BY MARK LEWIS
Steve Edelson aims to restore the legendary Ranch House restaurant to its former eminence, while at the same time updating its vibe to attract a younger, hipper crowd. Can this veteran of the L.A. club scene come up with a formula that honors Alan Hooker’s legacy, yet also reels in the Prius owners? And, if Edelson pulls it off, will Ojai ever be the same?
The thing about a small town like Ojai is that everyone supposedly knows everyone. This is not actually true, of course, but it comes closer to being true when you consider the even smaller community of movers and shakers who more or less run the town. Hence the puzzled reaction earlier this fall at board meetings and power lunches all across the valley, as the local powerbrokers passed around the September issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
In an article titled “The Calming Vortex of Ojai,” Los Angeles writer Hugh Garvey profiled a new wave of Angeleno transplants who (per Garvey) are transforming Ojai into “a nouveau hippie utopia.” The article included photographs of several recently arrived residents, tagged as “a few of the many movers and shakers who shuttle between Los Angeles and Ojai.” Most of the people pictured were young and stylish and beautiful — and complete strangers to most of Ojai’s homegrown establishment. “I’ve never heard of any of them” was a common reaction.
The local business owners Garvey interviewed were a more familiar bunch: Chris Sewell of the Ojai Rancho Inn, Wanda Weller Sakai of Modern Folk Living and Alice Asquith of Ojai Olive Oil, “who fits snugly into the mold of the urban refugees who keep Ojai evolving.” But then, near the end of the article, Garvey mentioned another business owner who also fits into that mold: “Steve Edelson, a Hollywood nightlife entrepreneur who owns multiple venues, is revamping the Ranch House, an early Southern California answer to Chez Panisse.”
Here, Garvey struck a nerve. Edelson has lived in Ojai for the better part of a decade, yet he remains a mystery man to the local establishment. And the Ranch House is a beloved Ojai institution, founded by the late, great Alan Hooker, who in fact preceded Alice Waters of Chez Panisse as a pioneer of California Cuisine. It was a watershed moment last spring when the Ranch House was sold to Edelson, a sometimes-controversial figure whose business background is in raucous nightclubs rather than sedate, fine-dining establishments. And now this high-profile national magazine was billing Edelson’s retooled Ranch House as yet another harbinger of Ojai’s hipster-friendly future.
Businesses change hands all the time, and life goes on. But this particular changeover has the potential to be truly transformative — for good or ill, depending upon one’s perspective. If Ojai really is evolving into Silver Lake North, then Edelson’s acquisition of the Ranch House could turn out to be the mutant event that punctuates the new equilibrium. On the other hand, if he gets the formula just right, his reimagined restaurant could become a place where Old Ojai and New Ojai come together in a mellow synthesis, as the establishment mingles with the new transplants and finally makes their acquaintance. Either way, the Ranch House will never quite be the same.
Alan Hooker did not come to Ojai to start a restaurant. He came here seeking enlightenment. He and his wife, Helen, moved here as pilgrims from Columbus, Ohio in the spring of 1949, to sit at the feet of the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti.
Alan, at 47, was a former jazz pianist turned bakery manager who had always enjoyed cooking, so he was put in charge of feeding some of the people who attended Krishnamurti’s public talks in the Oak Grove. In 1950, Alan and Helen established a boarding house near the grove in an old house built in 1875 for the rancher John Meiners, whose property had been subdivided after his death to create the community of Meiners Oaks. The Hookers’ guests were fellow Krishnamurti devotees, and the food Alan served them was strictly vegetarian. In February 1950, the Hookers expanded the venue to include a full-fledged restaurant, which Helen dubbed the Ranch House.
In 1954, their landlord sold the Meiners house out from under them, so they had to close down. Two years later, with financial help from their friend Frank Noyes, the Hookers reopened the Ranch House restaurant in a beautiful garden setting on a half-acre lot, just down the hill from their previous location. The décor included chairs hand-painted by their friend Beatrice Wood. The food was made with fresh vegetables and herbs from the restaurant’s own garden, which doubled as part of the scenery. The Hookers enjoyed avid support from the Ojai Music Festival board, which needed a nice place for festivalgoers to dine while in town. Yet the restaurant struggled, and soon closed. When it reopened in 1958, Alan added a magic ingredient that would make all the difference: meat.
The menu now included veal scaloppine, chicken cacciatore and other familiar meat dishes, but Alan made them his way, for example by adding a béchamel sauce to his beef stroganoff. A few years later, he started serving wine. All these changes helped to attract well-heeled customers who were staying at the Ojai Valley Inn – including the movie star Paul Newman, who raved about Alan’s food to the syndicated newspaper columnist Sheilah Graham, thus generating national publicity for the Ranch House.
Meanwhile, Alan kept creating new recipes. In the process, he was laying the groundwork for a whole new cuisine.
“When old recipes bore me, I want to create or invent something new,” he wrote in the introduction to his first book, “New Approach to Cooking.”
“It is in the process of discovering something new that the fun comes, not in what is discovered,” he wrote. “Long ago I found that many of the products of such a way of life are soon forgotten, but the fun of discovery goes on and on.”
The Hookers retired in 1969, leaving their restaurant in the capable hands of David Skaggs, who had grown up in Ojai and started at the Ranch House as a busboy. During its 1970s heyday, Skaggs says, the restaurant served hundreds of customers every weekend. About 40 percent were local and 60 percent were visitors — but many of the visitors were repeat customers, including such celebrities as Newman and Robert Redford, who would come to Ojai to eat at the Ranch House.
Another regular was an up-and-coming chef named Wolfgang Puck, of Ma Maison in Los Angeles. Puck would go on to found Spago, that famous exemplar of California Cuisine.
“Wolfgang Puck used to come on Sunday afternoons and chat with Alan for hours,” Skaggs says.
Meanwhile, Skaggs and his team increasingly emphasized the quality of their wine cellar. By the mid-‘80s, the Ranch House had become a regular Wine Spectator darling. When the magazine passed out its annual wine-list honors, the Ojai restaurant often earned a Grand Award, placing it among the elite of the elite.
“We had some incredible sommeliers,” Skaggs says.
Alan Hooker died in 1993, at the age of 90. To preserve his legacy, Mark Lee, who was then executive director of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America, published a book with Alan’s best-loved recipes, illustrated by Beatrice Wood. When this book, “California Herb Cookery: From the Ranch House,” came out in 1996, it prompted a Los Angeles Times writer to eulogize Alan as a culinary pioneer:
“Before there was ‘California Cuisine,’ there was the Ranch House restaurant at Ojai. Here, visionary chef Alan Hooker created innovative dishes that he seasoned with herbs and greens such as sorrel and arugula long before they became trendy.”
Helen died in 2000, at 97. The Hookers had no children, so she bequeathed the Ranch House to Skaggs and his wife, Edie. With its romantic setting and lustrous legacy, the restaurant remained a traditional “special occasion” destination for many Ojai residents who would go there to pop the question or celebrate a graduation or mark an anniversary. But over time, the place came to be seen as resting on its laurels, and business fell off. Then in 2012 came the news that David and Edie were divorcing and, as a result, their restaurant was being put up for sale. This caused a stir, which died down as the months passed and no buyer emerged. Finally, early in 2014, a sale was announced. This had long been expected, but the buyer’s identity came as a huge surprise: Steve Edelson.
On the evening of Oct. 24, hundreds of curious partygoers showed up at the Ranch House to attend “The Grand Reveal,” which served as an opening of sorts for Edelson’s restaurant. The place had never closed its doors since changing hands in May, but after tweaking the concept for five months, Edelson was ready to formally unveil his version. “See it Again for the First Time” was the event’s tagline.
Gone was award-winning sommelier Michael Denney with his 56-page wine list. After taking over, Edelson first brought in Don Hull, formerly of Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro in Santa Barbara, to be his new wine steward and general manager. Then he parted ways with Hull and brought in his old friend Russell Brunelli from New York as general manager.
Gone was longtime Executive Chef Stuart Farnham. Edelson started out by handing Alan Hooker’s old toque to Marcus Hollingsworth; then he parted ways with Hollingsworth and installed Sean Kingsbury as executive chef.
Gone was singer-guitarist Alan Thornhill, a weekend mainstay at the Ranch House for many years. The indoor dining room was now a piano bar, complete with a full liquor license and a long red couch that would not look out of place in a Hollywood lounge. The entertainment was provided by keyboardist Jimmy Calire and vocalist Patricia Cardinali.
Brunelli played host, greeting guests and working the room with the practiced bonhomie of a veteran restaurateur. (He once owned Brunelli, a popular trattoria on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.) Edelson and his glamorous girlfriend, Maria Angela Perna, were on hand as well. (Perna, who designs jewelry for Love Heals in the Arcade, is also Edelson’s partner in the Ranch House venture.) Edelson spent part of the evening showing guests his meticulously restored 1965 Corvette, which was parked out front.
During the first five months of the Edelson era, the transition from the Skaggs era had not always gone smoothly. Apart from the personnel changes, there were some new touches that did not go over well with everyone. Some diners were surprised, for example, to find themselves seated at tables covered with butcher paper, with crayons provided for children to doodle with. This was not the classy, fine-dining experience they expected from a pricey restaurant in a romantic setting, where children are rarely in evidence.
“The Ranch House we once knew is dead and buried,” one longtime customer announced in a comment posted on Yelp.
Some Yelp commenters bewailed the restaurant’s alleged descent into vulgarity and mediocrity. But other Yelp commenters who were first-time visitors awarded the Ranch House five stars (out of five). And the “Grand Reveal” party helped Edelson win over some of the skeptics among the old-timers. The wine was free, the company was congenial, and the evening by all accounts was a success.
“It was a very pleasant affair,” Mark Lee said afterwards. “I met a great number of old friends from when the Hookers had the restaurant, and everyone seemed impressed with the way the new Ranch House has been set up. They have large portraits of Krishnamurti and Aldous Huxley on the interior walls and they are selling the cookbook I published for Alan. I looked at the menu and it seemed quite inspired by Alan’s old menu.”
Lee cautioned that he had not yet had a meal at the place since Edelson took over.
“All and all, I would say the test of whether they can meld the old Ranch House with a new generation will depend greatly on the quality of the food,” he said. “A friend had dinner there on Thursday [the night before the party] and she said the food was really good but the service was shockingly poor. (It) remains to be seen if new people will come and keep the place viable.”
Can Edelson and Brunelli pull it off? One of their “Grand Reveal” guests, Deer Lodge owner Tom Doody, has seen them do it before.
IN THE LIMELIGHT
Chicago, July 31, 1985: Thousands of eager club-goers lined up outside a historic Romanesque Revival building at Dearborn and Ontario streets on the Near North Side. They are there for the opening of Limelight, the brainchild of a one-eyed club promoter named Peter Gatien, who had spent $3.5 million to convert the castle-like building into a glamorous nightspot. The New York version of Limelight was currently among the hottest clubs in the nation, and Gatien aimed to repeat his success in the Windy City.
Gatien had brought in Andy Warhol from New York to host the opening night party. Another New York import was Russell Brunelli, a.k.a. “Hustle Russell,” Gatien’s choice to manage the new club. A streak of green in Brunelli’s hair caught the attention of one man in the crowd who had not yet been selected for admission.
“Hey, you with the hair! This is Chicago, not New York! This place is coming down. Tonight!”
The man’s comment was noted by Chicago Tribune reporter Marla Donato, who then went inside to interview Gatien. She found him sitting in the VIP section with Warhol and others – including Tom Doody, who was then the manager of a rival club in Chicago.
“The Limelight people are the first to come in town and make the commitment of big money: $3.5 million is a lot of money, certainly more than has been spent in Chicago before,” Doody told Donato. “Then they say, `Boom, right from the start we`re going to be the biggest, hottest thing happening.’ ”
Donato did not interview Steve Edelson, or if she did his quotes did not make it into her story. Nevertheless, he, too, was at Limelight that night, taking in the scene. A Chicago native, just 25 but already freighted with a mysterious past, Edelson was studying Gatien’s moves and preparing to make a few of his own. Twenty-nine years later, sitting at a table in front of the Deer Lodge, Doody reminisced about the swath Edelson cut through Chicago in the 1980s.
“Starting around 1984, Steve was a regular in the cast of young, enigmatic figures on the VIP lists of Chicago’s hip, artsy clubs, as well as the more established downtown spots,” Doody recalls. “If you were in a club, there was a particularly overwhelming sense of presence when Steve walked into the room, usually accompanied by his rat pack of stylish buddies and an entourage of girls who looked like they’d just walked off the runway and staggered into the club.”
Edelson was not just hanging out and partying, Doody says: “He wanted into the game and had been shrewdly observing, analyzing and forming his own vision about what worked and might work better in a club of his own.”
Edelson jumped into the game a year or two later, opening a club called Union, which featured stainless-steel décor with chrome table tops. It was an immediate success and became Chicago’s “club of the moment,” Doody says.
Ojai resident Eleanor Kas, a Chicago native, sang in a band that played Union several times back in its heyday.
“I remember it was a small stage and we were a seven-piece band, so, to gain more space, we used to place our vocal mic stands on the barroom floor instead of up on the stage,” Kas says. “When the room got crowded, people would knock into them; that’s how my front tooth got chipped! But Union offered terrific exposure to unsigned local talent and we were happy to play there.”
Edelson’s next venture, the Bridge, was even more successful. “He quickly parlayed his momentum into becoming a major player in Chicago’s club industry,” Doody says, “eventually amassing eight design-driven niche clubs that were simultaneously running strong while still retaining their hipness factor.” (Russ Brunelli was Edelson’s associate in several of these ventures.)
Edelson’s public persona played a role in his success. As club host, “Steve had a knack for making customers feel special – that they could be part of the excitement that always seemed to be swirling around him,” Doody says. “He also had the innate talent for aligning himself with the right people and trends at the right time and integrating them into his club machine.
“Steve was everything that epitomized the hot club owner: ambitious, overconfident, creative, vulgar and charming,” Doody says.
Then, in the early ‘90s, Edelson shocked everyone by announcing that he was selling his properties and moving to Los Angeles.
“In retrospect,” Doody says, “he clearly had a sense that there were bigger and better deals waiting for him there. And there certainly were.”
In L.A., Edelson bought into a club called Vertigo, which soon was reborn as Glam Slam, with Steve as the manager and the rock star Prince as one of his partners. That was just the beginning. The list of Edelson’s L.A. clubs reads like a history of the city’s nightlife over the past two decades: Dragonfly, El Cid, Forbidden City, the Garage, the Joint, Lush, the Martini Lounge and Zen, among others. In general, these were not A-list clubs with restricted-admittance strategies. Edelson’s specialty was the B-list club, where you need not be a celebrity to get in the door. Edelson prospered by serving the masses rather than by catering to the elite.
“He’s unmatched as a club owner,” L.A. Weekly nightlife columnist Lina Lecaro told Los Angeles Magazine writer Dave Gardetta. “He’s operated longer than anyone, he picks the right promoters, and his venues are the most diverse.”
The Lecaro quote appeared in “Maximum Steve,” Gardetta’s fascinating 6,000-word profile of Edelson, which Los Angeles published in late December 2012. Gardetta described his subject as engaging, but also prone to “flashes of anger;” a super-salesman, yet also a person who thrives on conflict and has “a knack for confrontation.” Edelson is also famously litigious, as Eric Garcetti discovered after his staff tried to shut down Edelson’s club Los Globos for alleged code violations. Edelson does not back down when challenged by authority figures. Garcetti was an L.A. city councilman at the time; now he’s mayor, and Edelson is suing his city for $10 million, and Los Globos is still open.
“Oddly, courtroom light best illuminates Edelson’s sprawling self: resourceful, charismatic, intuitive, combative, grandiose, reckless,” Gardetta wrote. “ … It would have taken a fellow Chicagoan, Saul Bellow, to dream him up had he not existed.”
But even an Augie March may eventually tire of the rat race. After burning the midnight oil for two decades as a club owner, and making many millions of dollars along the way, Steve Edelson was ready for some peace and quiet. He found it, unexpectedly, in Ojai.
THE CALMING VORTEX
Edelson was cruising through Ventura County on a freeway one day in 2007 when he noticed a road sign that referred to Ojai. He remembered that he knew someone who lived there – the rock star Dave Mason, formerly of Traffic. So Edelson drove into town, pulled into the five-star Ojai Valley Inn, and found that it would cost him many hundreds of dollars to stay there, plus a hefty surcharge for his dogs. Not that he couldn’t afford it, but he thought the prices were out of line, so he ended up staying at the Capri Hotel for $69 for the night. (And his dogs stayed there for free.)
That evening he enjoyed a delectable meal at Auberge (formerly L’Auberge, and now closed). The next morning, while standing on line at the Ojai Coffee Roasting Co., he found that he had left his wallet behind. No problem: A stranger cheerfully offered to pay for his coffee. This was a magical place, Edelson decided: beautiful scenery, friendly people, no parking meters.
“I really felt a connection to Ojai,” he says. “I thought that Ojai was a place where I could find some peace.”
At the same time, he saw the town as a tempting business opportunity. Here, he could apply the B-list strategy to hotels. The young people who frequented his L.A. clubs couldn’t afford to stay at the Ojai Valley Inn, and they didn’t play golf anyway. The Capri was more their speed. It was a relatively basic motel, but its architecture had that mid-century modern look that draws so many L.A. hipsters to Palm Springs for weekend getaways. Someone could fix up the Capri and divert some of those hipsters to Ojai.
Edelson is a man who acts on his instincts. “I didn’t even check out,” he says. “I owned the hotel that day.”
In due course, he added the Hummingbird Inn, the Rose Garden Inn (soon renamed the Ojai Rancho Inn), the Topa Vista on El Roblar in Meiners Oaks, and a large portfolio of houses throughout the valley that he marketed as vacation rentals.
“One thing led to another,” he says.
He also bought a house for himself in a tangerine grove high on a ridge west of the Arbolada. Here, he and his then-girlfriend would start a family. (Edelson already had a teenage son from a previous relationship.) Here, he was inspired to make one more local purchase: A half-interest in the Deer Lodge, the venerable roadhouse on Highway 33.
“I heard the music from my house,” he says. “And I felt like if they’re going to be bothering me, I wanted to get paid for it.”
Edelson retained his considerable L.A. real estate interests, but he had traded in the Hollywood club scene for the life of an Ojai country squire. Not a man to sit around contemplating his navel, he kept busy by running his new Ojai businesses and jousting with Ventura County building inspectors. Yet Edelson remained a mystery man to the local establishment. He was a regular at his own Deer Lodge but was not to be seen at Chamber of Commerce mixers or Rotary Club lunches or Music Festival fundraisers. He was a lone wolf in a town that tends to travel in packs. (He did partner up with Lisa and Jerry Kenton for a while at the Deer Lodge, but that did not last.)
While maintaining his low profile in the valley, Edelson says that he played a key behind-the-scenes role in one high-profile event – the movie “Easy A,” filmed here during the summer of 2009. He was involved because he has a catering business in L.A. that supplies food and beverages for film shoots.
“Sony Screen Gems was my biggest client that year,” he says. “I donated the entire Capri for a weekend to celebrate the vice-president’s birthday. That’s when they agreed to shoot it in Ojai. The movie came together that weekend.”
When the film was shot here, Edelson not only provided the catering, but also the accommodations for the cast and the crew.
“It was a magical summer for everyone involved,” he says. “Super fun for my son who was a senior at Nordhoff then, and we got to feed his friends who were on the set as extras.”
By 2011, Edelson seemed to be getting restless in Ojai. That was the year he plunged back into the L.A. club scene, buying Los Globos on Sunset Boulevard in the Silver Lake district. In December 2012, Dave Gardetta’s “Maximum Steve” profile in Los Angeles Magazine hinted that Edelson was somewhat disappointed with his Ojai investments and ready to return to the big-city fray. (Gardetta’s article was widely read in Ojai.)
December 2012 was also the month Edelson started dating Perna, a native of Italy.
“I met her at the Capri,” he says. “Our first date was at the Deer Lodge.”
Edelson says he came to realize that his Ojai businesses needed more individual attention than he could give them. Early in 2013, he off-loaded the Deer Lodge, the Capri and the Hummingbird to Doody and his wife, Pamela Robins, and the Ojai Rancho Inn to Chris Sewell and his wife, Kenny Osehan. He gives these two couples full credit for taking the Deer Lodge and the Rancho, respectively, to a higher level.
“I am astounded by what a great job these guys have done,” Edelson says.
Edelson remains well-positioned to benefit from their success at drawing more people to Ojai. He retains ownership of many strategic local real estate properties, and he still operates the vacation-house rental business. Nevertheless, by early 2014 he seemed to be withdrawing from an active role as an Ojai business operator. Thus the surprise last spring when he reversed course and bought the Ranch House.
“It was an iconic place that was in disarray,” he says.
The Ranch House had been losing money “for years,” Edelson says. People went there for special occasions but not on a regular basis, in part because it was fairly expensive. He aims to make it less “stuffy” and more “accessible,” a place where people can get dinner and a drink “and not break the bank.”
That sounds like Edelson is applying his traditional B-list approach to his new restaurant. But he wants it to be A-list too, in the sense that foodies will see it as a special place and beat a path to its door. This is the same man that Dave Gardetta in “Maximum Steve” described as a meat-and-potatoes guy who “hasn’t tasted a vegetable in years.” These days, Edelson is embracing his inner gourmet. At the Ranch House, he makes a big point of not having a freezer or a fryer or a microwave oven on the premises.
“We really go from our garden to our table,” he says. “Our food is truly artisanal and handmade. We don’t cook for the masses. We cook for the fortunate few.”
Alas, “few” is an apt word to describe the number of people who have been patronizing Edelson’s Ranch House during its shakedown period. But he can afford to give the place time to find its footing.
(Edelson clearly will not go broke while running the Ranch House. His other business interests seem to be prospering as usual. During an interview with the Ojai Quarterly, he excused himself at one point to take a phone call. “Just offer him $4 million in cash,” he told the caller, speaking in a casual tone of voice as though he were ordering a pizza. Then he rang off without a second thought and returned to the interview.)
Edelson has fully digested the details of the Ranch House’s 64-year history, and he is passionate about paying homage, as he puts it, to Alan Hooker’s culinary legacy. But he also wants to reach out to the younger crowd of Angeleno transplants who have been moving into the Ranch House’s neighborhood. (The restaurant is located at Lomita Avenue and Besant Road, near the Oak Grove School.)
“We see the huge change in Meiners Oaks,” Edelson says.
Thus the new piano bar, which Brunelli says will give the neighborhood the “sophisticated adult drinking place” it currently lacks. Thus the crayons on the tables. (Many of the new transplants are young couples with children.) Thus the shorter (but still extensive) wine list with its increased focus on Ojai and Central Coast wineries. (The new transplants are big on locally crafted products.)
The trick, of course, is to reach out to the younger crowd without alienating the restaurant’s longtime customers.
“There’s been a lot of resistance,” Edelson concedes. “We understand people’s apprehensions about the place: ‘Oh my God, they’re changing the Ranch House! That Steve Edelson from Hollywood is going to ruin it!’ ”
He and Brunelli have won over at least one high-profile Ojai tastemaker: David Mason, retired florist, local historian and man about town.
“After hearing all of the stories about the ‘new’ Ranch House, I decided to try it myself, so with a friend we went about three months ago,” Mason says. “The first thing I noticed was that the grounds were more manicured, more lush, and everything was in full bloom. The menu had changed somewhat, wouldn’t say it was better or worse, just slightly different, and when the food arrived, we were both happy to see that it still had the wonderful Ranch House taste and style.”
“The manager, Russ, reminded me of the old days when the Hookers were still running the restaurant,” Mason adds. “He made you feel that you were the only person in the place, coming by the table to chat and ask about our dinners and our daily lives. It was such a treat, and I have been back four times with different friends and we have all agreed that it was a very positive experience.”
Edelson’s charm offensive occasionally misfires. He promotes the Ranch House on Facebook, but he sometimes posts comments there that are impolitic (or worse). He has made some enemies in the valley (although they decline to be quoted about him). Even people who like him note that he can come off as boorish and intimidating.
“My impression of Steve is that he is a kind soul with a big heart,” Chris Sewell says. “This being said, he isn’t exactly one to be fucked with. He is a true Chicago type cat who exudes a new-day mafia personality.”
“Steve is a very complex guy and a living, breathing paradox,” Tom Doody says. “While he’s quietly and anonymously helped out many friends and strangers in need over the years, he also has the ability to be ruthless if he feels it’s necessary, and he built a reputation as somebody not to be fucked with.”
“I’ve always experienced Steve as a mensch, but shark-like: constantly needing to be on the move, creating or pursuing opportunities and closing deals,” Doody adds. “He’s completely self-made, speaks his mind and has never really seemed to give a shit about anyone’s opinion of anything he strongly believed in.”
Does this sound like a man who can make a go of the Ranch House? Perhaps so. Traffic is up since the “Grand Reveal” party, which apparently persuaded many locals to return to the restaurant on subsequent nights to try out the new menu. And Brunelli says they plan to open the place up for lunch soon, from Mondays through Fridays.
David Skaggs, for one, is optimistic: He thinks Edelson is too shrewd a businessman to fail here.
“I think it’ll be fine,” Skaggs says. “I always said that the Ranch House needed a new think, and maybe he’s the one to get that going. I hope he is.”
As it happens, Steve Edelson was not the only big-city nightclub owner mentioned in that recent Conde Nast Traveler article about Ojai. The other one was Eric Goode, who in the ‘80s co-founded Area, which vied with Peter Gatien’s Limelight for the title of hottest club in New York. Goode’s current portfolio includes New York’s ultra-trendy Jane and Bowery hotels, where you almost have to be a celebrity just to sit in the lobby. Like Edelson (but some years earlier), Goode bought a home in Ojai as a refuge from the madding crowd. Unlike Edelson, Goode has thus far refrained from plying his trade here. But he was quoted in the article as welcoming Ojai’s current transformation: “It’s nice to have new people from other worlds in the mix.”
The new people are everywhere: Shopping at Modern Folk Living, listening to music at the Deer Lodge, noshing at the Farmer and the Cook, enjoying a micro-brew in the new Chief’s Peak bar at the Rancho Inn. And, if Edelson has his way, they’ll soon be sipping cocktails at the Ranch House.
“There are people with a like-minded interest in art, culture, fashion and music who are migrating to Ojai,” says the Rancho’s Chris Sewell. “With these people coming in, there will be businesses (shops, cafes, restaurants) that cater to this new type of tourist or individual who is either moving to town or coming to visit.”
Among the owners of these businesses, there is a sense that Ojai’s moment has arrived. Just a month after that Conde Nast Traveler article appeared, the Los Angeles Times weighed in with a major feature about Ojai’s artsy new shops. And now Sunset Magazine has jumped on the bandwagon: Its current (November) issue highlights a similar lineup of shops and venues, while heralding Ojai as “a refreshing antidote to urbanity.”
All of which is music to the ears of Veronica Cole, director of public relations and marketing for the Ojai Visitors Bureau. Cole has been widening Ojai’s marketing focus to include Millennial Generation visitors, still in their 20s and early 30s, who find the town a congenial match for their self-curated aesthetic.
“We’ve seen the influx of that demographic,” Cole says. “We need to embrace it.”
Not everyone is eager to do so. People who grew up here often post complaints on Facebook about “the Hollywood crowd,” which allegedly is ruining their laid-back little town. Some longtime residents gnashed their teeth a couple of years ago when the blue-collar Hilltop bar on Highway 33 (“Open 10 a.m.”) was reborn as the gentrified Big Buddha Lounge, and more recently when the dowdy but comfortable-as-an-old-shoe Giorgio’s sports bar on East Ojai Avenue morphed into a more upscale place that features “farm to table” cheeseburgers made with locally raised beef. These disgruntled old-timers pose a challenge to business owners like Tom Doody of the Deer Lodge, who must create a space where Ojai natives and the new transplants feel equally welcome.
“We’re aware that a segment of Ojai residents is concerned that the town is somehow going to be changed and lose its unique character by increased visitor traffic and gentrification of the resident population,” Doody says. “Our personal experience with our customers is that they come to Ojai to enjoy and appreciate the town as it exists now, and don’t want it to change any more than the residents do.”
Real estate agent Patty Waltcher of Coldwell Banker predicts that Ojai will have no trouble absorbing the current influx.
“Some people are threatened by these people, but it’s not like they’re going to take over,” Waltcher says. “They’re just going to be part of the fabric.”
In any case, she adds, the influx is not quite as massive as advertised.
“I don’t think it’s that big a moment,” she says. “There is a momentum right now, but we’ve seen momentums before.”
Meanwhile, back at the Ranch House, Edelson is trying to generate his own momentum. He sees Ojai as being on the cusp of an inflexion point, and he wants to stay ahead of the curve.
“Ojai has to accept the fact that everything changes, that Ojai is going to change,” he says.
Ojai in fact is always changing, yet it remains Ojai. At least once before in its history, the valley was inundated by a massive influx of upscale sophisticates from Hollywood. That was in the early 1920s, when the Theosophists began pouring into town. They brought Krishnamurti with them, and Krotona, and Beatrice Wood, and eventually Alan and Helen Hooker, too.
These were the pilgrims who first infused Ojai with that appealing blend of the spiritual and the artistic that still draws creative people to the valley – including the current influx. The Ranch House is a living link to that tradition. Edelson is trying hard to maintain that link, while also giving the restaurant a more contemporary feel. If he gets the balance right, many latter-day pilgrims may soon be parking their Priuses outside his door and venturing inside, lured by a connection to the very thing that drew them to Ojai in the first place. It’s an old story made new again: Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.