Travel to Ojai and Discover California’s Natural Shangri-La
All about the food, the farms and the incredible beauty of the valley
It’s 11 A.M. on a Sunday, and I’m in line with several dozen strangers at the end of a tranquil residential cul-de-sac in the Ojai, California foothills. The only indication we’re in the right place is a small chalkboard sign next to a mailbox. “Kate’s Bread,” it reads. “12 – 1 p.m.”
Owner and baker Kate Pepper says her bread is “beyond rustic,” but that hasn’t stopped her exquisite baked goods from developing a cult following, of which I am now a member. Ojai’s reputation may be rooted in the transcendental, but my version of spiritual awakening comes from things like Pepper’s olive loaf, sesame rings and unfussy pastries. I wander into the woodsy, fairy light-festooned backyard with an almond croissant larger than my hand and sit at a farm table while next to me, a family digs into pizzas scattered with Ojai figs, arugula and honey. My croissant is a beautifully buttery, flaky, powdered sugar-dusted thing, light as clouds yet oozy with frangipane. It’s amazing, this croissant, but eating it under such enchanting circumstances elevates the moment to pure magic.
I’m here because I grew up on a small ranch 45 minutes to the southwest, but it’s been years since I’ve spent quality time in Ojai, which today is home to 7,600 residents. On a recent trip to see my parents, I allotted a couple days to soak up Ojai in a way I never had before: ditching my car in favor of a complimentary hotel bike and grazing my way around town between hiking and paddling excursions. What I didn’t anticipate was a series of simple, soulful meals that inspired me both professionally and personally; nor did I expect Ojai to be so blissfully unchanged otherwise. There’s a reason Ojai has become a growing mecca for regional foods enthusiasts, but it’s also determined to retain its independent spirit.
While a Google search of “Ojai alternative medicine” reveals practitioners of yoga, Pilates, massage, reiki, lymphatic health, acupuncture, energy alchemy and more, the valley’s natural charms indisputably play a role in its therapeutic effects. Fifteen miles from the Pacific Ocean and bordered by the Topatopa Mountains, which are part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ojai’s self-appointed nickname of Shangri-La is fitting, what with the natural hot springs, Mediterranean climate and serene vibe.
That balmy weather and fecund soil attracted early adopters of “organic” agriculture. Today, the year-round Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market boasts a myriad of avocado and citrus varieties, from the famous Pixie tangerines to Meyer lemons to mandarinquats, as well as fragrant organic strawberries, walnut oil, responsibly raised meat and eggs, and seafood from the well-managed Santa Barbara fisheries. These foods — so many of them representative of the region — were the inspiration behind Edible Communities, the largest media organization of its kind devoted to promoting and sustaining the efforts of North American farmers, ranchers, chefs, home cooks, fishers and craft food and beverage makers.
Ojai has attracted wellness-seekers for nearly two centuries due to its purported mystical energy, but the impact of its equally well-established family farms and ranches has been more under the radar. The valley was settled as a cattle ranch in 1837, and pioneer farm families followed suit. Ojai also played a seminal, if little-known, role in the birth of California cuisine when Alan Hooker established The Ranch House restaurant in 1950, cooking with ingredients exclusively sourced from the valley and his garden (a devout vegetarian, it wasn’t until several years later that he began serving meat and seafood).
Hooker understood the healing power of food. He and his wife, Helen, had relocated to Ojai in 1949, leaving an Ohio commune to study under their guru, Jiddu Krishnamurti (the Indian philosopher’s influence eventually led to Ojai’s status as artist colony and countercultural refuge). Long before Hooker, the native Chumash people found abundant sustenance in the region’s acorns and other plants. “Ojai” is actually a corruption of the Chumash word “awha’y,” or “moon,” because the east-west positioning of the valley causes spectacular sunrises and sunsets (Pink Moments to Austin’s Violet Crown).
Ojai has remained true to itself in an era of Instagram- and influencer-driven tourism, which can drive artificiality with promotion by outsiders. Chain stores aren’t permitted in Ojai. Two of the most popular hangouts in town are the Sunday farmers market and the natural foods store. There’s a token dive bar, and the only other late-night venue downtown is The Vine, a restaurant that packs out on weekend nights when there’s live music. (Deer Lodge, a historic tavern on the nearby Maricopa Highway, is also notable.)
I end an afternoon bike ride with a visit to Tipple & Ramble. The housewares shop and wine bar is in a sweet little Spanish-style former home decorated with MoroccanLatin flair, but the patio proves impossible to resist. A lush oasis with rattan sofas and a retro teardrop trailer turned bar, it’s where locals and their dogs come to catch up over plump empanadas, mezze boards and seasonal small plates highlighting, of course, local produce. I loll in a handwoven hammock with a glass of sparkling rosé, as relaxed as if I’ve just come from a massage at the Ojai Valley Inn’s world-famous spa.
My most memorable meal is a dinner at Ojai Rôtie, which opened in April. Chef-owners Larry Nicola and Claud Mann are longtime friends and former co-workers. When Mann, an accomplished baker, relocated to Ojai in the early ’90s, he developed close relationships with growers and the result is his restaurant, which Mann calls a “farm-driven, fast-casual rotisserie chicken-and-sourdough concept.” After eating there, I would argue that description is a disservice to the food and ambiance. It’s more a love letter to their heritage (Mann is of French descent; Nicola is Lebanese) and the Ojai Valley — an alfresco, communal dining experience that includes a patio kiosk called Winebox, which emphasizes bottles from within a 75-mile radius.
At Ojai Rôtie, I sip a Santa Barbara County Sauvignon Blanc exploding with grapefruit flavor on the buzzing patio, enjoying the sunset. The warm air, olive trees and strings of tea lanterns feel like Provence, but the food is pure Ojai: Mann’s chewy grilled flatbread with za’atar and local olive oil and what Nicola only half-jokingly calls “Ojai AOC baklava,” made with walnuts, lavender, lemon and honey.
Before I leave town, I visit the pocket-size beer and wine bar at the 17-room Ojai Rancho Inn. The emphasis here is also on local, albeit in a different way. Botanical “cocktails” made with soju and sparkling wine get a delicious lift from shrubs; elixirs from Ojai’s Black Magic Alchemy, flower-, fruit- and honey-infused mead; and jun from Carpinteria’s Apiary. Upon having a seat, I’m welcomed into a conversation with two couples who are guests at the hotel. Talk turns to Ojai’s ability to maintain its soul, in a state so aggressively, ruthlessly affected by development.
The bartender overhears us and sets down the glass he’s polishing. “Every hour I spend here,” he says, “is one hour less I have to spend in therapy.” Magic, indeed.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Caffeinate at Beacon Coffee before hitting the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market (Sundays, year-round; 9 a.m.-1 p.m.); Kate’s Bread is open Sundays, noon-1 p.m.; get there early. For farmer-driven meals and regional wines, visit Ojai Rôtie and Tipple & Ramble; the latter also has beautiful textiles and small-batch house and kitchenwares. The Ranch House is under new ownership but maintains Alan Hooker’s legacy. Food Harmonics and The Nest serve delicious vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free meals from valley produce, as does the Farmer and the Cook, a wonderful grocer and café in the nearby community of Meiners Oaks. The Hub is a biker-centric dive with pool tables, while The Vine has live music several nights a week. The oldest restaurant and tavern in Ojai, Deer Lodge, has lots of local color.
SEA KAYAKING, SHOPPING AND SLEEPING
Ventura, 15 miles from Ojai, is the gateway to the magnificent, UNESCO-designated Channel Islands National Park, Biosphere Reserve and Marine Sanctuary; it’s worth allowing an extra day or three to hike, dive, snorkel, sea kayak or camp. I spent a glorious day paddling the crystalline waters and sea caves off Santa Cruz Island with Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which operates kayaking and whale watching tours (December through May) out of Ventura Harbor in conjunction with Island Packers, the sole transportation concessioner to the park.
Ojai is a haven for hikers, thanks to the Valley View, Ventura River, Ojai Meadows Preserves and Los Padres National Forest. Biking trails also abound, including a path to the Pacific Ocean (rentals and tours). Ecotopia Hot Springs (also known as Matilija) requires reservations.
For a cultural fix, The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts has turned the former studio of the famed “Mama of Dada” into a museum featuring her work, folk art and memorabilia; Porch Gallery and The Basic Premise exhibit contemporary local art and photography.
The meticulously renovated Ojai Rancho Inn — established in the 1950s as a social club — provides a stylish dose of nostalgia, melding work from local artisans with the region’s boho-Western heritage. The Emerald Iguana Inn is a family-owned, Craftsman-art nouveau garden property with rooms and cottages. Both hotels offer complimentary bikes to guests. Thacher House is a pastoral 19th-century property with cabins and a main house, specializing in custom holidays. Garden, milk goats and sheep, or take classes in making cheese, goat’s milk soap, wine, vinegar and preserves or baked goods.