Tuesday, June 19, 2018
After more than 30 years in Los Angeles — where he opened cabarets frequented by Madonna and U2 before settling into the easier pace of a romantic Mediterranean restaurant — Frederic Meschin rolled his 1955 Citroën Traction into Santa Barbara. He was ready to bet on the potential of our mountain-to-sea setting, so he signed a lease on that iconic Craftsman restaurant space across the street from the county courthouse, once home to Elements, the most enduring tenant of recent decades.
He began plotting a second version of The Little Door, which is still considered one of the more intimate places to eat in L.A. But then Meschin ran into the other thing that Santa Barbara is increasingly notorious for: a cripplingly expensive, time-consuming, occasionally nonsensical permitting process. “Everything went sour,” said Meschin, his French accent still thick despite 35 years in California. It took three years to open The Little Door at 129 East Anapamu Street.
“It’s the most beautiful city on the coast of the Americas. It has the water, the beauty, all of the components of the French Riviera — everything is here,” said Meschin, who was born near the coast of Bordeaux, France, in a small town much like Santa Barbara. “But the bureaucrats have been keeping it sleepy and choking it. I believe the city is naturally going to open up. It has to. There is no more choice. That’s why I am here. I want to participate until it blossoms.”
That participation equates to a one-of-a-kind setting that’s been updated to enhance courthouse views on the elevated patio and increase the cozy factor inside. The menu — overseen by Chef Oscar Ledesma, a Santa Paula native who ran kitchens for top L.A. spots like Water Grill, Fig & Olive, and Boa Steakhouse — features dishes that encompass the entire Mediterranean Sea, from Spain to Israel to North Africa. The emphasis is on sourcing from Santa Barbara’s finest purveyors, from farm to ranch to sea.
That intent is perfectly stewed up in the steamed Hope Ranch mussels, which sit in a vadouvan-spiced harissa, dolloped with garlic rouille and sporting crunchy garbanzo bean surprises throughout. With a touch of curry flavor, they’re some of the best and most creative mussels I’ve ever tasted.
“It’s all about subtlety,” said Meschin, as I sopped up the last drips of rich, yellow broth with toast. “We are not here to reinvent food.”
Meschin’s story begins northwest of Bordeaux, where he was raised in wine country near the fishing village of Royan. He took about $300 and his “American dream” to Los Angeles in 1983 and found work in fast food, eventually inventing the French burrito. “The tortilla, for me, was like a crêpe,” he explained.
With his brother and business partner, Nicolas, he parlayed that success into filling the niche between restaurants and clubs by opening cabarets such as the Flaming Colossus, Po-Na-Na Souk, and Bokaos. They became the preferred haunting grounds of folks like David Bowie, Tom Waits, Sean Penn, and that calibre of celebrity. “We were the stars of the city for years,” said Meschin, who brought a lot of new music and dancing to the scene, including Brazilian, African, and Middle Eastern styles.
But with both of their families growing, it was time for something different. “We wanted to savor our families,” said Meschin. “We didn’t want to be going home at four in the morning every day, so we decided to change the formula.” In 1997, they opened The Little Door in West Hollywood, and it quickly became one of the hottest tables in town. It remains beloved.
Over the years, Meschin would drive through Santa Barbara but never really stop. “It was too similar to my hometown,” he explained. “I had no interest.” Then he followed a friend here on his motorcycle a few years ago and saw it as a way to change his life again. “I had enough of L.A.,” said Meschin, who was also ready to get his hands dirty again rather than just manage employees. “I wanted a new job. I missed the action.”
So he signed the lease, moved to Montecito, and began grappling with the city. The restaurant even briefly opened in March 2017 but was closed again to comply with disability access rules. A year later, it opened for real — two and a half years behind schedule, according to Meschin, and quite a bit in debt — and has been gaining fans ever since. There’s a rotating cast of daily specials, such as freshly caught whole fish and roasted lamb saddle, and many vegetable-first offerings, such as the couscous tagine with tomato-onion confit and a harissa broth. “You always have that mystery at The Little Door,” said Meschin of the changing menu. “What do you find behind that Little Door? What is offered to you?”
Meschin just started weekend brunch, may offer a late-night menu with mild live music in the future, and dreams of reenvisioning the picnic basket, which could be enjoyed on the courthouse grounds across the street. Altogether, he hopes that The Little Door serves as a mini-vacation for those who come inside, where you can forget about your problems and enjoy a couple of worry-free hours.
“We’re focused on that famous communion here: You eat the food together and drink the wine and are transported to another place and time,” said Meschin. “That’s truly the intention. I believe we have that knowledge. That is always the quest.”
129 E. Anapamu St.; (805) 560-8002; thelittledoorsb.com