No matter how much you love big city life - the hustle, the grime, the perpetual inability to harness your road rage - at some point, everybody romanticizes the idea of giving it all up and moving to the country. You’ll open your own natural winery, live amongst a grove of well-trimmed orange trees, and watch your two dogs playing happily in the creek out back while you finger-paint in the nude on your porch.
Of course, that’s a pretty far-fetched dream for most people, so just do what we do: Head up to Bell’s in Los Alamos. Combining incredible food with a bucolic setting ripped out of a Danielle Steel novel, this tiny French restaurant (and the town itself, located about an hour north of Santa Barbara) will convince you that you’re living a completely different life - one you wish could last a lot longer.
Sitting right on Los Alamos’s main drag, Bell’s is the kind of restaurant you take one step into and immediately whisper “I like it here” without even realizing it. The dining room is small (it used to be the town’s old post office) with only about ten tables and a row of stools facing the open kitchen. This is a modern French restaurant, and yet, it looks and feels like a century-old bistro you accidentally stumbled into in the Provence countryside. You’re immediately greeted by the young couple who own the place (he runs front-of-house and she’s the head chef) and whisked off to your table, where you begin to wonder if this is all just a figment of your romanticized fantasies. But then the food starts arriving and you realize this place isn’t just real - it’s really better than most restaurants in Los Angeles.
To a large extent, Bell’s menu is full of dishes that you can find at spots all over Southern California. But for however many steak tartares or chicken liver mousses you’ve ordered in the last few years, Bell’s versions will make you believe you’re eating them for the first time. Every dish here - whether it’s the stone fruit salad, a side of roasted mushrooms, or savory crepes topped with uni and caviar - is so simple, yet so packed with flavor, you’ll spend half the meal tilting your head back, eyes closed, wondering what the hell is happening right now.
By the time the moules frites with Santa Barbara mussels and whatever incredible dessert they’re serving today hits the table, you are not the person who walked in earlier. You live here now. Not at Bell’s in particular, but here, in the country, amongst the golden hills of Los Alamos Valley, gardening seasonal vegetables and finally understanding the difference between a good wind chime and a great wind chime.
And when the check arrives and your reverie comes to an end, you’re strangely OK. Because unlike other fantasies, Bell’s is real - and you can come back to experience it whenever you want.
There’s nothing mind-blowingly different about this liver mousse, and yet, it’s still one of the best we’ve ever eaten. It’s simple, fresh, and the apricot jam that comes on the side provides just the right amount of sweetness.
Sardines will always be a polarizing dish, but no matter how many people at your table say they’d rather get something else, ignore them and order this anyway. Not just because they taste incredible, but because it always feels good to prove people wrong. It comes with a side of saltine crackers and house butter, so make sure you do them up into little sandwiches for the full effect.
This is the point in your meal when you realize Bell’s - and the people working there - know exactly what they’re doing. Topped with crème fraîche, Santa Barbara uni, and caviar, this multi-layered crepe is extremely difficult to execute, and yet every time we’ve eaten it, it’s been perfect. Be sure this makes it onto your table.
Bell’s salads change seasonally, but if this one is on the menu when you’re there, get it. Local stone fruit (whatever’s in season at the time), aged cheddar, pistachios, and whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. This is a rich, savory salad, but one that also isn’t going to take up much stomach real estate.
As far as we’re concerned, mustard-y tartares are the best tartares, and that’s exactly why we’re obsessed with Bell’s version. Arriving as a tiny tartare tower with a dijonnaise sauce base, cornichons, and a cured egg on top, this is a perfectly balanced dish that, despite a lot of strong flavors in play, still manages to make the meat the star.
Every time we go to Bell’s, we have an existential crisis about whether we should order this dish or the steak frites. Most times, however, we go with the mussels, because they come right from the coast and are cooked perfectly. Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve dipped the French fries into the leftover white wine and saffron broth that they’re served in.