May 27, 2022


Santa Maria History

Cold Spring Tavern, a historic Santa Maria barbecue joint on the Central Coast, is worth the drive

I knew I had reached the tavern before I saw it. Yes, from the line of parked cars up and down the road, but for other reasons too. As I walked towards the restaurant, the sounds changed. What was the rustling of bird wings and forest leaves became the low, cheerful din of a happy crowd. A collection of small, rough-hewn buildings appeared down the road, surrounded by picnic tables and benches made from wagon wheels. 

And then there was the smell: of white oak burning on open Santa Maria-style grills, and of tri-tip sizzling as it seared. 

There are places so legendary that you don’t actually need to know anything about them to know a little bit about them, especially in California, where creating our own lore and convincing people to believe it is something of a regional skill. That’s what Cold Spring Tavern is. A mostly outdoor, unfussy restaurant tucked into the San Marcos Pass between Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara, it’s both a place out of time and a place that feels somehow timeless. 

It also has quite a few legends of its own.

The view from Stagecoach Road of the San Marcos Pass.

Julie Tremaine

I had heard whispers of Cold Spring before I had it in mind to visit. Knowing I frequently make the drive to Santa Ynez Valley to visit wineries and take a break from LA’s congestion, a friend mentioned that there was a restaurant I needed to try — one she had been to years ago that had incredible Santa Maria barbecue and where people brought their dogs and just hung out and listened to live music. But she couldn’t quite remember the name. Later, I overheard something of the same at a tasting room in Los Olivos. “It’s this amazing place down a mountain where you sit outside and eat the absolute best steak sandwiches,” someone said. “It doesn’t even have electricity.” 

So I decided I needed to find it, and set out late on a sunny spring afternoon to discover this mysterious place for myself. 

I’ve driven Route 154, the mountain road off Highway 101 that connects Santa Barbara to Santa Ynez Valley, probably a hundred times. Maybe more. But in all those trips, I had always driven straight through, pressing on to Santa Ynez and Ballard and all those other little towns that defy, if you’ve only been to Napa or Sonoma, what it means to go “wine tasting.” These places are full of laid-back tasting rooms where you’re as likely to have your glass filled by a winemaker as you are to get a friendly recommendation on where you should go next. 

It turns out, all I needed to do to find Cold Spring was turn left and wind my way down Stagecoach Road into the San Marcos Pass.

The sign welcoming people to Cold Spring Tavern.

The sign welcoming people to Cold Spring Tavern.

Julie Tremaine

It’s the kind of place you’d see on the cover of a Crosby, Stills and Nash album, with simple and beautiful architecture that recalls an earlier time. In fact, if you had told me “Deja Vu’s” cover art had been shot there, I wouldn’t have been surprised. (It turns out that happened in Novato, but still.) 

The restaurant does, in fact, have electricity, and thankfully takes credit cards, something I didn’t think about until I got there and realized I might not be properly prepared for my lunch.

The location, which has been occupied in one form or another since the 1860s, first as housing for the workers who built the roads and then as a stagecoach stop, has been a restaurant owned by the same family since 1941. For a minute, I could have sworn I had seen it before. The woman who brought me to my table was surprised I hadn’t been before, but not any more surprised than I was. I had such a strong sense of coming home, or at least, of welcoming an old friend. 

We walked past a building with a sign that said “Ojai Jail 1873” and one identifying a building that had been built in 1868 to house the workers who built the toll road through the San Marcos Pass. The rate on the sign for passage of a four-horse buggy: $1.50. 

In the spirit of historicity, I ordered an “Ojai Jail” old-fashioned, and then an accidental feast: their “famous” (according to the menu as well as everyone eating there) tri-tip sandwich, a side of enormous onion rings and a cup of spicy chile verde that came with a hot flour tortilla. A man leaving his table stopped as my enormous plates of food were delivered. “You’re going to hate that,” he said, winking. 

Tri-tip, the triangular piece of meat at the very end of the sirloin, is popular on the Central Coast, but it’s not my favorite. The few times I’ve had it, it’s been kind of tough, with not a lot of flavor. Not this sandwich. Even without the apple horseradish sauce that came on the side, the smoky, savory steak was so good that I’m still thinking about it weeks later. That’s the thing about Santa Maria barbecue: It doesn’t get a lot of love except on the Central Coast, but it’s such a singular method of cooking that it has become one of the defining cuisines of California.

Later, fascinated with this piece of history I had overlooked for so long in a place I thought I knew well, I visited the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum, which has one of the biggest stagecoach collections in the country. 

Stagecoach Road isn’t just a name — it truly was the stagecoach route that connected Santa Barbara to Los Olivos through the 40-mile stretch in the Santa Ynez Mountains where train tracks couldn’t be built. The journey could take up to eight hours in a bumpy, dusty wagon stuffed with as many as 12 people (not counting those who would strap themselves to the top to avoid being thrown off). As a sign in the museum’s stagecoach exhibit said, “No one in a crowded coach rode in comfort.”  

The famous Santa Maria barbecue tri-tip sandwich.

The famous Santa Maria barbecue tri-tip sandwich.

Julie Tremaine

Cold Spring Tavern was the place they’d stop for their afternoon meal and to change over to fresh horses. In some places on Stagecoach Road just below the restaurant, you can still see the grooves chipped into the sandstone that provided traction for the horses. 

In a sense, it’s still the same kind of place, only now we’re getting out of our cars, weary travelers from freeway traffic, or stopping on a weekend motorcycle ride. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner, but before the pandemic, it would be a gathering place on weekend afternoons for people to hear live music with friends. The server I asked said they were trying to bring back the music soon.

“Folks could get off, they could get a meal at Cold Springs, and get a drink or a ‘hobo cocktail,’ which is what they call it if you just drink the spring water,” John Copeland, a museum board member giving me a tour of the coaches, explained. “Because it was free.” (He also explained that the Ojai Jail was actually the jailhouse for two different counties at different times before being moved to the Cold Spring property, because Ojai was once part of Santa Barbara County and later became part of Ventura County.)

Stages like this would stop at Cold Spring Tavern more than a century ago.

Stages like this would stop at Cold Spring Tavern more than a century ago.

Julie Tremaine

Copeland also relayed an anecdote about one of the tavern’s more famous guests, women’s suffrage advocate Susan B. Anthony, whose stagecoach ride was basically one long argument with the driver. When they arrived at Cold Spring, he got down from his seat, asking the owner about the half a hog the stage had transported to the restaurant. “Where do you want me to hang this, in the smokehouse?” Copeland relayed. “You know, I got half a hog here for you.”

Anthony, still on the stage, reportedly called down, “Well, I spent the day with a whole hog.” 

A few weeks later, I stopped for a to-go sandwich, partially to prove to myself that my afternoon there wasn’t a fluke. As I waited for my food, I browsed at the property’s little gift shop, then walked around outside for a bit. I saw people hugging, happy to unexpectedly run into each other, and guests bantering with the servers like they had been friends for 30 years. At this place, they probably had.

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