It’s fitting that Ojai is pronounced “Oh! Hi,” because as soon we stepped out of our car into the parking lot of Su Nido Inn, we got the local welcome. Ironically, it was another tourist couple who greeted us. “Just arriving?” the woman asked. “You’re going to love this place. They thought of everything,” she said, gesturing at the grounds of quaint inn. “And you’re in the heart of the village. Everything is just perfect.”
She and her husband had just gotten back from the farmer’s market. The arts and crafts were unlike anything you see anywhere else, she said. She got beeswax candles, a bottle of locally made olive oil and basket of native blood oranges to take home to her family and friends.
Our room wouldn’t be ready until 3 pm, but the innkeeper gave us a few ideas on diversions that would keep us busy for the next few hours. Following her directions, we walked about two blocks from the Su Nido Inn at 301 North Montgomery Street and across Main Street to arrive at a restaurant row of charming eateries and the Ojai Art Center, a rustic ranch-style complex of artist studios. I was starting to feel the welcome wagon lady was very right. This little place was just so adorable I wanted to eat it up.
LA in the Rear View
Just a 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, no wonder this peaceful and arty valley town has been a haven for young Hollywood notables like Jake Gyllenhaal, Johnny Depp and Reese Witherspoon. But we weren’t there to see celebrities. We wanted to get away from LA for the weekend for a different experience, which is what we got.
It can get hot in the summer — over 100 degrees, but the July weekend I visited with my family we lucked out with one moderate sunny 80-degree day and one overcast cool 75-degree day. It was perfect weather; and we took full advantage of it.
Works of Art and Food
During our walk about on the early afternoon heat of Day 1, we took refuge in the cool and shady environs of the Ojai Café Emporium (http://ojaicafeemporium.com). Like the town streets, galleries and shops around it, the cafe was artsy and laid back, but the service was far from small-town. The hostess was efficient and professional, smiling and patient while I tried to round up my family so she could show us to our table.
The hold-up was my son. He had made friends with a Georgia, a Golden Lab puppy, and his owners who were dining in a special dog-friendly nook of the restaurant’s patio. I tried to coax my son away, apologizing to the snuggling young lovers for his interruption. “He’s no bother at all,” said the woman. “We love children,” said the man. They gave each other a knowing look. It was apparent; they were under the spell of Ojai.
Sunny Side Up
It was noonish, but we were in a breakfast mood, so we ordered one of the Ojai Café Emporium specialty dishes, the Early California Egg Dish, a blend of eggs, Ortega chilies, jack and cottage cheese, baked to perfection. It was light, fluffy and scrumptious. Even my son who usually has to be bribed to eat eggs devoured this dish.
We also ordered some lunch fare, including my son’s fave, the basket of sweet potato French fries, along with fresh-made chicken barley soup, and the Famous Ojai fresh greens salads with avocado and roast turkey, tossed with a homemade rice vinegar dressing and sprinkled generously with bleu cheese crumbles and fresh bacon chips; and the highly recommended – by our server — Ana’s Green Enchiladas, which were a bit spicy for me, but I bit the bullet and gobbled them down, cooling my mouth with frequent sips of iced mango tea, because I couldn’t resist them.
We were full, but we had to try a giant blueberry scone, because we had smelled them baking when we came in through the bakery at the front of the restaurant. It was delicious, and enough to feed a table of at least three.
Besides the fact that the menu is chock full of fresh, organic and locally grown foods and house-made entrees, one other thing I really loved about Ojai Cafe Emporium was the fact the server offered that if we wanted to substitute any part of a dish that it was fine to do. Another thing I loved was the friendly service. It was obvious we were a long way from LA when our server, Kris, took her time to review the menu with us and chat about our plans while in town.
She told us she’d worked at the café for eight years, and she knew just about everyone in town. In fact, she told us to say hello to Bruce, the namesake of one of the egg dishes after the café, who used to work there, and now he was the head waiter at Suzanne’s Cuisine, where we were having dinner that night. She also gave us some recommendations on what to order at Suzanne’s, since she also knew all the entrees on the menu.
Our Nest in Ojai
Now that we had literally eaten up some time, we headed back to Su Nido (http://www.sunidoinn.com) to check into our room. “Su Nido” means “your nest” in Spanish, and the inn was designed along the theme with an intimate cobblestone courtyard with rooms nestled around it. Like many of the village’s landmarks, the inn is designed in the Mission Revival style, with old world charm, though is relatively new, being built in 2006.
We were in the Eagle, a one bedroom upstairs suite with all the amenities of home. It featured a large living room with a fireplace, beamed ceilings, dining area, large screen TV, kitchenette with microwave and min fridge, and two French doors leading to terrace with a mountain view. The cozy bedroom featured a king feather bed and an adjoining bath with a mosaic tile shower, with a nice touch of Molton Brown of London samplers.
The only thing the property was lacking, which meant more to my son than anything, was a pool. The good thing was that Lake Casistas (http://www.casitaswater.org/department.php?url=lake-casitas-recreation-area)
is just a few miles down the road. So we got into our swim suits and headed out.
Go Jump in a Lake
The lake is a major attraction for family recreation, though because the lake is a drinking reservoir, there is no swimming, or any body contact with the lake allowed. The park authorities found a way to make visitors happy though by building Water Adventure on the grounds near the lake, with water slides and plenty of water features for kids of all ages who want to get wet.
Though the $15 per car weekend parking fee is a bit steep, we did get into the water park for a discount Late Day Pass admission of $5 for the last two hours of park operation versus the usual $12 all-day Splash Pass. We were not the only ones with this idea. At the entrance a gang of rough-looking older teen boys gathered with a supervisor who paid for the entire group, explaining to the clerk that they were from a local juvie home. My partner who had been a tutor at these types of places was a bit leery of them, especially when the boys started pushing and play punching each other and using some raw language. We decided to keep a good distance from them at the opposite end of the park.
Inside, there was also an odd contingency of squatters who had staked out their territory in the snack bar area with coolers and heaps of towels, blankets and clothing, piled up on nearly every picnic table. For the most part these vagabonds seemed peaceful, except when the park ranger drove up beside the picnic area and issued parking tickets for all the vehicles in violation of the one-hour limit. Evidentially these folks thought they had skirted the parking fee, but by the sounds of the cursing, “$75! This is B— S—,” it ended up costing them a lot more.
It is a public park after all, and not the exclusive Beverly Hills Racquet Club, but besides a few less than genteel types, the park was mostly populated with kids and families enjoying a wholesome day in the sun and water. Our two hours of bounding in wading pools, running under waterfalls, floating in the lazy river and shooting down water slides was pure bliss for our three-year old, and we didn’t mind the cooling off either.
Dinner Expectations at Suzanne’s Cuisine
Back at the inn we dressed for a much-anticipated dinner at the town’s renowned gourmet restaurant, Suzanne’s Cusine, (http://www.suzannescuisine.com) that has been declared by Zagat as “Chez Panisse in Ventura County.” The mother-daughter owners blend a bit of their Italian American heritage with influences from life in France and flavors they have encountered along the way in their travels and as transplants to Southern California – a little Asian, a little Mexican and a dash of Indian spices. To boot, 90 percent of the food is organic, mostly from local farmer’s markets.
Daughter Sandra Shinall, who formerly worked in the kitchen of the now-shuttered Rockenwager in Los Angeles — which was one of my favorite restaurants – brought her elite eatery experience and her business acumen as a MBA grad from University of Chicago, to help mom Suzanne Roll create this oasis in Ojai in 1992. Since the unique hybrid menu defied categorization, they called their fare, and their restaurant, Suzanne’s Cuisine.
While the vine-covered rustic exterior of the restaurant is adorable, and the patio atmosphere is exquisite, with a lush garden and fountains that make the perfect backdrop for a romantic dinner, I regret to say I was disappointed with the food. The Peppered Black Angus Filet Mignon of Beef with Demi-Glace Sauce was charred and tough, the Rosemary Roasted Rack of Lamb with a Mustard Herb Crust was dry and bland, and my son’s Uncle Angelo’s Favorite Meatballs with Marinara Sauce on Fusilli was mushy. We had such eagerness for the dinner that perhaps we expected too much, or perhaps it was Suzanne’s day off from the kitchen, or perhaps this once-hailed brasserie has seen its glory days, but the fact was our entrees, and even our over-crusted crème brulee dessert, was underwhelming. With Suzanne’s reputation and credentials, we are hopeful it was just an off night, and we are eager to try it again another time.
Cloudy with a Chance of Biking
Day Two started off splendidly, with overcast skies. We were thrilled for the sunless day because we planned a biking outing, and we had worried we might bake alive.
We rented bikes at Project Ride (http://project-ride.com), also known as the MOB Shop, a hole-in-the-wall bike store that every cyclist in town knows and reveres. Their mission is to promote Ojai as a biking destination by providing riders with everything they need for a safe and enjoyable ride, from gear and accessories to personal guided tours. They had just about every kind of two wheeler you could imagine, including Dogleg electric bikes for quick and easy cruising.
I liked that the guys working there were genuinely nice and helpful. They recommended the WeeRide Co-Pilot, a sort of unicycle with handle bars that connected to the back of my bike, so that my son could experience riding and pedaling on his own, but if he got tired I could do the leg work. It took a bit of practice to balance, stop and maneuver, but once I got the hang of it I almost forgot I had a little rider behind me.
The shop guys advised us to make a big loop that would take us to the rail-to-trails path and then back to the shop. We missed a turn and ended up going an extra couple miles, and we had to ride about a mile along a couple busy streets and one dubious neighborhood, but otherwise it was a smooth and thoroughly enjoyable ride.
My son had such a terrific adventure he wanted a souvenir shirt from the shop. By the tell-tale dust on the merchandise, sales were slow, so I bought a couple T-shirts. It was my small part to keep this great shop going.
Lunching with the Farmer and the Cook
On the recommendation of one of the Project Ride guys, we stopped next door for lunch at the Farmer and the Cook (http://www.farmerandcook.com), a fresh food market and café serving up all-organic, vegetarian Mexican fare. The country hippie decor, including all mismatched furniture on the front patio, was as charming as its namesake owners, Steve Sprinkel, an organic farmer and his wife, Olivia Chase, a chef.
It was hard to choose from the exotic menu items scribbled on the chalk board over the counter where we ordered, but we decided on the grilled squash quesadilla filled with goat and mozzarella cheese, shiitake mushrooms, strips of chiles and caramelized onion, jalapenos with roasted red pepper and aji sauces, and honey grilled watermelon, drizzled with a honey ginger lime glaze. Both dishes were delightfully filled with flavor and bursting with freshness, prompting my partner to exclaim that our meal at this simple café was of the quality and innovativeness we had hoped for at Suzanne’s’ the night before.
Lake, Shore, Drive
As the cloudy skies started to part to rays of sunshine, we headed back to Lake Casitas, this time for a little boating. We rented a small motor boat for $50 an hour, and after a five-minute lesson from the guy at the concession stand, we were off for a tour of the lake. The water was calm and hardly any other boats were out, so it was smooth sailing, so to speak. With no other vessels around to collide with, we even gave our four year old a turn at the helm, and he delightfully drove us in circles until I began to feel seasick.
Within about 45 minutes the sun ducked back into the clouds, the wind started to kick up and the water got choppy, so we headed into the marina. Even if the weather had not turned on us, I think a one-hour boat ride was plenty for all of us.
Leaving the Nest
After a full day of outdoor adventure, it was time to head back to the city. There was still plenty more to do in Ojai. We had not had a chance to browse the historic Arcade, the town’s centerpiece shopping plaza, and lucky for us our son was already snoozing in his car seat or surely he would have begged us to stop at the one-of-kind sweets shop, the Kingston’s Candy Co., but we had to get back to the grind of Los Angeles. As we headed down the highway, I did not fret about all the spas, galleries, restaurants and shops that we had yet to visit in Ojai, because I knew we’d be back.