Ojai Part III: Palate-Pleasing Restaurants, Outdoor Activities

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Destinations may have a fascinating past but they still need tourist attractions to bring in visitors. Ojai, California, is no exception - vacationers have plenty of things to do, places to stay and restaurants to please the palate.

Destinations may have a fascinating past but they still need tourist attractions to bring in visitors. Ojai is no exception — vacationers need things to do, places to stay and restaurants to please the palate.

Ojai attractions

Choices for nature lovers here vary from kayaking on Lake Casitas to hiking the mountain trails that envelope the city. Some trails give magnificent views of the valley reminding hikers the location was chosen as Shangri-La for Frank Capra’s 1937 movie Lost Horizon.

Many horse riding trails abound. There are two golf courses and many day spas. The Libbey Bowl in town, formerly the Civic Park, was a gift from Edward Drummond Libbey of the Libbey Glass Company in Toledo, Ohio. The Bowl has been upgraded and is home to Ojai’s outdoor summer festivals. Libbey also built the town Arcade where once locals bought necessities like needles and thread but now find expensive art galleries.

The main street is dominated by the 1917 post office bell tower based by its architect on the campanile over Christopher Columbus' tomb in Havana. The Ojai Valley Museum reminds visitors the town was once part of the Spanish Land Grant.

Ojai residents are passionate about their trees: In the 1960s some women chained themselves to trees that were scheduled to be cut down, and a more recently a man took residence in an oak tree to prevent its destruction.

They are also passionate about “The Ojai,” the oldest tennis tournament in the United States celebrated every spring. Coming in October is the 12th Annual Taste of Ojai presented by the Rotary Club and the same month the Ojai Film Festival with the claim “Hollywood never looked so good!” Ongoing events include jazz concerts, historical walking tours and the farmers market on Sundays. There’s a trolley service with fixed-route service around the Valley for $1.

Want your health tweaked? The glossy magazine The Ojai Quarterly lists “26 Healing Arts Practitioners of Ojai,” who cover Energy Healing, Tarot, Reflexology, Reiki, Spiritual Guidance, Chakra Balance, Soul Retrieval, Crystal Light Healing, Psychic Readings, Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, Empowerments, Geometrical Neural Patterning, Guide Channeling and, of course, Colon Hydrotherapy.

Coding those services for health insurance companies — if they ever became covered benefits — would be a logistic nightmare, but it seems a visit to one of the clinics may not be necessary: Stores are listed in the magazine that sell, for example, polished Selenite wands to rub on affected areas to alleviate pains and Himalayan or Dead Sea Salts that can, as a shower scrub, cleanse your aura or, if mixed in your shampoo, improve your crown chakra. You can also buy musical tingshas that break up your body’s negative energy.

Ojai restaurants

The best way we know to break up negative energy is to find a good restaurant. We found three for our three days in town on the advice of insiders and from the entries in our hotel guest book.

Azu had been pointed out to us by Cricket Twichell, our guide the first day. She showed us black and white photographs from Bill Baker’s era of 1923. He is famed for his cake extravaganzas for two U.S. presidents, one being Woodrow Wilson. (“He was a Picasso with an icing bag” is a local saying.)

The former bakery is now Azu, a restaurant opened by Chef Laurel Moore 12 years ago, although Bill Baker’s oven still has a place on the brick wall. A former Hollywood photographer, Laurel learned cooking from two grandmothers and traveled widely before deciding she could combine the favors of both Spain and California. She has her own vegetable garden out back.

“Locals love it, always a good sign,” she says. “We like to think we’re like a British pub, like Cheers; locals meet friends here they haven’t seen for several weeks. I think our slogan is: Come in, sit down, be comfortable!”

The restaurants are easily found. All are on the main drag, Ojai Avenue, that runs east to west through the town.

We had several tapas, including bacon-wrapped dates that were out of this world. We tell that to Hector Orozco, the head chef the last three years.

“Don’t forget we’ve also been voted The Best Martinis in Town — and the Best Happy Hour!” he says.

About a hundred yards to the west along Ojai Avenue and across the street from Azu, in the Arcade we find Feast Bistro. This restaurant, co-owned by chefs Sue Coulter and Beryl Schwartz, has been conveniently located across from Libbey Park for seven years — ideal if you are attending a concert at the Bowl. (The restaurant even has a $22 special pre-concert dinner, which we embraced.)

“Our success with the locals is because we are conscious of price — and we use fresh local produce,” Sue says.

She is talking about this “farm to table” concept good restaurants mention in their marketing. She smiles, nods to some Ojai residents coming in, like us, to eat before the Dave Mason concert, and says about her suppliers: “Fresh? I call ’em. They pick ’em”

Suzanne’s Cuisine is not so easy to find. It’s in a house only two blocks west of the main drag. It would be tongue-in-cheek to call this elegant restaurant a Mom-and-Pop-like restaurant even though it began when a mother, Suzanne Roll, bought a house at 502 West Ojai Avenue, converted it into a restaurant in 1992 and called in her daughter Sandra Moore to help manage it.

We find it in the dark of evening. Its entrance lit up as if it’s the holidays and it is, in a way, when we settle down in its covered patio looking at a bubbling fountain, a garden wall of flowers and our Martini and Manhattan (and later our Jumbo Shrimp With Goat Cheese Stuffed Pasta Shells with Marinara Sauce, $26, which we share as an appetizer).

Once you know what it looks like you won’t miss Suzanne’s Cuisine the next time.

Hotels

There are more restaurants than hotels for obvious reasons: Los Angeles is close enough for many people to be day visitors. Hotels vary from little B&Bs, like the historic Lavender Inn, to upscale inns, like the Blue Iguana and its sister the Emerald Iguana, where we stayed.

We drive the six or so blocks north of the main drag to the inn, and when we arrive at this shaded oasis in the heat of Ojai we see an iguana immediately to confirm we are in the right place.

We are in a one-bedroom, two-level cottage. There are other rooms and some two-bedroom cottages. We settle in and glance at the guest book with all its references.

“We felt we were in a tree house!” says one writer. ”Loved the Juliet balconies listening to the birdsong,” says another. ”This was like stepping into a page from The Hobbit,” enthuses yet another.

The comments are very persuasive; it is a magical place.

We wander the grounds thinking we are in an art gallery.

Jaide Whitman is the young manager and daughter of the owners. The sculptor is her uncle, Fred Whitman, a dentist and well-known local artist. Some of the interior art is by her grandmother. Her mother is an interior decorator who hand-picked much of the furnishing from a trip in Bali. Jaide’s parents bought this run-down apartment complex 11 years ago and transformed it.

“My father is an architect who loves Dali and European Art Novo,” she says as we have breakfast with her at the pool.

The inn with its 13 units and the nearby larger 25-room Blue Iguana has a high percentage of return guests: younger guests from Los Angeles and San Francisco and seniors from all over California.

“Your units are not inexpensive,” we murmur.

“Come back in May through September,” replies the young manager, “Our prices are $20 a night less then. We offer guests a unique experience. Just today I got this phone call, ‘We want to get away but we don’t want to spend too much!’ and I told them, ’Perfect! We have a room, the Grasshopper that is only $169 a night mid week.’ If they had said they wanted something romantic, I would have suggested the Frog Room. It’s all about what the individual wants.”

Jaide returns to our comment about expense. “We offer an expanded generous breakfast,” she says, “And in high season on Fridays and Saturdays wine and cheese tastings at no charge. With a fee we offer in-room spa services.” She waves her hand over the landscaping art and the pool and smiles. “We love our guests,” she says. “D’you what we ask ourselves all the time?” Then she answers her own question with, “We ask ourselves,’What can we do better today?’”

Says a local we later meet downtown, “We think Ojai can’t be made better; it’s pretty perfect as it is. We are like an island, we have an enchanted look. Sure, on occasion we hear about something weird happening in town; then we roll our eyes and say, ‘Oh, that’s so Ojai.’ Many newcomers come to live here from Los Angeles to escape but we fear they might bring L.A. with them. So, we do worry a bit about the L.A. Invasion. We want Ojai to stay hokey!”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest/Lifestyle. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is a member of the Motor Press Guild and the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.