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Top Chef Travels — Cat Cora

080226_Cat_Cora.jpgYou may know her as the fiercely competitive chef on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America series, but Cat Cora does more than just battle it out in Kitchen Stadium. This Mississippi-born mother of two was named Bon Appétit magazine’s executive chef in 2006, and she recently released her second book, Cooking From The Hip: Fast, Easy, Phenomenal Meals.

The multitalented chef recently chatted with Fodor’s about her favorite places in Santa Barbara, where Cora currently resides with her family. She reveals the city’s best Mexican taqueria, where to go for a romantic meal, and picks her favorite must-see sights in California’s seaside getaway.

Fodor’s: What restaurants in Santa Barbara are good for families?

Cat Cora: You can take your kids to most places in Santa Barbara. One of our favorite places to go get something fast with the kids is La Super Rica Taqueria. It’s fantastic Mexican food. That’s a place that you couldn’t leave Santa Barbara without going to. Definitely kid-friendly. It’s really tiny. You can sit or get take-out. A lot of people go there and wait in line to get a seat, hang-out, have a cold beer, have fresh Mexican food, and homemade tortillas.

Fodor’s: Where do you usually go for a casual lunch?

CC: There are several places. Joe’s Café (536 State St.; 805/966-4638) is great. That’s a casual, fun place. It’s a real popular place to go for great burgers. It’s big and spacious. A lot of business people and tourists will come in there. I know it’s a lot of celebrities’ favorite place to go for a quick burger. Also, Shoreline Beach Café (801 Shoreline Dr.; 805/568-0064) is great for fish tacos, and it’s right on the beach. Those are two really good places to check out, for sure.

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Fodor’s: Any favorite places for breakfast or brunch?

CC: In Montecito, there’s Tre Lune (1151 Coast Village Rd.; 805/969-26460). That’s one of my favorite places to go for breakfast. It’s just fantastic. I mean they have breakfast, lunch, and dinner that’s really great. But I love going there for a really great cappuccino, espresso, or latte, and have a really nice white-tablecloth-breakfast or brunch. And then there’s also the original Sambo’s in Santa Barbara, right on the beach. We go there a lot because they have great omelets. There’s always a 45-minute or an hour-long wait to get in. Tre Lune is a little higher end whereas Sambo’s is really casual. You can wear anything.

080226_cadario_santa_barbara.jpgFodor’s: Where is a good place to go on a date?

CC: One of our favorite romantic places is Ca’ Dario (photo, right). [It’s] great Italian food. It’s a fantastic place to really get romantic and have a nice meal. It’s one of the best places in Santa Barbara — very romantic. That’s the only word for it. It’s perfect for a date night. Their clay pot chicken is really fantastic and, of course, they have great Italian classic specialties.

Fodor’s: Where are the best places to go shopping in Santa Barbara?

CC: The best place to go is down State Street. It’s one of the main areas. There are a lot of little outdoor malls and they always have a farmers’ market as well. Lucky Brand Dungaree Store (805 State St.; 805/564-1340) is there. Michael Stars (613 State St.; 805-568-0660) is one of my favorites, and Anthropologie (901 State St.; 805/962-5461). There are a lot of small, individual-owned boutiques too. So to me, [State Street] is one of the best places to go. It’s great for people watching.

Fodor’s: Can you recommend any bars or lounges?

CC: My favorite place to go is Cold Spring Tavern. It’s our favorite place. We’ll go there on Sundays and have brunch and they have bands. They’ve been around since the 1800s, or something like that. It’s awesome. It’s this old stagecoach stopping area. It’s right on Stagecoach Road, I believe. They always have a barbecue out and they do these incredible tri-tip sandwiches. They always have a band and cold beer. And they have really, really good food for a great price and it’s just fun. It’s absolutely my favorite place to go for a fun lively bar scene.

Fodor’s: Can you recommend any good spas or salons?

CC: Yeah, I think one of the best places right in Santa Barbara is the Four Seasons Biltmore. They have an incredible spa. It’s a gorgeous setting, right next to Butterfly Beach, which is one of the best beaches in Santa Barbara.

080226_bacara_lobby_ratha_grimes.jpgFodor’s: Are there other hotels you’d recommend?

CC: Bacara (photo, right) is fantastic as well. It’s a little bit out of Santa Barbara. That’s a top-end, really special place. A friend of mine always sings jazz on Friday. Leslie Lembo. She’s there every single Friday night. She’s been there for years.

Fodor’s: What are some must-see sights in Santa Barbara?

CC: You should do the Santa Barbara Land Shark tour. We did that, and a lot of the locals still do it for the heck of it. It’s a boat and a bus. It tells you the history of Santa Barbara, where all the celebrities live — it’s just fun. It’s something that everybody really likes. It got voted best tour of Santa Barbara.

Definitely visit the zoo. It’s worth it and won’t take a lot of time because it’s small. It’s fantastic and it overlooks the ocean. I think we have one of the best zoos in the country. Obviously, there are great views and beautiful animals. [Santa Barbara] is a really special place and there are just so many things to do. I know a lot of people come from Los Angeles just to get away for the weekend. It’s such a fun and relaxing place to get away to.

See more Top Chef TravelsPhoto credits: (1) photo courtesy of Cat Cora; (2) photo courtesy of Ca’ Dario; (3) photo by Ratha Grimes.

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