High on Solvang

New Spear Vineyards & Winery. (Photo by Jeremy Ball)

By Benjamin Epstein.

You can still visit the little Mermaid Fountain and giant red clog. You can sample aebleskiver at several bakeries. Visitors with a literary bent take in the Hans Christian Andersen museum. That much hasn’t changed in Solvang, the Danish-American enclave founded in 1911, deemed one of USA Today’s top 10 historic small towns in America.

What has changed in the 21st century is that the Disneyesque town finds itself in the middle of the wine-centric Santa Ynez Valley; there are now 20 tasting rooms in downtown Solvang. And what’s changed in the last three years is the emergence of high-end hotels and restaurants that aren’t necessarily Danish but that satisfy a more sophisticated breed of visitor that uses Solvang as a springboard for visits to the region’s renowned wineries.

Danish, French and American flags greet guests at the Mirabelle Inn. Within its half-timbered architecture is a soaring lobby suggesting the tiered marzipan cake kransekage. Above the lobby are boutique-y suites on multiple split stories, some with whirlpool tubs, most with fireplaces. The final flight of stairs leads to an airy attic suite complete with chess table.

Flanking the lobby is extraordinary First & Oak restaurant. Chef Jj Guerrero and sommelier Jonathan Rosenson—whose family owns the hotel—present a three-, four- or five-course personal tasting menu. Highlights among the meticulously conceived and executed dishes recently included sous-vide Kurobuta pork belly with grape gastrique and fennel four ways, and unforgettable rosettes of Tête de Moine cheese with plumped raisins, caramelized cauliflower and burnt toast.

Chef Pink DeLongpre, who competed on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, has reinvigorated Root 246 since taking the helm in 2017. She goes for flavor explosions, her Niman Ranch pork osso bucco—with baby Japanese turnips, preserved lemon and prune gremolata, the prunes rehydrated in Earl Grey tea and Armagnac— a prime example. Ice cream sandwiches are also larger than life.

The restaurant and the chic hotel it inhabits, Corque—get it?—are owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. On the list is a spectrum of impressive Kitá Wines, made by Tara Gomez, a member of that group.

Chef Pink DeLongpre’s Niman Ranch pork osso buco at Root 246, inside Hotel Corque.

Among other options, the Landsby boutique hotel opened in 2016; its Mad & Vin offers wine-country cuisine. New restaurants not connected to hotels include Toscana, for Italian, and Cal-French bistro Hill Haven Provisions. Owner-winemakers Dana Volk and Felipe Hernandez enhance the tasting-room scene with Dana V Wines and Feliz Noche Cellars, respectively.

There are performing-arts attractions as well. Upcoming productions at the outdoor Solvang Festival Theater include A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder June 13-30. The Under the Oaks jazz series begins June 16 with Grammy-winning Mads Tolling & the Mads Men.

Side Trip

Lompoc is the self-described City of Arts and Flowers.

More than 40 murals on street corners, in alleys and on buildings in Old Town and elsewhere—a citywide outdoor gallery—bring to life local heritage. Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her husband, director Brad Hall, jump-started the effort to restore and reopen the Lompoc Theatre, which operated from 1927 to 1975. Flower fields to the west are ablaze with larkspur, delphinium and Queen Anne’s lace through September.

Western gateway to the Sta. Rita Hills wine appellation, Lompoc boasts the largest concentration of premier small-production wineries in Santa Barbara County. In town, James Sparks makes chardonnay, pinot noir and grenache with an Old World bent at Liquid Farm and Kings Carey. Find more than 20
other tasting rooms in an industrial setting at the Wine Ghetto

Kathleen Gaffney is the brilliant young winemaker at new Spear Vineyards & Winery; the family-owned, certified-organic operation has a spectacular tasting room midway between Solvang and Lompoc. Before setting out, pick up a basket from superb Cailloux Cheese, opening presently in Solvang, and enjoy it at the Spear picnic table overlooking the valley.

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