A few days after my most recent meal at Santacafé, I got a text from my dinner companion. “That was the sexiest piece of fish I’ve had in a while,” she reflected wistfully.
It was an understatement. That Friday night, the warm breeze on the recently reopened restaurant’s elegant patio felt like a romantic caress. We sipped cocktails from new owner Quinn Stephenson’s exquisitely updated list: a delicate yuzu vodka gimlet for me ($16), a bourbon and apricot brandy for her ($12). We compared notes on the wartime mentality that COVID-19 is fostering, bonded over how weird it felt to put on makeup for an evening out.
A surreality crept in as a buttery, softly yielding piece of miso-spiked black cod ($32) and blush-colored lamb lollipops ($44) took center stage on the linen tablecloth. Neither of us seemed to want the meal to come to an end, to return to the plagued world.
To quote Wayne’s World, we were not worthy, or at least that’s how we felt. We walked in with nerves and cloth masks, anxious about maintaining proper social distancing in the busy courtyard where tables are set six feet apart, and servers and bussers swirl solicitously around them. We struggled to pull up our masks every time our bubbly, double-masked server checked in on us. The transactional inequity of being waited on had never seemed so glaring. But soon enough, the pure pleasure of executive chef Dale Kester’s food washed over us like a panacea.
Last year, Stephenson, the mixologist and owner of Coyote Café, took over the venerable 37-year-old institution on Washington Street. The team of Stephenson, his wife Nicole Schutz, and Kester gave Santacafé a skilled facelift – the kind where someone just looks brighter and livelier, but you’re not sure exactly what they did.
The furniture is softer and the interior is creamier, but Stephenson knew not to mess too much with the refined minimalism of the circa-1850 adobe hacienda. More tables populate the shaded patio – I did not see indoor diners on either of my recent visits – but the space still feels roomy and chic. A green vertical garden adorns one wall over a new outdoor bar, a tiered stone fountain fills the space with the sound of gently falling water, and a sweet fox sculpture by Joshua Tobey keeps watch over a planter filled with blooming flowers.
Santacafé’s updated menu has kept some of its contemporary classics: the calamari ($14) is light as air, as ever, served with sweet and tangy chile lime and tartar sauces. Plump mussels ($18) arrive in a steamy bath of coconut milk, lemongrass and Fresno chiles. A crusted steak and a crisp tangle of rosemary-Parmesan frites ($24) comes with a dense, herbaceous chimichurri. A set of beguilingly warm mini lobster rolls ($24) is a feast of succulent white meat dotted with tarragon and brushed with butter.
But Kester has expanded the menu’s ambitions, too, pairing that black cod with ginger-orange bok choy, a hint of chile, and a crunchy, vinegary cake of white rice. The lamb rack is crusted with bracingly tangy sumac and layered with spicy harissa and cooling mint labneh. An immaculate panna cotta ($11) was sweetly striped with fuschia-colored rhubarb syrup, but the vanilla virtue of the dense cream dominated each spoonful.
I can’t entirely tune out my anxiety when I go to restaurants these days and I’m even more delighted than usual when a dining experience is flawless. A critic’s mission feels somewhat altered since the pandemic. (New York Times food writer Pete Wells agrees. Last week, he wrote “Now is not the time for criticizing. Any restaurant that is serving food now is a good restaurant.”)
I remind myself that, in summer 2020, this is just what we do. We go to restaurants we have supported for years, institutions in our cities, and we give money to their renaissance. We sit at outdoor tables with masks on when we’re not eating the kind of artful starters and entrées we cannot whip up in our own kitchens, and we use the little bottles of hand sanitizer that sit on every table. We are kind to our servers, who have been out of work for months and are grateful to be back, and we tip them well.
We do what we can and, in the case of Santacafé, we are handsomely rewarded for it.