Nestled in the foggy hills above Santa Barbara is Cold Spring Tavern, a 132-year-old former stagecoach stop that’s brimming with history and grilled tri-tip on the weekends. The restaurant has endured as an anchor for Santa Barbara County in good times and bad, offering cheap meals to travelers, weekenders, locals, and fans of Huell Howser and casual California history, while cementing its status as one of California’s most interesting (and oldest) restaurants. Today the tight collection of historic buildings and dining spaces stands as a constant reminder of the Central Coast’s enduring and rustic Western legacy, even as last year’s days-long Whittier Fire brought wildfire flames nearly to the doorstep.
The rugged land around the Central Coast city of Santa Barbara has harbored life for tens of thousands of years. The once-thriving Chumash Native American tribe held the soil from the crest to the coast for countless generations before European explorers took to the area, and even that was now half a millennium ago. In more recent history (relatively speaking) the coastal communities two hours north of Los Angeles have been home to passing Spanish missionaries, Portuguese homesteaders, generations of Mexican and Alta California families, and loads of English, Danish, and German immigrants eager to start a new life on the promising coast.
Santa Barbara is said to have doubled its inhabitants between 1850 and 1860 alone, and the last century’s booming population meant an increase in land travel. That, in turn, created a need for dedicated stagecoach lines and stops through the city and on north to the towns and farms of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Enter the Cold Spring Tavern, a waystop in the woods above Santa Barbara that long offered travelers a drink, a bite to eat, and a place to sit in the shade near a small babbling brook. The tavern (then called the Cold Spring Relay Station) was erected on the sprawling hillside property in 1886, catering to the daily stagecoaches that crossed the San Marcos Pass nearby.
Much like the main restaurant building, which has been modified and reformatted several times over the years, the rest of the Cold Spring Tavern property is a pushed-together mishmash of small, historic, unused structures and artifacts, each trying to avoid being reclaimed by the forest that surrounds it. Vines hang low, moss grows in dim corners, and the mottled sunlight peeking through the trees above offers a period-perfect sepia tone.
The so-called Chinese Road Gang House sits to the back right of the property, a diminutive shack tucked behind the kitchen that itself dates to 1868, when Chinese immigrant laborers were forced to live together in tight quarters while building the first usable roads through the San Marcos Pass by hand. Just across the path is the first-ever Ojai jail, a hand-built wooden lock-up that was donated to Cold Spring Tavern as an artifact more than 120 years ago.
Last summer, the fast-moving and days-long Whittier wildfire came within one mile of the front door of Cold Spring Tavern. Firefighters battling the blaze reportedly threw together an ad hoc sprinkler system in the 100-plus degree weather to help keep the flames at bay, and even used controlled burns nearby so the fire would have a harder time jumping down into the canyon where the buildings sit.
The work paid off, and more than 130 years on Cold Spring Tavern still stands, much as it did when rickety stagecoaches — then called “mudwagons” for their ability to traverse the sometimes sloppy terrain — passed by all those generations ago. The immediate landscape around the buildings is still lush and ripe with oak trees as old as the jail, but the surrounding hillsides of Lake Cachuma and the Los Padres National Forest continue to wear the scars of yet one more brutal fire season.
Not far to the south, late 2017’s historic Thomas Fire burned nearly 300,000 acres of land and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, leaving mountainous areas completely wiped out. When heavy rains fell across the area in early January there was nothing to stop the inevitable mudslides that claimed 21 lives in upscale Santa Barbara suburb Montecito, shutting down access to the city for weeks. And yet, Cold Spring Tavern, as ever, has endured.
Cold Spring Tavern’s menu winds through old roadhouse favorites like chili, pork ribs, and steaks, plus salads, sandwiches, and lesser-seen protein options like duck and venison. It’s mostly standard fare that’s served with a smile and a side salad or fries. Nothing on the evening menu crosses the $30 threshold, and there is always plenty of local wine on offer for anyone eager for a $7.50 glass of Santa Barbara County pinot noir.
As has been the case for generations now, crowds of weekend day-trippers to Cold Spring Tavern can be found milling around out front by noon, if not well before. Forget the duck; most are ready for a thick slice of tri-tip, that ubiquitous Central Coast beef cut smoked and grilled fast over oak. Pounds and pounds of the stuff get cooked off on weekends from several Santa Maria-style grills alongside the main building, ultimately served up inside simple sandwich rolls and carted off in Styrofoam containers. A country and bluegrass band starts up around 1:30 in the afternoon, the beers start much earlier than that, and pretty quickly it can feel like those days of danger and destruction are well in the past.
There have been hiccups along the way, gaps in time when the tavern changed hands or fell into disrepair, but the Ovington family that now runs the roost has been in place since 1941 and shows no signs of slowing down. Neither do the travelers, who love to read the plaque on the rock out front that distills the history of the restaurant to a few quiet paragraphs, and to skim a hand along the worn but still standing walls before moving on.
Behind them as they bend around the curve en route back to the city, the low wooden farmhouse door, framed in overgrown ivy, slowly fades out of sight. It’s easy to assume in the rearview that Cold Spring Tavern will always be there, stuck timelessly in the past while still visible to the present. But the truth is that sort of legacy takes work, a lot of heart, and some luck.
Just ask the firefighters hellbent on saving the place last summer, or the locals who make Cold Spring Tavern their weekend morning hang, or the servers and managers who still keep the place ticking despite its quirks and challenges. Just about anyone who’s ever come into contact with the restaurant finds themselves in eager conversation when talking about the place, its history, and its many near-misses over the decades.
But it’s probably almost always been that way. Today, as much as ever, Cold Spring Tavern is a place to relax, to set down one’s bags and pick up a conversation — with a little tri-tip thrown in for good measure.
Cold Spring Tavern. 5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara, CA. (805) 967-0066. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (10 p.m. Friday), and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Reservations accepted.