The view of the majestic Santa Ynez mountains from Stage Coach Road, off Highway 154. Photo by Kirsten Judson.
The interior fireplace is accented with a buck’s head and the quote “A clock is the heartbeat of a room / and makes of it a whole / but a fireplace of brick and stone / is a room’s eternal soul”. Photo by Kirsten Judson.
Cold Spring Tavern tri-tip vouchers and a Firestone DBA: the recipe for a great afternoon. Photo by Kirsten Judson.
People mill around outside one of the many gathering places in front of Stage Coach Road. Photo by Kirsten Judson.
Au jus sandwiches get topped with horseradish, barbecue sauce, and pico de gallo. Photo by Kirsten Judson.
The carving station is where fresh tri-tip meets toasted bun. Photo by Kirsten Judson.
Batter up! Cold Spring Tavern’s famous onion rings are not to be missed. P hoto by Kirsten Judson.
That bucket of marinade next to open fire grill is largely responsible for the flavor punch Cold Spring’s sandwiches pack. Photo by Kirsten Judson.
Live bands often play at the Tavern’s Sunday afternoon cookouts. Photo by Kirsten Judson.
The briny ocean air of Santa Barbara turns drier as you ascend through highway 154 West into Los Padres National Forest. Gaining altitude through Santa Ynez Mountains, signs will help you merge left as the one-lane highway narrows into San Marcos pass: where Stage Coach Road meets the 450-foot high Cold Spring Arch Bridge. In 1886, this spot was the home of The Cold Spring Relay Station—a place where horses were groomed and nursed and passengers revived themselves with a noon-day meal of potato mush and red meat scraps.
The Cold Spring Tavern is the first sign of humanity within this veritable mountain range. Along with a small, scruffy cloister of historic buildings, including the first
Ojai Jail and remnants of Gopherville, an old California ghost town, the Tavern sits on a 40-acre property owned and operated by the Ovington family since 1941.
The mouthwatering waft of barbecued meat still manages to draw travelers off the road for a break. Every Sunday, the tavern hosts a tri-tip cookout. Under plastic-shaded booths on the dirt path, behind the now-restored dining room and bar, you’ll find professional grillers, ushering steak from marinade seasoning buckets to outdoor charcoal pits.
All you have to do is pay for a tri-tip voucher ($10) and proceed to the butchers, who will cut your meat fresh off the smoker and slap it on a toasted sandwich bun. The rest is up to your discretion. Add jus, house made zesty horseradish, pico de gallo, or barbecue sauce—whatever condiment you choose will enhance the tri-tip experience.
You’re right to assume this is no place for vegans. This is a carnivore’s heaven; a place where caramelized meat juices are raised to their highest levels. Top it off with a side order of their perfectly battered onion rings, (big crunch, minimal oil) and wash it down with a draft of Firestone DBA and you will be having primal responses. This is a meal that left me frenziedly scraping the bottom of my plate, praying for it not to end.
Fortunately, the Cold Spring Tavern experience doesn’t end when the food is gone. Head inside to the dimly lit beer-cabin and pull yourself another draft. Live music will play from noon until the sun descends over the Sierra. Adventure hikers, tourists, hipsters, and families all eat and drink harmoniously at the Cold Spring Tavern. If you’re lucky, the omnipresent biker pack will ditch their hogs and start kicking up dust and shaking their hips center stage. A full rainbow of characters contribute to this time-honored Sunday activity.
This spot is a sure distance away from any hustle, a place where there is good meat, cold beer, live music, and happy people from all walks of life. A group of magnanimous, charming creatures have made this place their Sunday hangout for over 100 years. And there is no question why this old-world institution has been around for so long— they’ve honed a beautiful mash-up of western saloon cook-out and biker gang drinking hole in a pristine mountain hideaway.