“We see this as an homage to the history of this area,” says Chef Robbie Wilson, one of the partners reopening the historic Mattei’s Tavern this month. “Like with a great rib eye, all you want to do is put a little salt on it; that’s what we’re doing here.” His wife and business partner, Emily Perry Wilson, adds that they’ve been doing a lot of research on Felix Mattei, the original man with a plan in the mid-1880s who leveraged the end of the stagecoach and dawn of the iron horse eras to make his name as a Los Olivos restaurateur and innkeeper. When Emily points out they painted the bar “a green color,” she quickly adds, “It’s a historic green.” So if people grumble about changes, it might just mean they aren’t old enough to know what the original Mattei’s was like.
Not that the Wilsons — who are working on the project with Ali and Charles Banks, former partners in Screaming Eagle and Jonata Wines — merely want to resurrect the past. The day I visited, a huge crane was hoisting new HVAC units to the roof, and the kitchen remodel offers all the latest custom-made Viking Commercial conveniences. But it also has clever touches: One area in front of a large oak-burning grill, Robbie says, “will be like an old butcher’s shop. The two-man station will feature large-format proteins off the grill.” The guys manning the station will then slice up the meats on a large butcher block and serve them on platters, family-style.
Seating around the kitchen will no doubt be primo, especially to one side where a large shared table is meant for local winemakers (who will drink their wines without corkage). “There will be a chalkboard,” Robbie explains, so “people can sign in — you’ll know Matt Dees from Jonata is here, say.” The kitchen counter is dropped throughout, so people can see better, for he says, “It’s part of the entertainment.” And as a sort of kitchen spirit, there will be a tile printed with a photo of Gin Lung Gin, the longtime, turn-of-the-20th-century Chinese cook at Mattei’s who is actually buried at the Mattei’s Family plot at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Ballard, just up the road from Mattei’s.
The new menu also pays tribute to history, as the starters and mains are split into categories 1886 and 2013. The “old side,” however, certainly seems to shine with an up-to-date take on things like the steak, which is now Wagyu skirt and served with shishito peppers and burnt-miso steak sauce. “We also want to be engaging and witty and fun,” Robbie says, explaining that a platter called Morro Bay’s Greatest Hits — oysters, sweet shrimp, and hamachi — will be served “on a vintage turntable with a plate where the record would go. We’re very serious about the project but don’t want to be too serious.” Emily suggests the word “whimsy,” and Robbie agrees.
Of course, the restaurant is just one part of the slightly-over-six-acre property in development that will eventually include a low-profile hotel. There’s already The Watering Hole, or the Sandhi Wines tasting room (another Banks project), in the historic Keenan-Hartley House at the back of the property (onetime home of the Wildling Museum).
“We’re also building a pizza oven alongside the tasting room,” Emily says, “so there’ll be a place for more casual bites out in the garden.” Part of the garden will be a corn crop circle that will provide an intimate outdoors dining “room” of sorts.
Robbie most recently was culinary director of M Street, a group of restaurants in Nashville, but the Wilsons are completely taken with Los Olivos. “When Emily and I first met, we wanted to end up here,” he says. “We just thought we’d retire here.” Emily adds, “We’re grateful to be 30 years ahead of schedule.” And Robbie tops that, joking, “The way things work these days, we’re 50 years ahead of schedule.”
They not only will be sourcing local ingredients but also had their plates made by a local potter, and their aprons by a local seamstress. “We are happy to embrace this county,” Robbie says. “There are so many talented people in this area.” Emily sums things up: “We feel like we’ve found our forever place.”
Taste the past at Mattei’s Tavern (2350 Railway Ave., Los Olivos). Call (805) 688-3550.