The Stonehouse Restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch

Bood Look:

  • Spectacular ambiance
  • Extremely expensive
  • Food is the weak link
  • Special occasion destination
  • For the experience try lunch

The San Ysidro Ranch

Main Building at San Ysidro Ranch

San Ysidro Ranch

If you love all things Santa Barbara – great food, world class wine, wonderful climate, and spectacular views – then at some point you’ll be drawn to the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito. It would be hard to find a more beautiful spot. Precisely manicured gardens, some providing fresh produce for the hotel’s restaurants, lush fruit trees (the SYR used

San Ysidro Ranch Fresh Produce Gardens

Fresh Produce Gardens

to be a citrus ranch) and picture perfect cottages. Rich in history, you can stay in the same cottage where JFK and Jackie honeymooned. Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier were married here. The SYR was named Travel + Leisure’s 2011 No. 1 hotel in California and No. 4 hotel in the world. You get the picture.

San Ysidro Ranch Grounds

San Ysidro Ranch Grounds

 

The Stonehouse Restaurant

Exterior of The Stonehouse Restaurant

The Stonehouse Restaurant

We guessed that a hotel this great would have a restaurant of equal stature. Indeed, The Stonehouse at SYR had some pretty impressive reviews of its own. So after checking the dinner and dessert menus online and with admittedly high expectations we booked a table on a recent Saturday night. Even arriving on a relatively cool, dark winter evening does not disappoint. The place looks fantastic. I mean it’s really beautiful. The flowers, the grounds, the twinkling lights, a crackling fire in the dining room; it’s all a perfect mood setter.

Dining Exerience

INterior of The Stonehouse Restauarant

Inside The Stonehouse

Although we arrived right on time, our table was not quite ready so we were asked to wait a few minutes and enjoy a drink in the lounge. Ok, no problem, except as soon as we sat and got comfortable we were told our table was now ready. Forget the offer to have a drink, it’s up and to the table. I thought excellent service would mean we should at least have been given the choice, no?

Turns out this wasn’t the only service glitch. The highly rated service was good but seemed done as a matter of form. The waiter goes through the motions but his delivery is fast and to the point. You know he’s done this a thousand times before and it’s hard to keep it interesting. But that’s his job, right? There’s no give and take, no attempt to tell you what they have that’s really special and why. All your choices are “excellent”. You get the sense he needs to move on. By comparison, the Sommelier is a master. Friendly, engaging, he puts us at ease and helps us get exactly what we want from the extensive and expensive wine list. The waiter seeing our selection declares it “excellent”. Really.

The food starts out on a high with the appetizers. The Smoked Muscovy Duck and Avocado Spring Roll is amazingly good, as is the special Artichoke Soup. The entrees are another matter. Although the pork chop is deemed “great”, the SYR House-Made Fettuccini Carbonara with Pata Negra, one of the reasons we came to The Stonehouse, is a big disappointment. The poached egg on top of the pasta is pretty unappealing in person, and the star of the dish, the Pata Negra, is almost a no-show. This is not about portion size. It’s about the quality of the dish and at $42 you expect more than a plate of pasta with a few tiny specks of ham. The Steak Diane is a little better but nothing special.

For dessert the SYR Meyer Lemon Tart is so loose it simply oozes all over the plate when cut into the crust and needs to be eaten with a spoon. The waiter, I think because he is rushing although I’m not sure why, gets the coffee and drink orders wrong. When it comes time to leave we’re ushered out to the lounge and left alone with nobody to get our coats. We have to go find the waiter. Fortunately we have “excellent” coats.

Review

You begin to realize that the SYR is more about the ambiance, the history and the hotel than the food at The Stonehouse. No matter how beautiful the setting we couldn’t help coming away disappointed. It’s easy to see that this is a “special occasion” destination: engagements, birthday parties, anniversaries. Lots of flambéing tableside – when was the last time you saw Crepes Suzette, Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Foster all on one dessert menu? But The Stonehouse is a restaurant, not an event space, and a very expensive one at that.

You shouldn’t get the impression that the food was bad. A few things were fantastic, some were just OK, some were really disappointing. You should know that the overall quality of the food did not in my opinion begin to match the ambiance or justify the price charged, conservatively $150 per person, and much, much higher depending on your wine selection. No matter how beautiful the space, an expensive restaurant has to deliver food worthy of what’s being charged. which at these prices means something truly special. In my opinion the SYR doesn’t do that. It’s really a question of value. There are a lot of great places to eat in SB and if you’re willing to pay this price you can have your pick. So why settle?

Plow and Angel Restaurant

Plow and Angel Restaurant

If you’re looking for a place to propose, the SYR may be perfect. If you’re popping the question you’ve got a lot more on your mind than the food, which you aren’t likely to remember anyway. But if you’re just looking for the finest gourmet dining, I’d pass. If your heart is really set on the SYR I suggest lunch at the Plow and Angel, the hotel’s slightly more casual restaurant. Lobster Tacos will still set you back $57 but you’ll be able to enjoy the grounds more during the day and for the SYR, that’s what it’s all about.

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Beat the boarding lines on Amtrak

I like Amtrak trains, I really do. On a short trip I almost always prefer the train to flying. No TSA screening, no baggage fees, no expensive cab ride to get downtown, more comfortable seats, better food than flying, and sometimes even faster. But one of the worst things about using Amtrak is its archaic, frustrating and stressful boarding process, particularly along Amtrak’s northeast corridor (Washington – New York – Boston), one of its busiest and most profitable routes. On a recent trip between Washington DC Union Station and New York Penn Station this is how I learned to beat the boarding lines on Amtrak and to make getting a good seat fast, simple and stress free.

Departing from Washington D.C.

Amtrak DC Boarding Area

Amtrak DC Boarding Area

I arrived at Union Station ticket in hand after my internet purchase. My train was scheduled to depart in about 40 minutes. There were already well over 100 people on the boarding line. These trains are all “reserved”, meaning you are guaranteed the right to board the train but don’t have a designated seat. In fact, it doesn’t mean you will actually get a seat if the train is really crowded and certainly doesn’t mean you will be able to sit with your traveling companions or sit where you’d like. You may long for the peace of the Quiet Car but you’re just as likely to end up sitting next to the guy who talks to his stock broker the entire 3 hour trip. The seats are in almost all cases first come, first served.

If you think arriving early to get a good spot on line is the answer, think again. The waiting area can’t possibly accommodate the line that’s forming in any reasonable, orderly way. The line winds back and forth, in and around seats, away from the track entrance, then back again. Soon it’s impossible to even find where the line ends. The “line” becomes one in name only. When the gate finally opens the situation instantly dissolves into complete chaos as the entire waiting area rushes the door from all directions. You may have been waiting in line patiently for an hour, 20 people from the door, only to find that someone who arrived 5 minutes before the gate opened beats you to the train as he edges in from the side while the crowd pushes you further and further back from where you started. When you finally do get through the entrance door it’s a long race up the platform to board the train, find a seat and a place for your luggage before you’re shut out. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? It’s a mess but one Amtrak does not seem inclined to fix.

Departing from New York Penn Station

NY Penn Station Waiting Room

NY Penn Station Waiting Room

At least in DC you knew your gate number long before the scheduled departure so you had some chance of positioning yourself for the coming rush. At NY’s Penn Station the process is even worse. Everyone, and I mean every single person in that giant waiting room who is waiting for an outbound train, regardless of destination, is lumped together in a huge crowd, eyes straining upward to the enormous departures board. Surrounding the crowd on the perimeter of this mass of humanity, are the track entrances. Like thoroughbreds at the starting gate each person in the room is waiting for one thing to appear on that board: his track number. Track numbers are usually not announced until about 10 minutes before the trains actually depart. This means there is NO line until the track number goes up and when it does look out! Everyone who is waiting for that train rushes the track entrance gate which may be right next to you if you’re lucky, or 100 feet away on the other side of the waiting room. Total chaos. Is this any way to run a railroad!

Red Cap to the rescue

Amtrak Red Cap

Amtrak Red Cap

Short of getting Amtrak to see the insanity of this process and fix it (not bloody likely) what can you do? Actually it’s pretty simple. In the age of wheelie bags you just need to remember two words: Red Cap. If you’re not familiar with the term, Red Caps, as they have been known since the early 20th century, are baggage porters. You will find them in all major train stations, immediately recognizable by their red caps (go figure). The Red Cap my friends is the solution to all your problems.Simply find a Red Cap in the station. This won’t be hard. Just look around. Tell him what train you’re on and show him your ticket. You’re in for some good news right away. Miracle of miracles, the Red Cap knows something nobody else in the waiting room knows: he knows the track number for your train. Even better, he’s going to open the gate and take you to the track NOW! Let everyone else wait for the track announcement, you’ll already be on the train. What’s more, he’s going to carry your bags.

That’s exactly what our Red Cap did for us in NY. Leaving the hundreds of people in the waiting room still staring expectantly at the board, we were down on the track before our train even arrived at the station. No worries about where we wanted to sit much less whether we were going to get a seat at all, once the incoming train emptied our Red Cap just took us directly to the car that we asked for, waited for us to select the seats we wanted – pretty easy since the train was empty – and stowed our luggage nearby. It was all done a good 5 to 10 minutes before the mad rush of people arrived from upstairs. Not sure where the best seat is for you? Ask the Red Cap. He knows exactly how the train is laid out.

Cost ? Free. That’s right, it’s free. There is no cost except whatever tip you decide on. Try getting priority boarding on an airline for free! Even though it’s free, be generous with your tip. Do you realize what this guy just did for you?

So if you’re sick of the insane Amtrak boarding process, just use a Red Cap. You’ll feel like you’re back in an earlier, more glamorous day of train travel and you’ll help a hard working guy make a living to boot.

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