MONTECITO, Calif. — Cookbook author, TV personality, bon vivant and all-around American icon Julia Child has just been served her Cobb salad ("untossed, please, with the dressing on the side") when she proclaims in that voice known to millions, "Oh, isn't it lovely!" She's not talking about her untossed Cobb salad, however.
She's talking about the view. Child is dining on the porch of Santa Barbara's El Encanto Hotel, high in the hills above this seaside town, looking out over the blue Pacific, which is rivaled only by an even bluer sky. It is one of those picture-perfect days that made, and still makes, California what it is.
A Pasadena native, Child, at 89, has returned to the Golden State for good,leaving behind her Cambridge, Mass., house to Smith College and her famous kitchen to the Smithsonian.
"I always remained a Californian," she says. "I never really became a New Englander. People ask, 'Aren't you going to miss the change of seasons?' and I say no. I like it just like this every day."
She's not alone. For decades, this stretch of California coast an hour north of Los Angeles has attracted the rich and famous. Its magic is still working. Even Oprah couldn't resist its 300 days of sunshine a year. She bought here last summer.
Kirk Douglas, in this month's Vanity Fair, confesses that his favorite journey is "to our house in Montecito," this wealthy hillside enclave that snuggles up to Santa Barbara's south side. (The two towns often are referred to interchangeably.)
Child, who has retreated to Montecito off and on over the years, now lives in a comfortable garden apartment in a retirement community here, complete with a sunny patio but a kitchen smaller than her pantry back in Cambridge. Not that Child's newly remodeled kitchen, which she calls "small, but efficient," doesn't still attract celebrities. Wolfgang Puck stopped by not long ago to cook quail, white asparagus and a floating meringue island with her.
Talk-show host and magazine maven Oprah Winfrey, meanwhile, purchased a $50 million estate around the corner from her, albeit with a bit larger kitchen and patio. Actually, the 42-acre spread includes a 23,000-square-foot Georgian-style mansion, a guesthouse, a gatehouse, a barn, orchard, a couple of ponds and a lake. The story in town is that the house was not for sale, but Oprah made an offer the owners couldn't refuse.
Through a spokeswoman, Winfrey would say only: "Santa Barbara is too good to share." Many who have arrived before her would agree. Santa Barbara (pop. 90,000) and Montecito (9,300) are the types of towns where there are more gardeners than residents. On any given day, the hedges that hide the estates from passersby are manicured by a multitude of workers, and the distant hum is that of lawn vacuums clearing leaves.
They also are towns where you'll see Mercedes station wagons with two dogs in the back parked outside the shops and a "Fitness to You" truck — the company brings the gym and trainer to the house — in front of you at the stoplight.
While Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were married at San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito — Jack and Jackie honeymooned there, too — Steve Cushman of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce thinks it's Oprah's arrival that has brought new attention.
Not that the locals much care. Cushman says reaction to the talk-show host has been "so what?"
"It wasn't a big deal when she walked in here a while ago," he says over lunch at the Stonehouse restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch. "In fact, no one even said hello."
It's not polite, or cool, to gawk in these hills. Local singer/songwriter Delilah Poupore says she has learned to use certain catchphrases — "Where's the red folder?" for one — to alert dinner partners that a celebrity has just walked in. "Then you don't have to say, 'Look, look, look!' "
That's how Steve Martin can get his morning coffee at Pierre Lafond without much fuss, and Jonathan Winters can enjoy his breakfast on the patio of Tom's, the coffee shop at the San Ysidro Pharmacy, and jabber away with other locals.
The Stonehouse, by the way, is known for its grilled lobster sandwich, a $19 favorite among locals, who on a recent weekday appeared to be a bevy of trophy wives, every one of them blonde.
The median home price in Santa Barbara and environs is $600,000. (Nationally, it's $146,600.) And a home in Montecito often costs even more. Real estate offices line Montecito's Coast Village Road, offering everything from a "Tuscan estate" for $4.85 million to a beach cottage on four oceanfront acres for $12.5 million to a majestic 1890 estate for $28 million.
And while Oprah made what's said to be the largest real estate transaction for a private home in America, her $800 million fortune does not come close to making her the wealthiest resident here.
"She's not even in the game," says Cushman, who was recently scouting locals looking for $25 million to restore an old movie house in downtown Santa Barbara. He compiled a list of those who could give that much and never miss it, finally stopping when he reached 187. Among the crowd: Beanie Baby founder Ty Warner, who recently bought the Biltmore and the San Ysidro Ranch, and Craig McCaw, who sold his Cellular phone company for billions.
"This is just a funny little town with a lot of people with a lot of money," Cushman says. "They could live anywhere they want, and they choose to stay here."
The area is a mix of old money, new money and hippie sensibilities. Films were made here before they were in Hollywood, with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin making this their playground. They were followed by the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and DuPonts in their luxury rail cars, who were in turn followed by painters, poets and authors. A bit of all three groups remains.
The street people on State Street, which runs through Santa Barbara and down to the sea, wear tie-dye shirts and play the guitar for anything you'll give them, while Joan Baez look-alikes sit outside The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, reading paperbacks as their dogs lounge under the table.
Everything is tasteful. Even the freeway offramp into town is draped with greenery as if it were a private garden wall, signaling to visitors that they're not in just Anytown USA.
There's a farmers market twice a week — which Child frequents — and people line up to get into the Palace Grill, a Cajun restaurant where in the course of the evening you'll find yourself singing What a Wonderful World with the waiters.
"We travel a lot, but every time we come back home, we say 'Ahhh,' " says Sandy DeRousse, the Palace Grill's owner.
While it's too soon to tell whether it'll make the grade, Kevin Costner's 7-month-old restaurant, Epiphany, is being touted by the local press as a great place for happy hour downtown. Main courses will set you back $24 to $28.
Child's favorite local restaurant is the tiny and turquoise La Super-Rica, a Mexican place on Milpas. "It's very simple, but it's the closest you're going to get to authentic Mexican cooking," she says.
She also likes the steamed crabs sold at the end of the Santa Barbara pier and Lucky's in Montecito, which she calls "jolly." Lucky's is where Oprah spent New Year's Eve.
Child's only complaint so far is she can't find a good breakfast, other than in the dining room in her complex, which she happily reports serves "lots of bacon."
The area gets 25,000 visitors a day, but there are only 5,000 hotel rooms, including those at the venerable old seaside Biltmore, which is now run by Four Seasons. The funkier Miramar, down the beach, was recently purchased by hip and happening hotelier Ian Schrager.
The newest kid on the block is Bacara, a resort north of town and technically not in Santa Barbara at all, although they use that address for the cache. Rooms begin at $395 and go up to $5,000 a night.
Beverly Hills, 90210 star Jennie Garth chose it for her wedding reception last January, and the 16-month-old resort just made Condé Nast Traveler's Gold List for 2002.
"There's a sense of the Riviera here," says Dylan Arriaza, Bacara's director of reception services. "Santa Barbara is small, it has a European feel to it, of a village with red-tiled roofs." Local speculation is rampant about how Bacara will do, despite good national press. Arriaza says he's not worried. He says Beverly Hills wives already are calling from the 101 Freeway saying they're on their way, booking a series of spa treatments as they maneuver their Jaguars through traffic. Mariah Carey came to Bacara to rest after her recent breakdown, although no one at Bacara would confirm that.
The resort, like most of the area, affords the wealthy privacy.
"The more I travel, the more I appreciate where I'm from," says John Hunt, who manages the 1,000-acre ranch at Bacara. "Up here, there's a feeling of 100 years ago. Old California. You don't hear anything here but the wind."