Tara Jones Haaf was way ahead of the Instagram crush when she started her Santa Barbara tour company, Eat This, Shoot That!, in 2012.
"Food was the first big trend on Instagram, and I got really lucky to catch the wave of a trend that had very big staying power," says Haaf.
Her food and photography tours are based on a simple premise: "For three hours, I tell people to eat this and shoot that," she says.
Participants stroll through Santa Barbara's Funk Zone and sample foods at six to eight eateries over the course of three hours. A tour guide shows the way and offers insights into the local food scene, plus tips on how to shoot drool-worthy photos with a smartphone.
"We start at Santo Mezcal, where they do a beautiful presentation of octopus ceviche. It looks gorgeous on the plate, and everybody is always surprised at how great it tastes," she says. "Another stop is Cutler's Artisan Spirits. They were the first legal distillery in Santa Barbara since Prohibition. We usually taste an apple pie liqueur which is based off his grandmother's apple pie recipe, and a coffee liqueur made with coffee beans that are roasted just up the street."
Haaf, who also authored the guidebook 100 Things to Do in Santa Barbara Before You Die, moved to Santa Barbara in 2001 to attend Brooks Institute of Photography. She started leading tours in 2010 at the suggestion of a friend who ran culinary tours in Boston.
"I didn't have a background in food, but I had a background in eating. I love to eat, and I'm a cookbook junkie. It made sense to combine my love of food with my degree in photography," Haaf says.
When Eat This, Shoot That! first opened, Haaf didn't know that food photography would be the next big thing, but she did know that Santa Barbara had a lot of great food. She calls the four-block-square neighborhood of the Funk Zone "a collection of cool, hip, trendy restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, breweries, galleries, and artisan pop-up shops."
The Funk Zone originally housed the Santa Barbara Fish Market. "It had a bad smell from the fish—that's how it got its name. The city was planning to redevelop the area and turn it into an industrial park. But a bunch of artists lived there, and they didn't want to lose their homes."
After a long debate, the city rezoned the area for tourism-focused businesses, and the artists stayed. Haaf's tour guides ensure that guests see the Funk Zone's wealth of galleries, murals, and installations as well as its bountiful food.
"The cool thing about food tours is that you get to experience the culture in a really unique way and in a short amount of time," Haaf says.
FIVE MORE FAVORITES
Haaf offers a few of her top picks for visitors to Santa Barbara:
Must-see destination: "The Santa Barbara Courthouse is a 1929 Spanish Colonial building with a red-tile roof, beautiful arches, and hand-painted murals. You can climb the stairs to the top of the clock tower and get a 360-degree view of the city and visit the courthouse's Sunken Gardens. It's a big city park that's below street level and covers an entire city block. It's filled with flowers and palm trees from more than 25 countries."
Spanish dining: "Loquita is our only all-Spanish restaurant in Santa Barbara. They serve incredible paellas as well as pinchos—small bites like tapas, but served on a toothpick. A pincho is a little smaller than a tapa but a little bigger than an amuse-bouche, usually about two bites. For cocktails, Loquita's gin and tonics are unmatched. They use locally made Cutler's gin that's heavier on the citrus. It's always a well-dressed cocktail served with a sprig of rosemary or some juniper berries on the side."
Boutique shopping: "I really like La Arcada Plaza on State Street. There's a really cool men's store called Ace Rivington. They have super soft t-shirts, jeans, backpacks, and other cool stuff. Lewis & Clark is also in the plaza. It's a gift shop with cookbooks, tea towels, really artistic decor, just about anything you'd want for your home. At Christmas, it's downright magical. They have a great selection of ornaments."
Super sushi: "Sushi|Bar in Montecito serves a 17-course omakase-style sushi meal. The restaurant has only 10 seats, and the chefs make the fish right in front of you. These chefs eat, sleep, and breathe fish. They cut it and prepare it and talk about it and finesse it before they give it to you. It's like dinner and a show at the same time. The fish just melts in your mouth."
Walk-worthy neighborhood: "Besides the Funk Zone, another great neighborhood for strolling and eating is Coast Village Road in Montecito. It's luxurious and upscale. I like all the home goods shops and Whiskey & Leather for clothing and accessories. There are delicious little cafes like Jeannine's Bakery, which has been a Santa Barbara staple for 30 years, and a wine-tasting bar called Folded Hills Winery that has excellent wines. You can park once and walk around all day. You can walk down to Butterfly Beach from there, too."