Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times (makr61pd20121004225027/600 )
Can a restaurant be too busy? In the case of Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos, Calif., the answer is maybe. That's because on weekend nights the place can pull in hundreds of people from all over the state and the world who are happy to wait in line for as long as two hours to get a taste of the restaurant's hyper-local, organic fare.
Nestled in an idyllic sweet spot in the middle of Santa Barbara wine country, just off Highway 101 between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, Full of Life is at the vortex of a well-traveled food-and-wine pilgrimage route. It was opened in 2003 by a former music business executive, Clark Staub, and serves dinner only from Thursday through Sunday. Its magnetic draw comes both from its simple, healthful fare (which is almost entirely sourced from farms within a 60-mile radius) and through word of mouth.
Some of L.A.'s A-list chefs, including Joachim Splichal, Neal Fraser and Octavio Becerra, are avowed fans of the place.
"From the first time we went there it's been packed," says Fraser. "Last time it was so busy that we had to get food to go. If that's your only complaint — that a restaurant's too busy — well, that's a great problem to have. Especially in a town with a population of, like, 27."
While Fraser intentionally underestimates the population of Los Alamos for effect, he's right, the town is tiny — with a pastoral vibe and a population of 1,890. So when Full of Life is in full swing, the population of Los Alamos gets a measurable bump.
Staub says he chose to locate Full of Life (which also operates as a wholesale business, making frozen, organic flatbread) in Los Alamos because of the kinds of people who live and work there. His is not the only game in town. A small but thriving co-op of characters owns some remarkably good restaurants and wine tasting rooms, all located along the town's main drag, Bell Street. Cafe Quackenbush, Bell Street Farm, Bedford Winery and Babi's Tasting Room (which is run by Sonja Magdevski and her fiancé, actor Emilio Estevez) add to the town's appeal, as do several cool old hotels, which Splichal points out you can crash in if you go wild with Full of Life's list of more than 90 wines, all from Santa Barbara County.
"I go once a year, or every nine months if I can," says Splichal. "When you eat there you share plates and the place looks so rustic and people are really happy. There's a lot of wine being poured, and everybody is cheerful. It's a place of joy for me."
Rustic is right. There's a small wooden front porch, communal picnic tables lining a lush side patio rimmed with sunflowers, a front bar for beer and wine and a large back room filled with simple wooden tables and anchored by the restaurant's crowning glory: a 20-ton stone oven modeled on a Quebec beehive oven.
Almost all the food on the menu, except the salads, emerge from that oven — fragrant and bubbling hot. Try the hearty shaman bread made with red charred onions, fresh garlic, local Cuyama pistachios, flaxseed, rosemary and Three Sisters raw milk Serena cheese; the Central Coast sausage flatbread made with naturally raised pork in house-made maple and fennel sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, cheese and garden herbs; or get one of the seasonally changing specialty main dishes, which include plenty of sustainable fish and meats.
Add an impossibly fresh salad that tastes as if it just got plucked from the earth (because it did) and finish things off with a decadent Los Alamos s'more (a pillowy homemade marshmallow roasted with chocolate espresso cookies and chocolate sauce).
"We're really not that far from L.A., in my opinion," says Staub, who helps create the menus alongside chef Brian Collins. "The world has shrunk that way. I used to think that Santa Barbara was as far as you'd go in one day, but now we get regulars from Malibu, Long Beach and Thousand Oaks who come up for the day, have dinner and then drive home."