A recent bachelorette celebration for a dear friend’s upcoming wedding took me to Ojai, a small city about an hour and twenty minutes north of Los Angeles. Ojai is set in the valley beneath the iconic Topatopa mountain range, nestled between the city of Ventura and the Los Padres National Forest. I fell in love with Ojai a few years ago when I discovered the easy-going, artsy community that seemed to pride itself in promoting health consciousness and being ecologically friendly; supporting organic, locally-sourced food, small businesses, and a creative culture. It’s an added bonus that the city’s backdrop is absolutely beautiful and produces a naturally calming aura. It’s the perfect escape from big city life with some much needed good food, art, and mother nature.
I recently learned that the name Ojai is from one of the languages of the Chumash Native Americans and translates to “nest.” The Chumash were the early settlers of the region, inhabiting a large portion of the southern and central California coast from Malibu almost up to Big Sur. Other Chumash names of well-known places include Malibu, Castaic, Simi Valley, Point Mugu, Pismo Beach, Nipomo, and Port Hueneme. In 1874, after being a cattle ranch for about 40 years, the town of Ojai was developed and the name was changed to Nordhoff for writer, Charles Nordhoff. However, the name was changed back to Ojai in 1917 after growing anti-German sentiment in America during WWI and efforts to change any German-sounding names of places. Coincidentally after a fire destroyed much of the downtown area in the same year, Ojai was rebuilt in the Spanish Colonial Revival style giving the town its architectural identity that exists today.
Ojai has historically drawn the counter culture, spiritual, and artists types, and it’s reputation is still going strong. Its collection of art galleries, local boutiques, and eateries all contribute to the sustainable lifestyle promoted by the community. There isn’t but one chain restaurant in the city limits, and rumor has it the approval went under the radar because the name was not well known in California at the time. Any ideas which one it might be? (Check the end of the post for the answer).
During my recent visit, my friends and I booked the Eating Ojai Tour that took us on a walking tour through the downtown strip. We stopped at six restaurants and shops and chatted with the owners while munching on some of their signature menu selections. Places we visited included La Fuente, The Nest, Ojai Ice Cream, Carolina Gramm Designs, The Ojai Vineyard, and Knead Baking Company. We sampled our way through the morning and early afternoon while getting a little bit of Ojai history from our knowledgeable tour guide.
Our first stop was La Fuente, an authentic Mexican restaurant known for its year-round tamales. We got to try chile cheese, pork, and pineapple varieties; each one delicious in its own way. I highly recommend them all, but particularly the pineapple as it’s not a common offering of a sweet tamal. It went especially well with the spicy salsa to balance the flavors. The restaurant’s use of margarine instead of lard in the masa is key in obtaining a fluffy texture to the tamales. It’s a healthier and delicious approach to tamal making that fits nicely into Ojai’s health conscious values.
Halfway through the tour, we stopped at Carolina Gramm’s olive oil tasting which was a first for me and surprisingly great. Standards in Europe for olive oil to be considered extra virgin (highest quality) require the oil to have no more than 0.8% free acidity, which is the amount of fatty acids. However, in California, the Olive Oil Council (yes, it’s real!) requires less than 0.5% free acidity. Carolina’s products are around 0.3%. Since the acidity increases as the olives are exposed to oxidants, the lower acidity level means a higher integrity of the olives with less chance of oxidation. Carolina’s authentic oil combined with unique balsamic flavors, including lavender, ginger, blackberry, pear champagne, and many more, provided a tasteful new experience. She hand makes the oils every morning and has even started a skin care line given the numerous benefits of olive oil for the skin. She was welcoming and personable, and her passion for her work is clear with the robust flavors of all her creations. I recommend the shallot olive oil mixed with pear champagne balsamic to pour over a summer salad.
Knead Baking Company was our last stop on the food tour. The owners are a mother-daughter partnership with a unique background. The mother of the dynamic duo is a trained architect who subsequently went to culinary school and fell in love with the baking process. Interestingly enough, she found similarities in architecture and baking, including the need for precision and attention to detail in crafting the perfect product. While there, we tried a savory potato flatbread and a chocolate cake bite, which was perfectly fresh and fluffy and not too sweet. It was just enough to satisfy your sweet tooth craving without being overwhelming, leaving you with no regrets.
Azu Restaurant & Ojai Brewing Company was not a part of the food tour but we landed there for dinner later in the evening. They were completely booked when we got there around 6:30 p.m., so I recommend making a reservation, at least on a Saturday night. Luckily they were able to sit us at their family style table after about 15 minutes, which was just enough time to order drinks while we waited. We started with honey-baked brie and bread, patatas bravas, and chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon. The tapas style appetizers were so good and filling that we decided to split just two main dishes between the five of us: the sea bass and short rib. I’m not a huge meat eater in general, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a better or more memorable short rib. The sea bass was just as delightful to satisfy my seafood cravings. Both dishes were light and filling at the same time and only left me wanting to try more of their menu if those were any indication of the rest of the kitchen fare. To complement our meals, my friends all had cocktails but I decided to go with a beer flight. The white pixie (brewed with pixie tangerines) and the sugar bush IPA (brewed with sugar bush) were my favorites. If you want to like IPA’s but can’t handle the bitter aftertaste, the sugar bush is the one for you.
After we were good and full, we ended our night listening to live music at The Vine bar. The staff was wonderfully welcoming, the band was great, and there was a steady flow of customers, including people who just happened to be strolling by and heard the music. The outdoor patio made it convenient to have a conversation while still being able to hear the music inside. Wrapping up my weekend in Ojai, I couldn’t help but notice there was nothing but positivity throughout the entire trip. This is attributed to the landscapes, the environment, the energy of the people and all the wonderful food we had. I’ve also noticed this positive energy is a common thread to all my visits there so far.
What sets Ojai apart, in addition to its serene landscapes, is the community character. Ojai is full of small, local businesses that are staples to the community. A benefit of having small businesses is they thrive off of innovation. With chain stores and name brands there is a level of required consistency and repetition that eventually becomes mundane and tends to prohibit or slow the introduction of new ideas. Small businesses have the freedom to try new things more often and bring unique one-off products to customers. In this sense, there’s more room for creativity. Local businesses also have the advantage of building long, trusting relationships with the community.
Towns that become anchored by fast food or chain restaurants, or even big box retailers tend to have a short-term attraction factor, if any at all. Once you know what’s there, and you know you can get it anywhere else, there’s no reason to keep going back. The individuality and character of local businesses that are bonded to the common values of the community are what make small towns like Ojai become destinations; places that you go to explore in a way that is not always possible in larger cities. You’re able to get to know the town on an intimate level and that keeps you coming back for more and wanting to see what they’ll do next.
Sadly, in December 2017 Ojai found itself threatened again by the rapid spread of the Thomas Fire, California’s largest recorded fire at the time. Some homes in the upper valley burned down and the downtown core was nearly encircled with flames along the Topatopa mountains. Thankfully the city center was spared, but the outpouring of support from the community and concern from non residents alike who have fallen in love with the city was a humbling reminder of how special of a place Ojai is. Still, the city is one of the slowest growing places in the state, with a mere 8-12 building permits for new houses approved per year. That’s a testament to its commitment to ensuring development is in line with the city’s values and will help preserve the community’s unique culture. If you’re looking for a place not too far from LA to get away and explore, I highly recommend it. It’s perfect for the weekend or even just one night.
So what’s the one chain you’ll find in town? It’s a somewhat unsuspecting Jersey Mike’s Subs shop. You’ll have to ask them if there’s any truth to the rumors on how they got approved though.
Have you been to Ojai before? If so, what local business or activity would you recommend? Please share in the comments!