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July 23, 2022

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Only 90 minutes north of Los Angeles by car and 15 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Ojai has long been a go-to place for Angelenos to get away and recharge. The town is tucked into a valley of the same name, surrounded by mountain ranges. A feeling of serenity permeates the main street (Ojai Ave.) and the encompassing landscape is lush with citrus and avocado groves, wildflower fields, and hiking trails. Against this beautiful backdrop, a burgeoning restaurant scene has taken shape, one that displays the open-heartedness and geniality for which the town is known. In the last year alone, a flurry of creative, warm, and downright delicious bakeries and restaurants have opened their doors to celebrate the bounty of a wonderful agricultural region.

If you spend enough time in Ojai you’ll start hearing about how its east-west orientation makes for a kind of ethereal energy vortex (the majority of California’s mountains and valleys are configured north to south). It’s this geological positioning that causes the town’s famous “pink moment,” when just before sunset, the Topa Topa Mountains to the north radiate a luminescent shade of salmon. For these environmental reasons, Ojai has attracted spiritual leaders including J. Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley, Beatrice Wood, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono. But as a friend who grew up here told me, “Whatever the spiritual thing is, the Vortex is just a convenient way of wrapping it all up in one idea.” Whether you’re spiritual or not, you’ll have no trouble understanding what makes Ojai so special. Here are the can’t-miss spots, old and new, for those visiting Ojai.

The Essentials:

  • Don’t forget to pack… hiking shoes, so you can hit the trails in Los Padres National Forest.
  • Don’t leave town without… a growler of local Revel kombucha or a shirt from Rory’s Place to take home.
  • The best place to stay is… Ojai Rancho Inn. This revamped retro motel boasts ’50s ranch-style architecture, a swimming pool for hot days (of which there are many), and firepits for cool evenings. Bonus points for the complimentary bicycles to ride around town.

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Book Your Stay at the Ojai Rancho Inn

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

First, a Bountiful Pastry Case (and Coffee)

Mornings at The Dutchess, one of Ojai’s newcomers, are heavenly. Cappuccinos fly through the space, kids devour chocolate croissants, and dogs pant underneath the sidewalk tables. The only potential stressor comes with deciding what to order from the bakery’s overflowing pastry case. You can’t go wrong with anything pastry chef Kelsey Brito makes, but my recommendation is a sticky toffee date muffin and something with seasonal produce, like a passion fruit danish or vegetable frittata. Enjoy your treats in one of The Dutchess’s several rooms or on the back patio shaded with hand-painted Burmese umbrellas. (At dinnertime, the restaurant transitions to an Indian-Burmese menu, and chef Saw Naing serves puri with chicken liver mousse, golden egg curry, and beef masala worth coming back for.)

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

If coffee is all you need to start the day, Beacon Coffee is the tried-and-true favorite for espresso drinks, pour-over, and cold brew. On your way out pop into the attached home goods store Blue Ojai to browse ceramics, throw pillows, flowy tie-dye dresses, and woven sun hats.

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

An Outdoor Book Store Chock Full of Gems

Founded in 1964, Bart’s Books is the world’s largest outdoor bookstore. You’ll want to set aside at least an hour to explore its meandering sections, which altogether house over 13,000 books. Bart’s impressive collection is comprised of new, used, rare, and out-of-print books in categories like history, architecture, science fiction, and, of course, food. The last time I was there, I picked up a worn-in copy of the Da Silvano Cookbook (2001) and a basically unused edition of The Zuni Café Cookbook (2002).

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

With precious books in hand, walk a few blocks to Revel for a refreshment. This local kombucha maker has won awards for its zingy and slightly sweet jun kombucha made with green tea and honey. At their taproom, you can enjoy the drink on draft in flavors like Pink Moment (ginger, hibiscus, and orange zest) and Om (blackberry and lavender). Better yet, make it a float by adding a scoop of açaí or coconut ice cream.

If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, go to the Ojai Certified Farmers Market for fruit, fresh flowers, honey, and more. It’s a farming region, after all!

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

For Lunch, Chef-y Hoagies or Veggie Burritos

Pinyon is a collectively run pizzeria, bakery, and natural wine shop that opened late last year. It opens at 9 a.m. to serve sourdough bagels topped with shmear, lox made with California trout, and local cucumbers, as well as pastries like seasonal-fruit-filled brioche and ham-and-cheese soft pretzels. By lunchtime the focus is on hoagies. There’s a classic Italian with capicollo, soppressata, aged provolone, and the works; a Barbacoa with sauerkraut slaw, cilantro, and consommé dip; and a Grilled Yuba with broccolini, beet, and green kimchi. Some salads are available as well, and if you go during dinner hours, there are wood-fired pizzas and vegetable-centric share plates.

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

If you’re more in the mood for a wholesome meal in crunchy environs, head to Farmer and Cook, a bona fide Ojai institution, for farm-fresh vegetarian Mexi-Cali fare and organic groceries. Options range from Swiss chard enchiladas to a cauliflower burrito, plus smoothies. Stroll through the market—Farmer and the Cook is owned by Steve Sprinkel and Olivia Chase, who also run a 16-acre farm, and you can buy the vegetables that they grow here—then place your order and check out at the counter.

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

A Peaceful Respite With Breathtaking Views

Meditation Mount is a nonprofit meditation center and indigenous garden only five miles from town with panoramic views of the Ojai Valley. Make a reservation for a self-guided tour at sunset to take in the peaceful grounds. Whether you meditate regularly or have never before, it’s worth trying while you’re here. Or not! This self-described “sanctuary for the soul” is open to everyone.

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

Dinner at Ojai’s “It” Restaurant, or a Lebanese Rotisserie Feast

At Rory’s Place, sisters Meave and Rory McAuliffe are bringing the heat—literally. The cuisine here is live-fire California cooking; think broiled oysters with fermented chili butter and grass-fed rib eye over lions mane and pea tendrils. There are also seafood towers of local delights, vibrant cocktails, and natural wine. All of this takes place in a hip setting marked by handsome wood and patchwork pops of color.

An alternate and equally tasty route is Larry Nicola and Claud Mann’s French-Lebanese rotisserie, Ojai Rotie. Here spice-laded roast chickens are the main event and should be paired with a variety of veggies, dips, salads, and grilled manouch (flatbread). There is no indoor seating, but eating outside at one of the restaurant’s many picnic tables is part of the appeal.

Photography by Yasara Gunawardena

A Round of Cold Beers, or Cocktails and Pool

Wrap up the night at Topa Topa Brewing for a round or two of refreshing IPAs and lagers. Or head back to where your day started: The backroom of The Dutchess is known by insiders as The Duke and turns into a local watering hole after sundown. Order a cocktail—perhaps the Old-Fashioned Date with banana bitters and coconut palm sugar—or an amaro flight as a digestif, and muster up the courage to play a round of pool.

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