Keeping the West Alive in Santa Ynez Valley

Cold Spring Tavern and Mattei's Tavern were built in the 1880s as stagecoach stops

(A condensed version of this story appeared in the LA Times Travel Section online on Nov. 14, 2010.)

By Marcia Meier

Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley is known primarily for its fine wines and upscale horse farms, but some of the Old West remains, including two historic stagecoach stops that continue to operate as successful restaurants.

Cold Spring Tavern, near the top of San Marcos Pass (Highway 154) between Santa Barbara and Solvang, and Mattei’s Tavern, in Los Olivos at the north end of the valley, date to the 1880s and are chockfull of historic collectibles and nostalgia from the stagecoach era.

One hundred years ago, travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco meant a stagecoach ride over the nearly 2,500-foot pass above Santa Barbara and through the Santa Ynez Valley. (The highway elevation of the pass today is 2,250 feet.) The route was treacherous, hot and dusty, and the stagecoaches had to negotiate hairpin turns with steep drop-offs on one side or the other all the way up the south side of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The road was so steep in places that the stages required six horses rather than the four typical on the remainder of the trip.

The journey from Santa Barbara to Cold Spring Tavern would have taken a good eight hours. In addition to the heat and dust, travelers had to worry about highwaymen intent on stealing the Wells Fargo cash box, the mail and, of course, personal valuables like money and jewelry.

The stage would have left Santa Barbara very early in the morning, so that by the time they reached Cold Spring Tavern, just over the top of the pass, a midday meal would be in order.

Today, Cold Spring Tavern looks much as it did a century ago. Built in 1886, it’s nestled deeply into the trees and skirted by a crystal-clear creek. Dark-wood planking and moss-covered roof shingles attest to its age. There are two main structures, the original tavern that houses the restaurant and the Log Cabin Bar next door. The restaurant serves traditional fare, like sandwiches, salads and even vegetarian meals, but is known for its wild game menu, including venison, rabbit, boar and wild trout.

“We try to keep it exactly the way Audrey had it,” restaurant manager John Locke explained.

Audrey Ovington and her mother bought the tavern in 1941 and lived in a back room together until the mid-50s, when they had an old box car hauled up to the property and converted it to a small home behind the tavern. Ovington collected old memorabilia and decorated the tavern over the years: ancient branding irons, old guns, stuffed animal heads and black-and-white pictures from the era cover the walls. Oil lamps on the tables provide illumination at night.

“She was a real collector,” Locke said, “but I believe people just brought the stuff to her as well. People still bring in old items today.”

In addition to lunches and dinners, the tavern is known for live music in the bar on the weekends, and tri-tip sandwiches, cold beer and music every Sunday.

My college roommates and I used to spend an occasional Sunday afternoon listening to bluegrass or country rock while sipping Coronas. My visit on a recent Sunday indicates nothing has changed in more than 20 years. A local duo, Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, were playing guitar and harmonica, as they have nearly every Sunday for all that time. Harley-riding cyclists mixed with tourists, crowding the outdoor seating area, while motorcycles growled up and down the road in front of the tavern.

During stagecoach days, once the meal was over and the coach was outfitted with a fresh set of horses, travelers would re-board for another eight-hour journey down the mountain and across the valley to Mattei’s Tavern.

Mattei’s is home today to Brothers Restaurant, owned and operated by Jeff and Matt Nichols. It also was built in 1886, and was originally called the Central Hotel. History seeps from every creaky floorboard and is reflected in the dozens of stagecoach photographs that cover the walls.

The brothers have renovated a bit, but the tavern retains its Old West charm. A large stone fireplace dominates the front room. Along one wall a glass case protects hotel guest books dating to the early 1900s. A cozy bar gives the impression of a warm and inviting waystation.

Each dining room has a different name and feel to it, Jeff Nichols explained. The Red Room features red-velvet flecked wallpaper and white wainscoting. The Wicker Room is a vast closed-in porch named for the furniture it held for more than 100 years.

The tavern is named for founder Felix Mattei, who with his wife, Lucy, had five sons. One, Clarence Mattei, became a well-known artist after being discovered at age 16 by New York socialites traveling to Los Angeles, Nichols said. The tavern remained in the family until the early 1970s, when Brooks Firestone and his wife, Kate, bought it. Firestone, a former California assemblyman, also founded Firestone Winery and still owns and operates Curtis Winery with his wife. Mattei’s is owned today by an investment group.

To see a little of the Old West filtered through Hollywood, you can rediscover Davy Crockett and taste fine wine at the same time at the late Fess Parker’s winery on Foxen Canyon Road, just a few miles from Los Olivos and down the road from Firestone and Curtis wineries.

Parker died in March at the age of 85, but his iconic link to the Old West lives on at the winery, where you can buy little coonskin caps to top your wine bottles and see 1950s-era mementoes and photos of Parker as both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

The Parker family continues to operate the winery as well as Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn and Spa (formerly the Grand Hotel) in Los Olivos and his share of the oceanfront Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort in Santa Barbara. For many years before his death, Parker and his wife could be found on Thursday nights around the piano in the parlor of his Los Olivos hotel leading guests in sing-alongs of tunes from bygone times.

Parker reveled in his image as a frontiersman; in person he was a kind and gentle man who won the admiration of even those who disagreed with his development interests both in Santa Barbara and the valley.

His connection to the Old West was carefully cultivated but genuinely expressed, just like the old stagecoach taverns that remain reminders of those long-ago days.

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IF YOU GO:

Travelers can get a taste of what a stagecoach passage would have been like by following the old route from Santa Barbara and stopping at the two original stagecoach taverns for libations, just as folks would have in 1910.

If you leave Los Angeles early on a Saturday morning, you would arrive in Santa Barbara via Highway 101 about mid-morning. Take the Highway 154/Cachuma Lake exit. However, instead of staying on the highway (also known as San Marcos Pass), take the first exit, which is Cathedral Oaks/Foothill Road, and turn left onto Cathedral Oaks. Drive about two miles and turn right onto North San Marcos Road.

It only takes about 15 minutes to drive up, but you’ll get a good sense of what passengers would have experienced. The road is narrow and features hairpin turns and steep drop-offs on either side of the roadway.

Follow North San Marcos until it intersects with Highway 154 again, about three-quarters of the way up the mountain. Turn left onto the highway. Once you go over the top of the pass, watch for Old Stagecoach Road on the left, about a mile down, and turn onto it. Old Stagecoach Road takes you once again onto the old route, a windy, steep descending roadway where, about a mile down, you’ll find Cold Spring Tavern. The timing should be perfect to stop for lunch.

After your meal, continue down Old Stagecoach Road (again, it’s windy) until you come to Paradise Road. Turn left and follow Paradise Road as it winds back to Highway 154. Turn right, and from there it’s a relatively straight shot north past Cachuma Lake and across the valley to Los Olivos and Mattei’s Tavern. Dinner is served seven days a week at Brothers Restaurant, which opens at 5 p.m. That leaves plenty of time for wine tasting and visiting Los Olivos’ many art galleries along the way.

On the return trip Sunday, stop again at Cold Spring Tavern to taste their famous tri-tip sandwiches and experience Sunday afternoon with the band and the crowds. If you want to brave the old San Marcos Road back to town, it’s worth the stunning vistas of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.

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WHERE TO STAY:

In Solvang:

The Petersen Village Inn, 1576 Mission Drive, Solvang, Ca, CA 93463; (805) 688-3121 www.peterseninn.com. From $265 to $380 per night, includes complete dinner for two and a European buffet breakfast. Also available: packages that include wine tasting or tickets to the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts theater shows under the stars in Solvang.

In Ballard:

The Ballard Inn & Restaurant, 2436 Baseline Ave., Ballard, CA 93436; (800) 638-2466, www.ballardinn.com, Just 15 rooms, each uniquely decorated and some featuring fireplaces or private patios. From $245 to $315 per night. The restaurant is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30-9 p.m., featuring gourmet cuisine.

In Los Olivos:

Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn & Spa, 2860 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA 93441; (800) 446-2455, www.fessparker.com. From $295 per weeknight for a King Deluxe to $525 per weekend night for the Grand Suite. Includes breakfast, a half-bottle of Fess Parker wine and complementary wine tasting at Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard and Epiphany Tasting Room. Also features Petros restaurant with upscale California-Hellenic Cuisine, and the Champagne Spa & Boutique.

WHERE TO EAT:

Cold Spring Tavern, 5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93105; (805) 967-0066 www.coldspringtavern.com. Open for lunch (11 a.m.- 3 p.m. daily) and dinner (5-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday). Breakfast served 8-11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Breakfast is $8.25; lunch ranges from $8.50-$12.50. Dinner is from $17.50-$28.

A.J. Spurs, 350 E. Highway 246, Buellton, CA 93427;  (805) 686-1655. Barbecue and steakhouse, Western décor and ambiance. Open daily for dinner from 4-9:30 p.m. Entrees from $15.

Brothers Restaurant, 2350 Railway Ave., Los Olivos, CA 93441; (805) 688-4820, www.matteistavern.com. Open daily for dinner 5-9 p.m., bar opens at 4 p.m. Reservations recommended, up to 30 days in advance. Entrees are $20 and up.

Los Olivos Café, 2879 Grand Ave., Los Olivos, CA 93441, (888) 946-3748. http://sbwinestore.com/wine-tasting/los-olivos-cafe. Given the Wine Spectator's Excellence Award for Best Restaurant of 2007, 2008 and 2009. Lunches from $9-$24.

Patrick’s Side Street Café, 2375 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos, CA (805) 686-4004; www.patrickssidestreetcafe.com. Lunches from $7-$24.