Los Alamos is a blink-and-you-might-miss-it town on the outskirts of Santa Barbara’s wine country. If it weren’t for the fact that it sits right off Highway 101, you might wonder if you’ve made a wrong turn arriving at this quaint hamlet, settled at the foot of Los Alamos Valley’s rolling hillsides. But this is where Santa Ynez native chef Daisy Ryan and her husband, Greg, decided to open Bell’s, a charming French-inspired bistro that has been a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner since 2020.
Daisy cut her teeth at venerable New York kitchens, including Gramercy Tavern and Per Se, while Greg did stints at Tribeca Grill and Per Se. The duo spent a few years in Austin, Texas., before returning to Daisy's home in Santa Ynez Valley and opening Bell’s in 2018.
Occupying a 1914 building, which used to be a bank, the Bell’s dining room is cozy, casual and rustic chic, with a handful of tan leather banquettes against whitewashed brick walls and wooden tables atop Persian rugs and weathered tiles. A colorful row of stools offers an up-close view of the action in the kitchen. Daisy plates focused yet seasonally adaptable dishes with French underpinnings, utilizing locally sourced ingredients. Some classic bistro dishes, such as chicken liver mousse, have a California twist, with the addition of strawberry rhubarb jam as an accompaniment to the typical cornichons and crostini.
The lunch menu is a là carte, while dinner is pre-fixe and includes offerings that are either not served during the lunch hour or are reinterpretations, such as the steak frites served with maître d’hôtel butter, which becomes steak au poivre at night but is still served with crispy frites. Some more inventive takes on French classics include the Santa Barbara uni with Regiis Ova hybrid caviar and mille crêpe, or the boudin blanc with crimson pluots, parsley spätzle and mustard cream.
The concise and moderately priced wine list (with most bottles under $75), developed by beverage director Emily Blackman, taps into the bounty of Santa Barbara, including Foxen Pinot Noir No. 406 Sta Rita Hills 2018 ($59). In addition, there are many intriguing international treasures, such as Ettore Germano Nebbiolo and Jean-Michel Stephan Le Grand Blanc. A smattering of rare, splurgy Champagnes and Burgundies are perfect additions to amplify the meal.