Great Danes: Andersen’s celebrates four decades in Santa Barbara
A Danish immigrant and professional chef named Alfred Andersen opened a small bakery on Santa Barbara’s Milpas Street in 1976, with his wife Birte and 2-year-old daughter Charlotte at his side. Today, that same Danish pastry shop is Andersen’s Danish Restaurant and Bakery, a nearly 40 year-old landmark in downtown Santa Barbara.
The birth of the restaurant dates back to the family’s roots in Denmark, where they emigrated from in the mid-1970s. Alfred was a baker and restaurateur — a “konditor meister,” or master pastry chef in Danish — who had already spent years running eateries and bakeries in Santa Barbara and Solvang. Birte was an architect who had never been to the United States. The pair moved to Carmel in 1974, before relocating down the coast to Santa Barbara for Alfred to work as a baker at the Biltmore Hotel, now a Four Seasons Resort, in Montecito.
The family soon decided to give business ownership a try. After finding an open spot on Milpas Street, Alfred and Birte opened up shop and began serving their homemade Danish pastries and other baked goods to the public. For Birte, opening the bakery was a learning experience with her husband as her mentor. He taught her everything “about baking, about butter, about quality…about everything that goes into a Danish pastry and how much love goes into a Danish pastry,” she said in a recent interview at the bakery and cafe.
With a commitment to quality inspired by Alfred’s obsession with perfection, Birte and Charlotte say they still look to source the best ingredients for their menu. Along with the signature baked confections, Andersen’s also offers dishes such as Scandinavian duck and pickled herring.
The cafe puts an emphasis on sourcing organic and artisan ingredients, Charlotte said. “We continuously look in Europe and other places to find the right chocolate, the right sugars, the right flours, the right butter — lots of things that you can’t just readily get,” she said.
The menu at Andersen’s boasts a selection of sweets and entrees for its breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. Dishes include Hungarian goulasch and filet mignon. The menu has more than 50 wines, from California as well as Europe.
But the transformation from bakery to restaurant was a gradual one, according to Birte. “The first year here, we were just a bakery, and then one day around noon, me and Charlotte’s dad were looking at each other and saying, ‘We’re pretty slow,’ ” she said with a laugh. The Andersens started offering smaller dishes such as soups, salads, and quiches before evolving into a full sit-down restaurant.
Andersen’s Restaurant and Bakery has been at its current spot on State Street, in the La Arcada Plaza, since 1978.
Alfred died in the early 1990s. But before his passing, he mentored his wife and daughter on every aspect of restaurant ownership, from mopping the floors and handling cash to baking pastries and crafting menu items.
“He started going back a little bit and seeing how we were doing,” Birte said.
Charlotte was 19 years old when her dad died, officially becoming her mom’s business partner. “I stood up because my dad was sick and mom was home with him, and I did the best that I could,” she said. “I did everything I was taught when I was younger and … it ended up being okay. You sure learn when you have to. When you’re pressed up against the wall and have no choice, you sure learn.”
Birte said she’s tried to keep Andersen’s fresh over the years by adding new dishes and confections.
The restaurant has gained a loyal following, according to Birte, who said Andersen’s serves up treasured European dishes, such as pickled herring, that are often hard to come by in American restaurants. “When you come in here, you’ll hear many different languages, and you’ll think ‘Oh, these are tourists’ but they are local Europeans,” she said.
Andersen’s Restaurant and Bakery — adorned with oil paintings by Alfred and wall and staircase paneling designed by Birte — is crowded on many days. In the summer and spring months, tourists flock there, but during the rest of the year it’s locals that keep business going. The Andersens said they’ve had some of the same patrons for decades. The restaurant is also popular for events such as weddings and tea parties with pastries, teas and hors d’oeuvres. “You could really have a nice time for a very good price,” Charlotte said. “People can come and really enjoy themselves without having to break the bank.”