Written by Kara Thompson Photos by Silas Fallstich
For many, coffee is a ritual. The sound of a fresh cup brewing, the smell of a smooth roast, that warm first sip—coffee is less of a drink and more so something to look forward to. It signals the start of many of our days, setting the mood for what’s to come. Equally enticing in the afternoon, it’s the perfect pick me up after hours of slumping over a desk. Plus, it’s always there to offer a boost after a sleepless night. All this is to say, coffee is a love language that I don’t ever want to quit.
Luckily, Santa Barbara is no stranger to charming coffee shops, flavorful roasts, and unique blends. Set out on a mission to source the best in town, I tried a handful of drinks from three local favorites. Here’s what stood out.
A visit to Caje’s Arlington Street location is like taking a vacation (without needing to pack any bags). The open concept courtyard is decorated with resort-like furniture, perfectly potted plants, and upscale chandeliers. Passionate staff members greet you with a smile and offer up plenty of recommendations while customers work on their laptops and catch up with friends.
My impression of Caje goes beyond the relaxing atmosphere—the coffee cocktails are next-level when it comes to presentation and taste. My favorites: Jupiter’s Forest and Bella Rose.
Jupiter’s Forest starts as an iced oat latte before being transformed into a coffee that tastes (and looks) more like a craft cocktail. Juniper berries, sage syrup, and grapefruit zest are the key ingredients that add earthy and energizing flavors to the drink. And because Caje doesn't skip out on the details, a fresh orchid and dusting of edible gold top off the drink.
The Bella Rose is a matcha lover’s dream. An iced matcha latte meets fresh pomegranate, strawberries, beet root powder, and notes of elderflower and rose. It tastes both sweet and savory and I relish in every last sip. The Instagram-worthy concoction is served with dried rose petals that sweep the side of the glass and a fresh strawberry that hugs the rim.
I was dazzled by every detail at Caje. Next time, I plan to order the Burnout, a breve latte with bourbon pecan syrup, black lava salt, ginger, and blackberry.
DUNE COFFEE ROASTERS
In a drink rut? Head to Dune Coffee Roasters, which offers one of the most extensive menus in SB. Some menu items include Nitro Cold Brew, Matcha Lemonade, and a Golden Latte. To keep things fresh, the baristas create an off-menu drink that consistently changes. Ask someone on staff what the “fancy drink” is and you’re sure to find yourself pleasantly surprised. Some “fancy drinks” from the past include an Orange Cardamom Latte and a Sprold Fashioned, a delicious combo of espresso and an old fashioned.
With such a large variety of offerings, I knew I’d have to taste test a handful of drinks in order to properly experience Dune. First up was the Matcha Lemonade, one of the shop’s most popular beverages. They make the lemonade in-house and it shows. Each sip was just the right amount of tart and refreshing. Order this on a warm summer day when you’re looking for a steady dose of caffeine.
Next up was the Iced Tres Leches, a mouthwatering drink that’s named after Tres Leches cake. Not one who enjoys overly sweet drinks, I was pleased that although the coffee mimicked a dessert, it wasn’t too rich. The candy like confection would pair perfectly with a fresh croissant or buttered bagel.
I wrapped up my stop at Dune with an Iced Chai Latte, a coffee-free menu option. The tea flaunted an inviting cinnamon and cardamom flavor that lingered even after my drink was gone. Traditionally, chai infused lattes signal the beginning of autumn, but when ordered iced, they make for savory summer drinks. Cinnamon is sprinkled on top when it’s ordered hot, but even with that taken into account, the latte is more spicy than it is sweet.
The first thing I noticed upon arrival at Low Pigeon was the line outside the shop. Some might roll their eyes at the thought of having to wait, but any coffee connoisseur knows that’s a sign of a good ground. I quickly found myself at the counter and opted for a cappuccino and vanilla latte—two classics that can either be so good or so bland. Low Pigeon impressed me beyond belief after I downed both drinks.
The Cappuccino was perhaps the best I’ve had. The taste was smooth and nutty, and the barista included the ideal amount of foam. Order it with a pump or two of vanilla to add some sweetness.
After I finished off the Cappuccino, I dove into my Vanilla Latte. Thanks to just the right amount of housemade vanilla syrup, the bold flavors of the grind were left as the star of the show. Low Pigeon proved to me that sometimes simple is best. If a shop can brew a delicious cappuccino and a well-balanced latte, then you know their beans are good.
When my road test on local grounds came to an end, I was left feeling both caffeinated and fulfilled by all that the Santa Barbara coffee scene has to offer. From fair-trade drip to frothy lattes, there's an impressive variety of roasts for every type of java enthusiast.