Mar. 03, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
'Yes' is the word at B&B

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Dixie Budke is saving the world, one guest at a time. That's her mission as the relentlessly focused managing partner of what is arguably the best bed-and-breakfast in America, the Simpson House Inn.

It is one of only two B&Bs ever awarded AAA's Five Diamond Award, and it has won that prestigious honor three years in a row.

Creating the perfect B&B, she insists, demands military (and, seemingly, militant) efficiency: "We're very strategic," she says. "We have an action plan, with vision, goals, objectives, checklists."

But, Budke adds, "what turned four into five diamonds is the heart of the place - the service, the willingness to do a trout with a head on it."

As our car pulled through wrought-iron gates onto the one-acre estate, a porter appeared and seized our luggage. An officious young woman asked us to follow her. Our bungalow, with small patio and fountain, was lovely. We eyed it with pleasure, the thought of a nap foremost on our minds.

But first, we were treated, in a brisk yet remarkably thorough manner, to a rundown of all the features of the Simpson House Inn, and of our bungalow, the Greenwich Cottage: the thermostat controls, small in-room Jacuzzi, mini-refrigerator, room key, lights, radio, bathroom, and the TV behind the doors of a quasi-antique cabinet. Breakfast might be had in the main house at specified hours or, by reservation, in the English Rose Garden. We could also order the night before - for dining in our room or on our private patio - by completing the Sunday Romantic Breakfast form.

After what seemed 20 minutes of this relentlessly informative pitch, the innkeeper asked us if it all was clear. When we assured her, with less than perfect candor, that it was, she asked us to follow her.

We trailed her into the main house, where we were apprised of more features, rules and opportunities. We learned that afternoon cocktails and hors d'oeuvres were served from 5:30 to 6:30 and that we should get there promptly for best selection. Alternatively, the beverage bar, featuring strawberry lemonade and iced tea, was "constantly replenished."

Plenty of videos were available, cleverly hidden inside faux book covers bearing names of such literary classics as King Lear and Moby Dick. If we returned late to find the house locked, we could gain entry using a three-number combination. The inn offered a full range of spa services, including massage and facials, to say nothing of croquet on the lawn.

Since the inn does not serve dinner, we made reservations at a restaurant that the innkeeper correctly informed us would be a 7-minute drive. On our return, we skipped the videos and went straight to bed.

The next morning we awoke in a near panic. We had not completed the form for room service, so we raced outside to comply with the timetable for breakfast at the main house.

Having failed also to reserve the charmingly isolated Rose Garden, we settled into a larger gazebo. A smiling young woman announced the breakfast blintzes: "Cream cheese, avocado and mascarpone, topped by berries."

"Avocado?" I asked.

"Yes," she said enthusiastically, but returned a few moments later, blushing. "Sorry," said the young woman, who identified herself as a Japanese exchange student, "not ah-vo-CA-do - ri-COTT-a."

After breakfast, we had a nice chat with Budke, a friendly, short woman with a gray-black bun and a musical laugh. She expounded on the Simpson House vision, the Olympian aspirations that had transformed a mere four-diamond resort into the national standout.

Among her guiding principles: No request must be denied. She enthusiastically recalled hunting down a selection of breast pumps late at night for one agonized patron, and laughed about the fussy New Yorker who was wont to breakfast on rainbow trout, grilled, with the head on. Although Simpson House is ovolactovegetarian - serving eggs and dairy but no meat or fish - Budke rallied, compelling a fish-store owner to open his shop late at night to supply one unbeheaded trout, which appeared, as ordered, on the guest's breakfast tray next morning.

"What we got from him was a smile," she recalled, "and a 'good job.' And the staff was: YES! YES!" Budke pumped her fist in the air for emphasis.

"Stand and deliver," she said. "It does take a unique type of human being to really want to go there." She explained that on top of her 90-hour week, she is completing her doctorate in human and organizational development and systems, applying the lessons to her inn-cum-laboratory.

Budke summed up her recipe for success: "It's easy. Do you know Aretha Franklin? 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T.'

"We are absolutely determined to give a level of service that is calm and gracious, no matter what's going on back there," she said, indicating the unseen staff areas - where, she confessed, she had affixed little mirrors at all exits so that servers, heading out to interact with the public, see their own faces, and a written admonition: "Show Time!"

On my next visit, a different innkeeper greeted me. "Mr. Baker, I believe you've stayed with us before," she said, before launching into another comprehensive orientation. After a grounds-and-house tour, she showed me to my room, where she pointed proudly to the rum cake, baked specially for me.

Indeed, one had been baked specially for us on the last trip, too, and in case we had forgotten, there was a lovely card affixed: "Mr. Baker, welcome back! Celestial Rum Cake baked especially for you."

When my guest arrived, we chose to eat at a hillside hotel with a superb view that two innkeepers enthusiastically recommended. It did have a great view, but appalling food, which they hadn't made clear.

The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast in the reserved Rose Garden, despite the somewhat bland corn and scallion frittata and sun-dried tomato muffin. The spot was lovely and the endlessly flowing coffee good.

Finally, we settled the bill, and ran into Budke. As the three of us stood and chatted, she expounded: "What we love to say is, 'The answer is YES, what's the question?' " The irony-free environment finally got the better of me.

"We have a similar expression in New York," I said: "The answer is NO. Don't even ask." Budke giggled, then went on about her mission.

"It allows us to go out into the broader world and do wonderful things for mankind. So it's not about a bed and breakfast, it's not about pillows. It's about what we are as human beings."


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