The brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, is one seriously amazing bird. Native to coastal regions throughout the Western Hemisphere, it glides effortlessly above the waters until spotting a fish. Its stately flight then halts, as its trajectory alters almost instantaneously in a way no animal this large ought to be able to accomplish. The pelican's bulky body plunges headfirst in a kamikaze dive straight for the water. But unlike the poorly trained, suicidal Japanese pilots of yore, the brown pelican can aim itself with uncanny precision, getting what it set out for more often than not. The bulging of the pouch underneath its bill after a successful plunge is unmistakable, as is the gulping motion as it tilts its head back to swallow its catch.

This is a big bird. Brown pelicans average about four feet in length and a fully extended wingspan of six or seven feet, weighing eight pounds or so. Males and females are similar in size and coloring. Adult birds have darkly colored bodies and white heads with a yellow spot on top, while juveniles are a more uniform brown. The brown pelican's bill has an enormous capacity, three times that of its stomach. Curiously, the fish is always swallowed head-first, and the pelican will perform some rather deft maneuvers to get it in this position if necessary. Buoyancy and ease of swimming are aided by an abundance of air sacs distributed beneath the birds' skin and throughout their bones; these adaptations may also help cushion the pelicans from the strains of repeatedly hitting water after fifty-foot dives.

The books will tell you that brown pelicans are "sociable" birds. Yeah, they gather in large groups, but they don't seem to be acting terribly sociable. Gulls will squawk at each other and fight for choice perch positions. Pelicans just sit there quietly and peacefully when they're not busy catching something. I often see large groups of the birds perched on piers and the concrete islands of bridge supports. Most often, they're all sitting there together, staring in one direction, as if attentively watching a baseball game.

The brown pelican, unlike its cousin the white pelican which sometimes ventures inland up rivers, restricts its habitation to saltwater shores. Native to Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, it maintains year-round residence as far north as Virginia, and ranges up through much of the Canadian shore in summer. The pelicans nest most often on islands forested with mangrove trees and remain close to shore throughout their lives. They usually breed in early spring, the female laying two to four eggs, which are incubated by both parents for a month before hatching.The offspring are then fed partially-digested fish regurgitated by their parents, learning to fly on their own after about three months.

Once a very common species, the brown pelican was brought to near extinction in the 1950s and 1960s. Like many large birds of prey feeding on fish, brown pelicans ingested large amounts of the pesticide DDT, causing them to lay eggs with such thin shells that hatching often became impossible. The chemical was banned, and brown pelican populations have been increasing steadily since that time. The bird may soon be removed from the government's endangered species list.

One thing that most people would probably agree on is that a popular feature of seacoast towns is restaurants close to, or on, or underneath the water. Especially when the town in question is a tourist mecca.

The flip side of that is that when you live in such a town, you should be familiar with those restaurants so that you can have a great time at one when you have guests in from out of town. Having lived in Santa Barbara, California for 14 years now, I haven't quite gotten around to all of them yet (not that I have a lot of guests). Today that was remedied a little bit when I went to lunch with panamaus at The Brown Pelican.

Many of Santa Barbara's restaurants that are right on the water (there are many that are on the street next to the water) are clustered in the tourist area at the foot of State Street, or on the pier that juts out from there. It's quite unlikely that a tourist would find The Brown Pelican by accident.

It's situated off of Cliff Drive, immediately before the street begins its steep ascent into Hope Ranch, at the very edge of the shallow Arroyo Burro beach. Parking is free and shared with beachgoers.

The inside is quite nice, if small. There is seating for perhaps twenty people, half of them next to the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that cover the entire span of the side facing the ocean, and all tables have a good view. Tables and chairs are beautiful wood, matching the paneling. It doesn't scream out seashore, but it's closer to that than foresty.

There is actually a bit more seating outside on the concrete patio where perhaps thirty to forty can dine. The patio is to the side of the main building, but even though it is outside, the view is diminished. The whole side farthest from the building is lined with bushes, presumably because the main view in that direction otherwise would be of the parking lot. Furnishings are considerably different outside. Faux-granite looking tables with plastic wicker chairs are scattered under big, yellow, standard issue restaurant umbrellas and entirely too many gas heaters. I don't think I would want to be there when they turn those on. Nonetheless, the patio, where we ate, is pleasant enough during the day.

Two turnoffs were apparent early on. I was a few minutes late for my one o'clock date with Maus, and when I arrived he'd already gotten us a table and learned that they were still serving breakfast. That's fine, many restaurants do accomodate late breakfast plans, but it was pretty ridiculous that they refused to give us a lunch menu until the clock struck the half hour. While we were waiting, the waiter offered us a drink. There is a full bar inside, and I asked for Amaretto with lemon juice. He claimed they had no lemon juice, and instead suggested that I try their Almond Lemonade, a standard drink listed on the menu. Well, on the lunch menu. It contains Amaretto, vodka, and lemonade. I poltroonishly acceded to his substitute, minus the vodka. They didn't take overly long to arrive, and while we sipped, we noticed that new arrivals were being seated and presented with lunch menus. Eventually, Maus went and rounded up two menus and brought them to the table.

The selection, naturally, was tilted toward seafood. It all sounded good, and many of the dishes appeared more creative than the norm. Maus chose grilled salmon and I went with a grilled ahi burger. The salmon looked good, and came with well done steamed vegetables. The tuna was ground (I've never seen ground tuna before, though it was not a surprise because the menu mentioned it), but nonetheless dense and not too different from a steak. The sandwich wasn't bad, though the "focaccia" was herbless and treated to an overly buttered grill. The onion rings that supposedly accompanied it turned out to be what some places call "onion straws", and somewhat greasy besides.

I would put the prices in the "high, considering" range. Most of the lunch choices were US$15 to US$20 with a few on either side. Our drinks were listed as $9.50 on the menu, though we were charged $13 for two of them, presumably for omitting the vodka. I'm hoping the prices don't change at dinnertime.

On the whole, I'd guess The Brown Pelican might be good for dinner, if you sit inside (which I rarely want to do if I have a choice), stick to pure fish dishes, and are the type that looks at the descriptions first rather than the prices. But if you have relatives coming, I'd suggest Brophy Bros. on the pier if they really want seafood (and don't mind waiting), or the little known but quite good Beachside Cafe ten miles further up the coastline, on Goleta Beach.

By the way, if you want to see a brown pelican, don't bother coming here. All such denizens of Santa Barbara are to be found swooping around and over and under the pier.

December 22, 2005 I thought I was going to be able to report on the dinner aspect of the restaurant. I took Edward there for a nice pre-Christmas dinner, but when we got there, the gates to the parking lot were closed and padlocked. We could see cars down at the beach-and-restaurant end (they have a one-way exit available to them).

Next to Cliff Drive is an illuminated sign for The Brown Pelican, and under it is a neon sign that says Open. I called the restaurant and had the following conversation with the person who answered.

The gates to the parking lot are locked. How do I get in?
Oh, we're closed.
Well, the sign here says you're open.
Oh, that sign is permanently on.
What a ridiculous situation.

And remember that the parking lot is shared by the restaurant and by a state beach? There's a sign just inside the gate that says the park is open until 11:00 PM. We were there at about 8 o'clock. Sheesh.

February 25, 2006 Okay, I can now make a dinner report. My brother was in town, and I was going to take him either to the Beachside or the Pelican. We went to the Beachside, but it had a very long wait, so off we went.

We ate inside at the Brown Pelican. It was about 90% full at 8 PM (and as I said, it's not that big). The staff were attentive and friendly. Some of the items on the menu seemed a bit weird; e.g., a seafood brocetta. It mentioned shrimp, mussels, and some other things. I didn't see how that could work unless it was chopped into little bits. Inquiring of the waitress, I found that it was. And the little bits were all mixed together.

I gladly went with the grilled ahi. I asked for it seared, which to me means cooked about 1/4 of the way through from each side; it was more like 1/10 of the way, but it was still good. The vegetables et cetera on the side were good, and with a full stomach I took away half of the whole plate.

Gary had a walnut and pecan salad, which he said was quite good.

We each had a drink, and he had dessert, and the whole thing came out to $65. No problem there at all.

So, it may be possible to have a good lunch at the Brown Pelican, but I'd skip it and have dinner there instead. I can definitely recommend it.

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