In January we were saddened to see that James Miller, one half of Drink ’n’ Dine, the hospitality group he formed with James Wirth, had passed away. It happened only a month or so after the pair launched their latest venture, Santa Barbara, which might also be their most ambitious to date.
Drink ’n’ Dine, if you don’t know, is the team behind the Abercrombie, the Norfolk, the Forresters and the Flinders. They’re famed for taking failing pub spaces and giving them an injection of fun and frivolity. We say Santa Barbara is ambitious because they’ve chosen to completely reinvent the Piano Room – that dark and famously tough-to-get-into cocktail bar under the Coke sign.
The space is now a little bit Hawaiian and a little bit Blacktown Chinese. And it’s got a Mexican twist – of course – all finished with a some LA-spiked Korean. There are backlit pictures of food just like an ’80s takeaway joint. There are giant sparkly signs and what looks like Chinese firecrackers hanging from the walls. Santa Barbara kicks off late, and the big balcony is hot property for smokers and free-breathers alike.
We’ll say this for the Drink ’n’ Dine family: they write exciting menu. The food may not always be executed with the same zing as on paper (“combination Mexican street salad”!), but part of any good adventure is the risk. Maholo (sic) popcorn is a strangely wet combo of pineapple, bacon, sesame, coconut, furikake and parmesan.
Better to go with the crisp, spicy jerk chicken wings, or maybe the sweet, sticky pork ribs with hot and sour cucumber. The cocktails are fine (they’ll make you a serviceable Old Fashioned in a nice glass), but we’re keen on ice cold tinnies of Moritz and salt’n’pepper sweet potato fries. Or order the buttermilk fried chicken burger for $12.
Go to Santa Barbara late, late, late. Or just go for lunch, sit on the balcony, catch a breeze and watch the wildlife below. Creating the most un-Kings Cross bar Kings Cross has ever seen was a gamble for this team, but it’s a gamble that’s paid off in bright lights, neon and a whole lot of fun.