Ojai is such an enchanted, beguiling village and such an easy trek that I’m shocked at how few of us in Orange County have ever visited or even know this hamlet exists. This makes it a top choice for foodies craving something new. The Chumash were perhaps the first to appreciate this lush coastal valley’s unusual east-west orientation, a geographic blessing that yields cool nights, warm days, and a long growing season. Known for avocados, tomatoes, and citrus, Ojai has a new crop: sweet, seedless Pixie tangerines, grown on 40 local family farms. When Pixie season is in full flush, the valley bursts with love for the juicy gems, and chefs scramble for their share of what is less than 1 percent of California’s tangerine crop.
The history of small-scale agriculture in Ojai underwrites a vigorous farm-to-table culinary scene. Chef Susan L. Coulter shows off locally grown goods at Feast Bistro, her New American cafe—maybe flatiron steak from neighbor Watkins Cattle Co. or a salad of Granny Smith apple, red grapes, celery, and toasted almonds in a mustard vinaigrette. Mere steps away, The Ojai Vineyard welcomes tasters eager to sample the esteemed winery’s multiple high-scoring wines in a single stop. 254 E. Ojai Ave., feastojai.com; 109 S. Montgomery St., ojaivineyard.com
Cocktail enthusiast? Seek out Azu for its martinis crafted with Ojaicello, a house-made liqueur that blends citrus fruits picked from an organic orchard off Maricopa Highway. Local, newborn distiller Ventura Spirits is just now releasing its Wilder Gin, made with wild-harvested botanicals that include sagebrush, bay, yerba santa, purple sage, and Pixie skins. Look for it behind the bar at Ojai Beverage Co. 655 E. Ojai Ave., ojaibevco.com; 457 E. Ojai Ave., azuojai.com; 3891 N. Ventura Ave., venturaspirits.com
When the warm, insistent sun casts lacy shadows over Regalo Olive Estates on Ojai’s valley floor, visitors are transported to the Mediterranean, especially now during the harvest and pressing of the Omaggio family’s olive crop. Sample the liquid gold in the tasting room on weekends, or weekdays by appointment. 283 Carne Road, regaloolive.com.
It doesn’t take long to leave the center of town and get lost in bucolic wonders. Every corner and lane leads to one dazzling landscape after another, but one of the best ways to take in Ojai’s beauty is a stop at Meditation Mount. Many come for scheduled retreats and yoga classes, but all are welcome to enjoy the overlooks and serene views along the grounds’ path through its International Garden of Peace. Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. until sunset. Donation suggested. 10340 Reeves Road, meditationmount.org
Renowned for its world-class golf course, genteel hospitality, and stewardship of 220 stunning acres and historical architecture, 91-year-old Ojai Valley Inn is a must-see, even if nightly rates are gulp-inducing at $395. Wander the idyllic grounds and discover a lavish herb garden, a poolside bistro, or fine dining with local wines at Maravilla. Even the spa offers luxurious body treatments, redolent with honey and lavender produced on-site. Prefer to drink your hedonism? Duck into Jimmy’s Pub for a cold County Line Pale Ale on draft, from neighboring Ventura. 905 Country Club Road, ojairesort.com
With fewer than 8,000 residents, Ojai is rife with friendly rituals. Stroll the Sunday morning farmers market and marvel at the season’s bounty as local growers and artisans catch up with one another and the latest gossip. Or, drop by Ojai Cafe Emporium to eavesdrop on the Ojai Pixie Growers Association at its 7 a.m. meeting every third Thursday. If you’re seeking culinary insights from an Ojai perspective, Lavender Inn, with its pretty gardens and wide, welcoming veranda, hosts cooking classes by cookbook authors and guest chefs. 108 S. Montgomery St., ojaicafeemporium.com; 210 E. Matilija St., lavenderinn.com
And because no rural settlement is complete without an authentic roadhouse for some nightly live music and after-dark shenanigans, follow the fun seekers to legendary Deer Lodge, established in 1932. Thanks to new ownership, the menu of hearty, scratch-made American grub is packed with local and organic goods. A roomy patio beckons for alfresco lunching, and who can resist a post-dinner boogie with Cuyama Mama and the Hot Flashes.
The bar serves into late night, but it’s certain you won’t ever buy a shot for a local farmer—they’re early to bed and up with the roosters. 2261 Maricopa Highway, deerlodgeojai.com
Knead Baking Co. is a Corbin Family Affair
“Ojai is the only place I have baked where fruit is the most popular flavor, winning hands-down over chocolate,” marvels Bobbi Corbin, left, baker-owner of Knead Baking Co. Open since 2009, the family business also involves the talents of son Jake and daughters Leah and Rachel. Pictured: Citrus Syrup Cake
What goods do local farms provide?
As many as possible. Our greens are hand-delivered by Ojai resident Anne Stein, owner of Scarborough Farms. The Friends’ Ranch is our landlord and we get oranges and lemons from them, and we get our citrus and avocados from Churchill Orchards. Our customers drop off overflow from their fruit trees—apricots, kumquats, tangerines, and plums.
Favorite season or item?
I love creating tarts, so summer, with its abundance of stone fruits, is my favorite. I enjoy shuffling crusts, fillings, shapes, and the final treat—the perfect garnish.
Any special plans for fall?
Soon we’ll start offering miniversions of our Thanksgiving desserts: pumpkin cheesecake, apple creme fraiche tart, and pecan pie. It helps folks to try before they buy full-size for the holiday.
Most popular items?
Our breakfast and house sandwiches have a devout following. But products in every category—cookies, tarts, bars, and cakes—all have their loyal fans.
>> WHILE YOU’RE HERE
Every day gets a stellar start at KNEAD BAKING CO. (see above), charmingly retrofit into Ojai’s first gas station. Even if you skip breakfast, the shop’s small, pretty cello bags of cookies and crackers make delicious souvenirs, though they probably won’t last the drive home. 469 E. Ojai Ave., kneadbakingcompany.com
MORE GOOD EATS
Popular for its open-air dining room, SUZANNE’S is a longtime Ojai favorite for always-current California fare served with a garden view. 502 W. Ojai Ave., suzannescuisine.com
OJAI BEVERAGE CO. offers an impressive inventory of fine wines and local beers for take-away, or pick your poison off the cafe menu and enjoy it at the bar in back, or on the pleasant patio. Nice happy hour deals feature a changing roster of noshy appetizers. 655 E. Ojai Ave., ojaibevco.com
BEST JEEP TREK
Who knows Ojai’s backcountry trails better than you? CLOUD CLIMBERS. Book an adventure for a concentrated dose of history, scenery, and maybe even some mountaintop wine-tasting. 408 Foothill Road, ccjeeps.com
During Pixie season, family-run FRIENDS RANCH is the primo choice for tours, farm-stand shopping, and mail-order citrus. The short drive takes you worlds away. 15150 Maricopa Highway, friendsranches.com
A giant mosaic iguana statue greets guests checking in at the EMERALD IGUANA INN, above,and the artistic magic threads throughout the inn’s lovely casitas, pool, and meticulous gardens. Gracious, knowledgeable staff. 108 Pauline St., emeraldiguana.com
The CAPRI HOTEL (top image), wears its 1960s heritage proudly, though a recent retool upgrades these digs to near-boutique status. Modest rates and a central location make this a handy lodging choice. 1180 E. Ojai Ave., hotelojai.com