze in your hair? As Spring Quarter tapers off and ushers in the warm summer months, there’s no better time than now to enjoy the best outdoor patio dining Santa Barbara has to offer. So grab your sunglasses and your appetite, because On the Menu is going al fresco this week.

Arts & Letters Café
7 East Anapamu St., Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 730-1463
Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., daily
Dinner: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wed.-Sun.
Price: $17-$25

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The wonderfully overpowering scent of jasmine flowers is the first thing to hit you as you walk up the stairs of this charming little gallery and restaurant. It would be easy to miss this local gem, tucked in the back courtyard of the Sullivan Goss art gallery, but that would be a shame. Arts & Letters is a small, eclectic California bistro with a laid-back elegance that sets it apart from what would traditionally be expected from other chic restaurants downtown. Owned and founded by two Southern California art dealers, Frank and Tricia Goss, the restaurant has been open for 16 years and is currently a family-run business with son Cosmo helming the kitchen and daughter Tyler as the resident sommelier and mixologist. General Manager Lisa Neustadt, who has worked there for about nine years, explains how Cosmo’s passion for celebrating the bounties of Santa Barbara has come to influence the feel of the restaurant.

“He’s doing all local produce from the farmers’ markets, all local stuff, hormone-free, grass fed and organic, he does a lot of menu changes so you might see something different on the menu every night” Neustadt said.

The restaurant, which specializes in seafood, seasonal entrées, appetizers and salads, offers more refined spins on classic dishes for affordable prices. Case in point is the cheeseburger, which Neustadt says is one of the best around, made with San Julian Ranch ground beef, avocado, bacon, cabbage and Humboldt Fog goat cheese on grilled ciabatta bread. They also offer tempting vegetarian options as well, such as the Moroccan vegetable tagine with toasted couscous, golden raisins, cabbage, BD Farms turnips, local carrots and green onion.

“It’s half art gallery, half restaurant, so we want to make the food as appealing as the art on the walls. It’s really symbiotic.” Neustadt said. “We have a lot of local people and a ton of regulars.”

Surrounded by palm trees with the sound of classical music playing softly in the background, one would think you need an art dealer’s budget to eat at Arts & Letters, but as Neustadt reassures, it’s actually student-friendly as well.

“Meals range from about $18 to $19 per person, [and the restaurant is] very romantic for date spots, especially at night with all the candles and flowers we put out,” Neustadt said.

The romance will heat up even more as the restaurant begins its annual 11-week event, Opera Under the Stars, which includes special prix fixe dinners and different featured opera singers on the outdoor patio each night. At Arts & Letters, love is indeed in the air — as well as in the food!

Carlitos Café y Cantina
1324 State St., Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 962-7117
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily; Wed. breakfast from 9 a.m.
Price: $15-$22

A warm summer night, rustic leather chair, terracotta floors, live mariachi band… no, you’re not in a quaint pueblo restaurant in Mexico, you’re at Carlitos Café y Cantina. The product of 31 years of traditional Mexican cooking and involved management, Carlitos serves some of the most traditional Mexican food in Santa Barbara in an upscale yet comfortable setting. Juan Fonseca, who has been a manager at Carlitos for over a year, explains the philosophy behind the restaurant’s success.

“We’re famous for all of our fajitas,” Fonseca said. “There are a lot of dishes from different specific parts of Mexico like traditional plates from little towns, but we really want to bring the authentic Mexican flavors to fine dining.”

The fajitas, which vary from steak, chicken and grilled mahi-mahi to the Mexican Gulf shrimp combo, are one of the restaurant’s most popular items and are served fresh and sizzling on an iron skillet with guacamole, sour cream, salsa fresca, black beans, rice and handmade corn tortillas. The grilled chicken breast with mole poblano is another specialty, with rich traditional mole sauce made with over 20 ingredients and served with black beans, rice and tortillas.

“The portions are large. You’re going to be really satisfied, which is why it’s a little pricy. It’s also really traditional; we have some customers who’ve been coming here since they’ve been born,” Fonseca said.

Everything is homemade, right down to the tortillas, which are prepared on site everyday by their special tortilla cook. There are a lot of vegetarian choices, like enchiladas and fajitas, and vegan options as well, including the rice and beans, which are cooked without the addition of any kind of meat broth or stock. In addition to the normal food and drink menus, they have extra seasonal menus that change monthly depending on the opinions of the guests and what’s in season.

“We are what everyone is looking for; colorful, fun,” Fonseca said. “California is very Mexican-influenced and we want to celebrate that. If customers really want to experience Santa Barbara, it is the place to come.”

D’Vine Café
205 West Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 963-9591
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mon.-Fri.; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sat.
Price range: $6-$9

The unassuming ivy-covered doorway of this cottage on the corner of De La Vina and Canon Perdido proves that when it comes to dining al fresco, there’s more than meets the eye. At D’Vine café, students rub elbows with business workers, locals, firemen and just about anyone in downtown Santa Barbara looking for a great, no-frills lunch in a comfortable and homey setting. While there is a small inside dinning area, the premium spots to grab are right out front under one of the street-level tables shaded by inviting green umbrellas.

The restaurant is a small Italian-style deli that is known for its specialty sandwiches, prepared foods and side salads. One well-known item is the chicken melt, which uses house-made chicken salad along with smoked mozzarella and bacon on grilled sourdough bread for less than $8. Owner and Operator David Faiia’s favorite is the roast beef, made from a secret recipe he picked up from a regular customer at his previous Italian deli, which he owned in his hometown of Connecticut.

“I added my own personal roast beef recipe when I took over the restaurant from the previous owners. I got [the recipe] from a WWII Austrian chef,” Faiia said. “This guy would come in to the Connecticut place and tell me he had this restaurant, and one day he came in, we made one and people really responded to it. I do it every Wednesday and Thursday as a weekly special.”

The sandwich is made with mayo, avocado and jack cheese, then grilled to perfection on sourdough bread.

Faiia, a soft-spoken and friendly man who’s been running the business for about five years, greets and knows just about every customer who walks in. Giving out high-fives and conversing constantly, he is as much a part of the experience at D’Vine as the food is.

“It’s definitely more of a local’s place. I’ve never advertised — it’s all word of mouth, which is why we can keep it small and local. One of the things I personally think works here is we take your plate and help you out.

It’s not a full service restaurant, but it’s still not impersonal,” Faiia said.

In addition to all of the sandwiches on the menu, diners have the option of creating their own sandwiches. Faiia also added a smoothie and espresso bar to complement the freshly baked cookies and pastries they make at the restaurant.

Now you no longer need to be at a quiet street café in Europe to enjoy the simple pleasures of dining in the sun; bliss is just a car ride away. So if you’re looking for a place to relax and enjoy the weather, make sure you don’t leave your appetite behind, because whether you’re with friends, on a date or just taking some time alone, dining al fresco is the way to go.