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In praise of one-street towns: Point Arena

Franny's Cup and Saucer

Franny’s Cup and Saucer, Main Street, Point Arena

About four years ago, my husband and I discovered Los Alamos, California, a one-street town in Santa Barbara County, just off the 101. It’s of course more than just a one-street town, but not by much. At the time it had already been discovered, at least by some of Hollywood. Emilio Estevez had started a craft-beer bar there, and Kurt Russell owned a saloon/tasting room.

Still, it was not quite given over to tourists the way other parts of the Santa Ynez Valley were post-Sideways. The local motel was still crappy (although in the midst of being converted by the same people who had converted another formerly crappy hotel in Ojai into an outpost of the now ubiquitous Coachella-meets-ranch style), and the hours at the businesses along the main street were erratic—many still only open Thursday through Sunday. While the town’s main drag, Bell Street, has continued to morph in recent years, Los Alamos has remained a favorite of ours for a one-night weekend away.

Part of it’s appeal is the one-street package. Los Alamos is not demanding of its visitor.  You can eat, drink, nap and browse your way along Bell Street for an entire day, starting with breakfast at Bob’s Well Bread at the 101 end, eventually finishing with dinner at Full of Life Flatbread at the other. This geography of idling is part of the reason we were so excited when on a recent trip along Highway 1 in northern California, we discovered one of Los Alamos’s one-street brethren in Point Arena, a tiny town some 130 miles north of San Francisco in southern Mendocino County.

On our first of two visits, a barking Pomeranian drew us into the open-fronted Zen House Motorcycles, a shop that specializes in restoring high-end bikes. Inside I admired their branded tee-shirts and hats, bearing a logo that riffs on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while my husband admired the bikes, and the friendly female mechanic gave him details of each one. She even listened politely as he described the joy he’s found in riding his recently-acquired, used knock-off Vespa. The shop adjoins a full-service gas station, and later when we filled up there it was such a pleasant, human experience that it made me hope for a full-service resurgence.

Next door we poked around the outside of the Wildflower Boutique Motel, which was under construction. It still wasn’t done when we returned a few weeks later for an overnight visit, so we booked a room at the Wharf Master’s Inn. It’s a mile or so off the main street, with views of a Pacific cove and easy access to the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room. But we had a date with main street, so we rode our bikes up the gentle hill into town and headed to 215 Main, where we met the librarian and basketball coach at the local high school who was having his first day on the job as a bartender, too. His moonlighting was a reminder that while one-street towns may still exist in America, the middle-class security that they evoke is long gone.

The bar specializes in regional wines, which means it has an excellent selection from the nearby Anderson Valley. There’s food, too, but we were there before dinner time and the only thing we saw plated up was when an elderly cowboy sitting at one end of the bar pointed at a salami hanging from the wine glass rack and asked for a few slices and some tomato to go with it. This was not on the menu, but the bartender made it for him anyway. When we later went across the street to Sign of the Whale, a classic small-town boozer, the cowboy was at the end of the bar again.

Point Arena Lighthouse

Point Arena Lighthouse

In between, we stopped in at an art show on the premises of a stylish homeware store that was closing down, admired the baked goods at Franny’s Cup and Saucer—which included an exquisite dish of “eggs and bacon” made from mango curd-topped meringue and pink-striped shortbread—and fantasized about buying Fogeaters, a now-empty Victorian property with a restaurant on the ground floor and an apartment upstairs. There’s also a small grocery store, a couple of coffee shops (one at the front of the grocery store), a pharmacy, and a library, all on a few blocks of the main drag.

Back at Sign of the Whale, the proprietor wandered in, fresh from his shift at the fire department. A few minutes into our conversation he mentioned he’d worked on the Thomas Fire in December, which had threatened our home in Ventura, and showed us a set of jaw-dropping pictures on his phone. Flush with gratitude, we thanked him profusely and bought him a beer before heading through the swinging doors that connect the bar with Bird Cafe & Supper Club. Our dinner of borscht followed by sweet potato gnocchi was superb.

In the morning, we drove a few miles out to the lighthouse and took a walk in the whipping wind. There’s a Victorian bandstand that sits on a lone spit of land to the east of the lighthouse, a perfect place to sit and enjoy the view (or re-enact an eighties music video). When we visited, sea lions had miraculously hoisted themselves onto the jagged-rock islands around the point and were lolling in the morning sun. To join them in this splendid isolation you can rent one of the lighthouse cottages, but then you’d miss out on the many pleasures of this one-street town.


Sideways in Santa Ynez: Ten years after the film that put it on the map, the Santa Ynez Valley offers more than the pleasures of Pinot Noir

This post is part of a series on the search for the Cotswolds of California, i.e., an idyllic weekend escape within easy reach of Los Angeles. Earlier I profiled the Ojai Valley here.

Vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Sideways, Alexander Payne’s 2004 road trip film about the misadventures of Miles, a struggling writer and wine snob, and his friend Jack, a marginally successful actor and interminable philanderer. The action takes place in the towns and wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, where the two have headed for a last hurrah before Jack gets married. Aside from being an almost perfect comedy, Sideways brought the wine culture of this slice of central California into a mainstream consciousness previously dominated by Napa and Sonoma. To celebrate one of my favorite films turning ten, I ventured to the Santa Ynez Valley with my husband for a road trip of our own.

Hamlet Square, Solvang

Our base for the weekend was the Danish-settled town of Solvang, a place which I affectionately describe as twee. Its architectural style is twentieth-century timbered buildings and reproduction windmills, and the retail includes both Robert Kinkade—purveyor of sickly sweet, chocolate-box landscapes—and a year-round Christmas shop. (There must be a highly compensated MBA at Robert Kinkade who has figured out that the presence of a year-round Christmas shop is a strong indicator that a Kinkade shop will also do well in a location.) Fresh from a six-year stint living in Europe, I was primed to be snarky about mock-medieval architecture in a California town. Instead I found it charming—colorful, tidy and pedestrian-friendly. But we didn’t linger long at the King Frederik Inn following our early Friday evening arrival. A dinner reservation at the Hitching Post in nearby Buellton beckoned.

Just off the 101 Freeway, Buellton is the least village-y of the Santa Ynez Valley towns, studded with chain hotels, fast food outlets, and car dealerships. It is, however, home to two steak restaurants that play prominent roles in Sideways. The Hitching Post is where Miles first meets Maya, his romantic interest, while AJ Spurs is where Jack initiates a tryst that ends both badly and memorably, with the trystee’s rather fleshy, nude husband chasing him down the street after an attempt to retrieve the wallet he left behind in his first rush to escape. Perhaps because of these plot associations, ten years later reservations at the Hitching Post remain a must, while, according to one Solvang local, you can walk into the equally as good AJ Spurs and be assured a table most nights of the week.

The Hitching Post II in Buellton

We arrived at the Hitching Post in time for a pre-dinner drink at the bar—a glass of the Highline Pinot Noir, of course. The bar doesn’t look like it’s changed much since Miles downed a bottle of Highline Pinot on his own and stumbled alone down the highway back to his motel. Even the bartender looked suspiciously familiar when compared to several framed shots of the cast that line the bar walls. Dinner began with a 1970s-style basket of assorted crackers and a silver tray of crudités, both dated and charming given I’m old enough to remember when this kind of start to a meal was the norm. The time warp continued with shrimp cocktail and iceberg lettuce dressed with blue cheese, mostly, I suspect, because the owners of the restaurant don’t see any need to update the appetizers when this restaurant is all about the steak. Thick, juicy slabs of it, grilled to perfection on a barbeque that we happened to have a perfect view of from our table.

Satiated and back in Solvang, we decided to try and walk off dinner with a short stroll to the Wandering Dog Wine Bar. Here the young bartender, a graduate of viticulture from Humboldt University, helped us select a nightcap of Syrah, the specialty of the area, and an accompanying homemade chocolate truffle. He also provided a winery map and tips for a circular winery route the next day, which we planned to tackle on bikes.

On Saturday morning we strolled around Solvang in search of breakfast, settling on the Belgian Café for its sunny outdoor tables. We went savory instead of sweet, choosing eggs studded with a peppery Danish sausage over an extensive selection of waffles. By the time we finished the heat was already beginning to feel daunting for a day out on bikes. Despite being mid-morning, we made a start for our first winery.

Rusack Vineyards on Ballard Canyon Road

Our path took us out of Solvang to the north, past the Hans Christian Andersen Park to Chalk Hill Road. We ventured down one dead end before we finally found our way to Ballard Canyon Road, but what’s a road trip away without a fight over directions? The hills rose with the dusty heat, and we were ready to stop when we caught sight of Rusack Vineyards on our left, an inviting white house at the top of a sloped drive. After refilling our water bottles we settled down on the leather couch to share a flight of tastings. There was also a patio with tables, which would have been inviting if our first priority wasn’t to escape the sun for a few minutes. We left warned of more hills between us and Los Olivos and emboldened by the wine.

Despite being the most challenging leg of the journey, the road between Rusack and Los Olivos was the most scenic, with hardly any traffic. The parched hills and sharp blue skies reminded me more of Oklahoma than California until the final rise before our descent into Los Olivos, where a lush vineyard covered the hillside. Once in the center of Los Olivos, my feeling of geographic displacement resurfaced. The village is laid out around two intersections and, asphalt roads aside, looked like it could have been the set for an episode of Little House on the Prairie.

Ballard Canyon, home of the region’s newest American Viticulture Area (AVA)

Scouting for our lunch spot, we found Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, location of a memorable dinner in Sideways in preparation for which Miles makes his famous declaration, “I’m not drinking any fucking merlot!” While tempting, we opted instead for two seats at the bar at Sides Hardware & Shoes. The name certainly doesn’t give it away, but this converted former storefront turned out to be the culinary high point of our weekend. On the pork-heavy menu I was intrigued by something called a hammered pig salad but couldn’t resist a special of duck and cherry grilled cheese. In a world where restaurants have run amok with gourmet grilled cheese nights, Sides delivered with this knockout combination of flavors. And after our previous evening of red wine, it was a relief to see a wine list full of Santa Barbara County whites, several of which were served on tap. Following our splendid air-conditioned hour or so at Sides, we reluctantly ventured back on our bikes, this time to Alamo Pintado Road, which promised to take us back to Solvang in a straight, almost-flat shot. But not, of course, without a couple of wine-tasting stops along the way.

The Enjoy Cupcakes Trailer, whose wares are on offer at the Saarloos & Sons Tasting House in Los Olivos.

Next up was the Ballard Inn, a dove-gray house with a gracious wraparound patio that’s almost halfway back to Solvang. (Blink and you’ll miss the turnoff, as we did.) Inside there’s a lauded restaurant, as well as a tasting room hosting winemakers who are too small to have their own. One such winemaker is the duo of Kenneth Gummere and Mark Crawford, whose cheekily named Kenneth-Crawford “Four Play” Syrah was so good we had to take a bottle home. The tasting was my favorite of the trip, largely because of the local gentleman who walked us through each wine with a winning combination of geniality and knowledge. When asked his advice on a final tasting stop between Ballard and Solvang, he directed us to Rideau to experience the laid-back vibe imbued by its New Orleans-born owner, Iris Rideau.

The tasting room at Rideau was packed with people and a makeshift collection of tablecloth-covered card tables where our young host offered generous pours, all of which added to the laissez les bons temps rouler feel. After choosing a bottle of the 2012 dry Riesling from Curtis Vineyard to take home, we wandered away from the throng into the main house. Here the feel was entirely different, Victorian-ramshackle with polished wood, velvet curtains,and decorative touches. It was a welcome antidote to the Craftsman and deliberately tasteful styles favored by other area tasting rooms.

Twentieth-century medieval in Solvang

Back in Solvang, showered, refreshed, and relieved of our iron steeds, we had time for another tasting at Cali Love. Run by fellow escapees from Los Angeles with a love for music, the tasting room is covered in music memorabilia, including a collection of concert tickets underneath the glass bar top. I was pretty sure I was going to like the wine made by someone who had seen Lucinda Williams live, and I was right. They turned out to be another purveyor of local whites, and I’m a fan of their unfiltered Sun Down Riesling.

Tasting wines you enjoy but having to spit them out to maintain a semblance of sobriety is a bit like an unconsummated marriage; by seven o’clock we were ready to sit down somewhere with an entire glass of the stuff. We settled on Santé Wine Bar & Lounge on the east edge of town. Its white leather and chrome interior is the antithesis of the Solvang design ethic, which makes it a perfect spot if you’re feeling a little suffocated by all the cuteness. The French proprietor adds to the charm, and when we heard him recommend a dinner spot to some other customers we took note.

After a glass of Flying Goat fizz at Santé, we headed for Succulent Café, where we were lucky to nab the last two seats at the bar (all the tables inside and out were booked). Like Sides, Succulent Café has a thing for pork, showcased with their selection of homemade charcuterie. In a futile attempt to inject the appearance of health into the proceedings of the last 24 hours, we opted instead for their excellent daily vegetarian pizza special. A nightcap back at the Wandering Dog Wine Bar brought our last evening in Solvang to a close.

Dessert for breakfast at the Solvang Restaurant

Before leaving the next day, we had to try breakfast at the Solvang Restaurant. It’s a kitschy spot where the scallop-edged wood booths once hosted Miles and Jack as they tried to sate their hangovers. The specialty of the house is the Danish ebleskiver,a powder-sugar dusted pancake sphere smothered with raspberry jam, and a suitably sweet send-off to our weekend. The last two days had been more of a Sideways homage than a recreation, missing out key spots from the film like the esteemed Foxen winery. But like Sideways, which has a sequel in novel-form called Vertical, we knew our weekend in the Santa Ynez Valley was only the first of more to come.

The Details
Download a Sideways Map from Visit Santa Barbara here.
Where to Stay:
We stayed in the clean and functional King Frederik Inn:
617 Copenhagen Drive
Solvang, CA 93463
(805) 688-5515

For a more luxurious option, try the Ballard Inn
2436 Baseline Avenue
Ballard, CA 93463
(800) 638-2466

Where to Eat:
The Hitching Post
406 E Hwy 246
Buellton, CA 93427
(805) 688-0676

Sides Hardware and Shoes, a Brothers Restaurant
2375 Alamo Pintado Avenue
Los Olivos, CA 93441
(805) 688-4820

Succulent Café
1555 Mission Drive
Solvang, CA 93463
(805) 691-9444

The Solvang Restaurant
1672 Copenhagen Drive
Solvang, CA
(805) 688-4645

Where to Drink:
Wandering Dog Wine Bar
1539 Mission Drive
Solvang, CA 93463
(805) 686-9126

Rusack Vineyards
1819 Ballard Canyon Road
Solvang, CA 93463
(805) 688-1278

Rideau Vineyard
1562 Alamo Pintado Road
Solvang, CA 93463
(805) 688-0717

Cali Love Wine
1651 Copenhagen Drive
Solvang, CA 93463
(805) 688-1678

Santé Wine Bar & Lounge
433 Alisal Road
Solvang, CA 93463

In Search of the Cotswolds of California: Ojai

View of the Ojai Valley from the Ojai Retreat

Within two years of moving to London, my husband and I had started taking regular weekend trips to the Cotswolds in search of some respite from city life. True to form, now that we’ve been in Los Angeles for almost two years, the search for the Cotswolds of California has begun. The criteria are the same: our weekend escape must be within a two-hour drive of the city and offer scenic outdoor activities for the day and peace and quiet for the night, good food and drink, a dose of culture, and, preferably, an assortment of eclectic locals.

Last month we headed northeast to Ojai in our quest. The drive was mostly along the PCH before heading inland near Ventura, and the approach was not as promising as I had hoped. State Road 33 was occasionally marked by dingy-looking retail in a setting of hills baked to straw from months of summer sun. As we rose in the hills, so did the temperature, reaching a crackling 90 degrees before we arrived at the hotel.

We had declined to reserve at the area’s most well-known accommodation, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, due to the hefty price tag. (Later we visited the grounds in the vain search for a drink—despite an abundance of waiters setting up for dinner on a veranda, we failed to ever get the attention of one—and, while immaculate, it reminded me a little too much of a gated retirement community in Florida.) Instead we stayed three miles out of the center of town at the hilltop Ojai retreat, just on the edge of Meiners Oaks. The hotel is well-appointed but not luxurious. Most the rooms are individual cottages, including private patios with views of the surrounding Ojai Valley. From up here, things started to look more like the Edenistic version of California I was expecting: bluejays, bougainvillea and oleander hemmed in by groves of orange and pomegranate in the distance. It is flora and fauna as emblematic of California as rapeseed, mayblossom, and cow parsley are of the English countryside.

BookEnds Bookstore in Meiners Oaks, Ojai

After checking in, we drove into town and took refuge from the heat along the shaded pathway of the Spanish-style arcade that runs the length of the city’s central block. I stopped for a soda at the type of old-fashioned candy store that’s obligatory in quaint tourist towns. Since Ojai is a quaint California tourist town, there was also no shortage of masseurs and new-agey shops. Our requirement for a dose of culture was fulfilled just around the corner from candy store, where, at the Ojai Arts Center, preparations were underway for a performance of A Streetcar Name Desire.

For dinner, we walked the twenty minutes from our hotel into Meiners Oaks, where two couples have elevated the retail landscape with a well-appointed bookstore and an acclaimed café. The former is a retirement project for Marcia Doty and Celeste Matesev, housed in a converted chapel where the books are displayed in pews. Steve Sprinkel and Olivia Chase are, respectively, Farmer and the Cook at their eponymous vegetarian salad bar and market, adding the café at weekends. They do glorious things with food, including legitimizing jalapeno poppers for those of us who think of ourselves as foodies by stuffing their version with goats cheese. The crowd around us at dinner, full of gentle-looking pony-tailed men wearing rope sandals and late middle-aged women wearing pixie cuts, seemed to be enjoying their food as much as we did. We ended the evening sitting on the patio of our hotel room, soaking up the silence and the stars.

Outskirts of Meiners Oaks

By the time we had finished a long, dusty walk around the perimeter of Meiners Oaks on Saturday morning, the sun was already blazing. This time we escaped the heat back in the center of town at the Ojai Playhouse, a restored movie theater, conveniently located next door to the Jester, a pub owned by an Ojai resident originally from Birmingham, England. He is not the only Brit to have settled here. Sheffield native John Wilcock, co-founder of The Village Voice and long-time travel writer, also calls Ojai home. To make good on our cultural intentions, we spent the early part of the evening at a poetry reading at BookEnds. Dinner was at Deer Lodge, a cleaned-up honky tonk specializing in burgers and chili, followed by dessert at the Ranch House, a hidden garden at the bottom of our hotel’s road.

We spent Sunday morning eating a lazy breakfast on the hotel’s communal patio while scanning the real estate ads of a local magazine. This, to me, is the ultimate sign of a successful weekend away. It’s not the same as the house porn of watching HGTV, composed of alternating yet equal parts envy and marvelment that money can’t buy taste. Instead, we were trying on a new life like a new dress, much as we had six years ago in the Cotswolds. Only this time we were imagining what it would be like to live amongst the eucalyptus- and tortilla-scented air of this peaceful slice of California.


The Details + More pictures of Ojai on Pinterest

Ojai Retreat
160 Besant Rd.
Ojai, CA 93023
(805) 646-2536

Farmer and the Cook
339 W. El Roblar
Meiners Oaks
Ojai, California 93023
(805) 640-9608

Bookends Bookstore and other Curiosities
110 S. Pueblo Ave.
Meiners Oaks
Ojai, California 93023
(805) 640-9441

Deer Lodge
2261 Maricopa Hwy
Ojai, CA 93023
(805) 646 4256