Maybe it seems quaint nowadays, but the Sojourner Cafe was once the edible vanguard of late 1970s revolution. In those times, kids were fed up, so to speak, with the unhealthy conformity urged upon them by their sometimes insufferable Greatest Generation parents. Some people sought alternatives to meat-and-potato post-war culture and found it in 1978 on Canon Perdido Street when the Sojourner opened. Mostly a coffeehouse with music, board games and a Frisbee wall, the Soj fed our utopian dreams with veggies, brown rice and tamari sauce.
It wasn’t nouvelle cuisine, but it was healthier than what our martini-marinated parents ate. To be fair, the Sojourner served a lot of other dishes, too, like the Conehead salad. Tuna melts and chicken tostadas graced the vegetarian chic of the place since the beginning. In fact, the baked potato there was great, even if it was not accompanied by filet mignon.
The funky post-beatnik coffeehouse created by Wally Marantette and Bob Stout served coffee and chamomile tea and was affordable. Better yet, they built it on the ruins of the worst place in Santa Barbara — the American Opinion Bookstore run by the John Birch Society, the sign for which hung in the restaurant until the 1980s. Take it back further and it was once the parade grounds of the Spaniards’ military headquarters. It was a big step up revolution-wise. Other joints served health-conscious, sprout-festooned grub — the Tea House and Sun and Earth, for instance — but the Sojourner was the institution we all knew for the greening of downtown Santa Barbara.
And it kept evolving. An arson-caused fire in 1988 drew the community together for fundraisers. Good will helped spread the cozy little joint into the laundry next door, and it became the three-room circus it was in the end, the Sojourner as Phoenix. It was always hopping at night.
More eventful change happened when Marantette (Stout moved over to Zelo and then the Wildcat) sold the place to employees Donna Mudge and Edie Robertson in 1999. Robertson, better known in those days as a skateboarding rock goddess (The Generics, Nancy Drew and the Clues), changed the direction of the kitchen’s revolution from health to slow food, expanded the menu, and unleashed flavors while maintaining high standards for the ingredients. The restaurant’s desserts won this paper’s Best Of competition for a decade running. It had come a long way from brown rice.
Throughout its changes, some basics remained the same. Women had an important role in the Sojourner from the beginning. “Wally liked to hire misfit talented women,” said Robertson, who left the restaurant in 2008. “Everybody who worked there was a misfit,” laughed Maratenette, “including myself. We always thought of it as a home away from home for people. And for ourselves.”
Remember Stella, who wore a beret and talked like the Jersey shore? And Rebecca, who rode up Canon Perdido on a big Harley? It was the alt journalists’ other office in the 1980s. In 1990s, it was where Alhecama actors went when their Jimmy’s welcome was worn out. It was where Summer Solstice art shows and parties took place. On dress-up Fridays the staff wore all plaid, or something weirder.
The Sojourner remained a gathering place for neo-hippies, poets, and vegetarians. In the end it might have seemed a throwback to some. The neighborhood, which the Soj and Our Daily Bread basically created, now leans toward artisanal coffees and pork belly sliders. Maybe the customer base thinned, and maybe the business plan wasn’t sound. But after 35 years it was much the same as in its beginning, a real Santa Barbara place that served veggies with a side of nonconformity.
“After I sold the place, I used to think it was the end of an era for me,” said Marantette. “Now it just seems like the end of an era.”
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“So Long, Sojourner” by Aly Comingore