Restaurants in Rural California – Santa Barbara, Nipomo, Carmel Valley

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California is a trend setter for modern and cutting-edge eateries which garner lots of attention, especially in celebrity studded Los Angeles. However, when it’s time to drive north from Los Angeles, these detours will take you back in time and no one leaves hungry or disappointed.

One of the most scenic roadways is the 101 freeway near Santa Barbara, where the view of the ocean waves and sandy beach are right out the car window. It’s as if a Michelangelo moment occurs. Imagine putting down the window and with a reaching arm, fingertips touch the surf.

Cold Spring Tavern

Cold Spring Tavern – Santa Barbara

Then start looking for highway 154, San Marcos Pass.  The impressive drive will take you from ocean to mountains in a short time.

Near a curve up the two-lane road at about 8 miles is Stagecoach Road. Make the turn when you see the sign for Cold Spring Tavern and around the bend the restaurant property pops out. Once parking is found on the road, stretch your legs and explore the buildings and babbling creek.

Don’t miss the Wells Fargo Old Stagecoach Route 1861-1901 marker near the creek. Walk around and peek at the stage driver’s bunkhouse, remains of the road gang house and the Ojai jail.  Each structure has been maintained to keep the colorful history of the old western days alive.

I had timed my drive just right on a Wednesday afternoon and set out for a leisurely stroll to explore the property and breathe the crisp fresh air. This was a welcome break from the morning car ride.

Red and white checked curtains decorating the restaurant’s windows and the hanging lantern above the doorway added a warm welcome.  After entering the rural restaurant, I envisioned actor Dale Robertson from the TV show Tales of Wells Fargo leaning against the bar while investigating a stagecoach robbery.  Creaky wooden floors, a rock fireplace and antique furniture fill the rooms.

The kitchen turns out hearty meals and is known for cooking wild game of buffalo and venison.   I ordered the famous chili and house made warm apple cobbler for dessert which was enough for two people.  Being a sweets lover, I devoured the tenderly cooked apples and crunchy topping with whipped cream oozing down the sides.

Apple Cobbler and crunchy top with whipped cream

Apple Cobbler and crunchy top with whipped cream

I happened to mention the tavern to my cousins who live about 50 miles away and they eagerly told me it’s one of their favorite places.  They often ride with their motorcycle group to the tavern on weekends where the outdoor barbeque sizzles with beef tri-tip.  Hungry people from the north and south of the mountain pass stop off during a long day’s ride to tell tales, drink a local beer and stay for the live music.

Cold Spring Tavern is where the old west has been preserved and good food and good times are served.

Jocko’s Steak House

Jocko’s Steak House -Nipomo

Continuing north on 101, through the central coast of California, and between Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo, is the farming town of Nipomo. The entire central coast area is commonly known for its famous barbeque restaurants and especially the different methods of preparing and cooking meat and poultry. Take one of the turn-offs to reach Jocko’s Steakhouse on North Thompson Road and look for the 1800’s wooden church with an ornate steeple.  The restaurant is right across the street.

Be prepared for old time dining which is more about the food than the ambiance.  A friendly hostess greeted us, and I asked to see the barbeque firepit where serious cooking is done. As we walked through the dimly lit bar, she pointed out branding marks on the wood paneled walls which represented former ranches in Nipomo.  Down a long hallway and out a swinging door, we arrived at the pit.  I was introduced to Aubrey, the pit master, and I could tell he was serious about his pit territory.  With precision, he prodded and flipped each steak, chicken and ribs with masterpiece timing.  The fire over the red oak wood put out powerful flames and smoke causing me to keep my distance. He had it under control and smoke flare ups didn’t interfere with his wrist action using the long barbeque tool.

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Aubrey cooks the meats over flaming red oak wood

Once seated at the dining table, I ordered the Spencer steak, which came highly recommended.   I hadn’t heard the term Spencer steak in years and a local whispered to me it’s a rib eye and make sure to order it.  Meals come with salad topped with sliced beets, sides of pinquito beans, salsa, potatoes and garlic bread.  You know it’s an old-fashioned place when a relish tray loaded with green onions, carrots and black olives is delivered to the table right after placing the order.  As I expected, my steak was juicy and tender and being very full, I could barely eat the scoop of ice cream which was also included with the meal.

Leaving the restaurant, I was handed a bumper sticker, “Follow Me To Jockos Steak House”.  Now I have been branded in Nipomo.

The Restaurant at Mission Ranch

The Restaurant at Mission Ranch – Carmel Valley

Without a doubt, the coastline drive along curvy highway 1 leading into Carmel is jaw droppingly beautiful.  But, did someone say Clint Eastwood?  When Eastwood was mayor of Carmel, he made some long-lasting changes and one of them is delicious. I’ll admit, I had visions of running into Eastwood at the restaurant he owns at the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant in Carmel, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit.

On the site of a former dairy and ranch from the 1800’s, Mission Ranch was set to be sold to developers. Eastwood bought the property in 1986 and had the buildings renovated back to their original style. The setting is idyllic with a pasture of roaming sheep and the sun setting over the edge of the Carmel River.  In front of the property is the active Carmel Mission Basilica which served as Saint Junipero Serra’s headquarters for the 1770’s California missions’ expansion.

A “Dining Room” sign is above the entrance to the restaurant and the piano bar is immediately to the left. Make sure to not miss the vibrant bar area before dinner and listen to the music played on the piano. Believe me, it’s not your typical bar lounge music.  These musicians are no ordinary piano players, one wrote musical scores for Eastwood’s movies and another played Carnegie Hall.

I munched on shrimp corn fritters and a prime rib sandwich and chatted with a man who comes in often. Truly a neighborhood eatery, regulars stop in for a drink, sing along and share their stories of the day with one another.  A part of the notable atmosphere is an old caricature drawing on the wall showing many of the locals singing around the piano.

Shrimp-Corn Fritters - The Restaurant at Mission Ranch

Shrimp-Corn Fritters – The Restaurant at Mission Ranch

If you decide to have dinner on the patio, it’s the perfect spot to unwind and take in the tranquil setting without being rushed.

Consider staying the night in one of the rooms in the farmhouse, bunkhouse or even the private hayloft.

I didn’t get to meet Eastwood, but I did have my picture taken by the truck used in the movie, “The Bridges of Madison County.”

California’s old west is alive and delicious off the highway in old-time watering holes and dining rooms.

Restaurants in Rural California - Santa Barbara, Nipomo, Carmel Valley #travel #trip #vacation #california #food #restaurant #central-coast #nipomo #santa-barbara #carmel #carmel-valley #monterey #monterey-peninsula #rural #country #road-tripsCold Spring Tavern

5995 Stagecoach Rd
Santa Barbara, Ca
805.967.0066
www.coldspringtavern.com

Jocko’s Steak House

125 N. Thompson Ave
Nipomo, Ca
805.929.3686
www.jockossteakhouse.com

Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant

26270 Dolores St
Carmel, Ca
831.624.6436
www.missionranchcarmel.com

by M'Liss Hinshaw

M'Liss became a freelance travel writer after retiring from county service in San Diego, her home town. When traveling, her husband assists her with photography and together they explore new places and don’t mind revisiting our favorites. She says "travel is a window to the world and we like to open the window for others."

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