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Color counts at this restaurant

This eaterie offers plant-based dishes that look as good as they taste.

WHAT IT IS 

Mesa Verde is a modern, plant-based bistro. Eating for wellness is par for the course in beachy, blossom-scented Santa Barbara, but Mesa Verde is no typical vegetarian restaurant: This off-the-beaten-path eatery revels in plant-based dishes whose color-play and composition rival modern art’s greatest masterworks. 

WHY WE LOVE IT 

Mesa Verde’s menu celebrates the inclusion of a wide variety of plants rather than the exclusion of animal products. “Eating at a vegan or vegetarian place used to mean tofu and sprouts,” Arnold says. “Today, you see chefs like us who could work at any restaurant in the world choosing to make plant-based food.” 

The Mesa Verde team transmutes the classic charcuterie board into a lushly composed display of smoked cashew cheese, walnut sausage, fig paste, and cornichons. Meanwhile, simple street fare morphs into gourmet jackfruit “chorizo” and cacao–black bean tacos with blueberry-chipotle salsa, sumac, and jalapeño slaw. But it’s the wildly imaginative presentation of these dishes that sets Mesa Verde apart. In Arnold’s hands, a simple spring salad manifests as a three-dimensional, undulating mass of peas, nasturtium leaves, upended strawberries, asparagus, and shallot rings, tumbling across the plate like the hair of a river nymph. It’s almost too pretty to eat—almost.

THE BACKSTORY

Wedged between a 7-Eleven and a gas station, Mesa Verde holds Santa Barbara’s top Yelp rating. (You read that right: Santa Barbara’s favorite restaurant is vegetarian.) “It’s a word-of-mouth, destination spot,” says Executive Chef Greg Arnold, a former art-school student and professional musician who helped build and open Mesa Verde in 2014.

By Jaime Lewis