Santa Maria is one of those cities I always drive past on my way up north. It doesn’t have the Danish kitsch and buttery-rich pastries of nearby Solvang or the summery vibe of Pismo Beach just up the road. At first glance, Santa Maria doesn’t look like it has much for tourists; its downtown corridor is fairly nondescript, and Broadway, its main drag, is full of bland-looking buildings. “Why exactly did we come here?” my husband asked as we drove into town. He ended up happily eating his words (hint: barbecue). We had a great time eating and drinking our way around the Santa Maria Valley. The tab: We spent $119 plus tax for one night at the Radisson Hotel Santa Maria, and about $185 for food and wine tasting.
The Radisson (3455 Skyway Drive;  928-8000,), on the quieter south side of the city, overlooks the small Santa Maria airport. This is a full-service hotel for private aviators: You can climb out of your light plane and a bellhop will pick up your luggage and escort you to check-in. No pilot’s license? No problem. There’s plenty of free parking for cars. The four-story hotel has an open atrium with lots of seating in the large lobby. There is a nice restaurant and lounge with views of the runway. I requested an airport-view room, which was spacious and had a king bed, armchair, ottoman and desk. From our window, the planes looked like toys. History buffs might prefer the 1917 Santa Maria Inn (801 S. Broadway;  928-7777) and its English country decor.
How can something so simple taste so delicious, I asked myself as I happily chowed down on an awesome tri-tip sandwich at Shaw’s Steakhouse & Tavern (714 S. Broadway;  925-5862). The answer is in the magic of the Santa Maria-style dry rub (salt, pepper and garlic salt); the meat is grilled over local red oak. My sandwich was so addictive that we returned the next day for the same lunch. There was more beef for dinner at Jocko’s Steak House (125 N. Thompson Ave., Nipomo;  929-3686 ) in nearby Nipomo. Jocko’s is no secret: The plain-looking exterior hides a plain-looking interior that roars to life at night. We squeezed in at the bar and chatted with a friendly rancher while waiting for a table. Jocko’s lives up to its reputation. My Spencer steak was as soft as buttah, and the dinner included a relish tray, rice or potato, beans, salad, coffee and dessert.
Santa Maria’s backcountry really shines; it’s little-known wine region is an uncrowded delight. The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, a rural road through scenic rolling hills dotted with ranches, is the heart of the action. Riverbench Vineyard & Winery (6020 Foxen Canyon Road;  937-8340), in a cute cottage, was fun; it specializes in Pinot and Chardonnay. Just west of the trail, we stopped at Presqu’ile Winery (5391 Presquile Drive;  937-8110) in a striking modern building high on a hill overlooking vineyards. It’s a great place to linger, enjoy the view and the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with charcuterie or a cheese platter.