Cold Spring Tavern isn’t your average bandit’s watering hole. In roughly 150 years, it’s housed everything from a baby leopard named Ricky, to a Frenchman’s failed ballet school, and it’s one of the last surviving stops of California’s perilous stagecoach days. To get there, your car will have to hug miles of winding road off the highway 154, and plummet 400 ft. below one of California’s deadliest bridges, but the pilgrimage is worth it…
There are few signs indicating that you’re on the right path, but eventually you’ll reach the emerald ravine where the tavern awaits. Alternatively, you can look for the chimney smoke, and listen for the bubbling of the nearby (cold) spring.
It all started in 1868, when a man named Llewellyn Bixby ran a stagecoach service through the area’s deadly San Marcos Pass with the Gold Rush-born bank of Wells Fargo (yes, that Wells Fargo) to safely deliver mail across the terrain, avoiding places like Slippery Rock and outlaws like Bad Ben Jones.
That same year, a bunkhouse was built for and by Chinese immigrants paving the roads out in the hot and dangerous valleys— over time (and some colourful owners) it would become the tavern we have today.
By the 1870s it was abandoned, and in an improbable twist of fate, a lone Frenchman moved in to start a ballet school out in the wild west. The school was short lived (the commute was killer for students), but the bunkhouse still stands behind the main building.
The first real restaurant opened in 1880, when an enigmatic man called “Doctor Lawrence” rolled into town, bought it, and called it “the Hermitage”. The operation was just a front to cover his secret life as a bank robber and horse thief, and he eventually spent his days at the San Quentin prison (of Johnny Cash fame) after murdering his wife — but the restaurant stuck!
Head back to the front to grab a little lunch, because the venison sausage is homemade, the tables are lit with oil lamps, and the walls are crawling with everything from needle-pointed roses to mountain lion rugs:
The bar is always well-stocked, and the customers are a mixed bag. Because you’re a stone’s throw from the affluent coastal town of Santa Barbara, you get “everything from Rolls Royces to Motor Cycles,” explained a customer in a 2001 episode of Huell Howser’s “California’s Gold”.
On the menu is a burger with real buffalo meat, ribs, pulled-pork and beef dip sandwiches, and a grilled cheese with onion jelly for vegetarians. There used to be a burger made with Black Bear meat (a retired manager swears it was humanely raised for eating, and not poached). Today, Winnie the Pooh is off the menu, but still on the walls.
Walk off the herd of cattle you just ate by exploring the rest of the grounds, which include the 1873 jail house from the nearby city of Ojai, gifted to Cold Spring by a woman named Clara Koch. According the the daughter of the its builder, it once housed eleven prisoners at once:
It’s one of many eerie buildings amongst the ivy, and many of which “were all that remained of a ghost town called Gopherville” in California, wrote the next owner, Audrey Ovington, who in 1959 “bought them all and moved them in 1951 so we feel like we bought the entire town.”
The more you explore, the more you realise that Cold Spring is a magical sum of many antique, mysterious parts that didn’t always call the site home — and the late Audrey Ovington (originally from Illinois) is a true testament to that idea. The high-spirited writer ran the show for over 60 years, and she pretty much turned it into a Wild West Disneyland.
She came from eccentric stock, with a father who pioneered the skies as the first ever commercial pilot in the United States (and was an assistant to Thomas Edison), and an opera singing mother. With the passing of her husband in 1941, the Widow Ovington took on Cold Spring as a new adventure, and later passed it on to Audrey. It became home to an increasingly festive crowd, including her pet leopard, Ricardo (or “ricky”), who lived off of canned sardines and horse meat. Everyone else stuck to buffalo burgers, and a new, local sauce called “Hidden Valley Ranch” (yup, Audrey was the first to serve it).
Audrey passed away in 2005, but Cold Spring Tavern is still every bit the portal into the wild west of yesteryear, and then some. You can plan your visit (and prep your stomach) on their website.