Santa Barbara’s Acme Hospitality Heads Upstate
Respected Local Restaurant Pros Work Their Magic on Pair of Historic Hotels
If you’re a fan of The Lark, Loquita, and Lucky Penny — to name just a few of Acme Hospitality’s deservedly popular and highly successful Santa Barbara eateries — you have a few very compelling excuses to travel upstate this summer.
The newly opened Holbrooke Hotel and the National Exchange Hotel represent Acme’s first foray into the lodging space. Their meticulous revitalization of the two landmark hotels, located in Grass Valley and Nevada City, respectively, reflect Acme’s trademark attention to detail, keen eye for style, and reliable deliciousness on a grander scale.
When asked what attracted their company to the projects, Sherry Villanueva, managing partner and owner of Acme Hospitality, said, “The rich histories of these two properties are reflected in every architectural detail and antique, and we fell in love with their tall tales and their one-of-a-kind personalities.” The location also factored in. “Nevada County is a nature lover’s paradise and has easy access to the river for swimming, rafting, and floating; the mountains for hiking and skiing; great road and mountain routes for biking; and darling downtown shopping districts for exploring and imbibing,” Villanueva explained. “Put all that within three hours of three major metropolitan areas, and we felt it was a recipe for success.”
No judgement if you’re wondering where the heck Grass Valley and Nevada City are, given they aren’t as well-known among us Central Coasters. Over the past decade, the Nevada County area has become an increasingly popular getaway destination for Bay Area residents. So much so that many priced-out creatives pulled up stakes and made the region their home, bringing an infusion of fresh energy to the small, independent-spirited communities surrounded by incredible natural landscapes.
The former mining towns steeped in Gold Rush history are located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Sitting just below the snow line at 2,400 feet, the neighboring cities are an hour’s drive north of Sacramento and about an hour-plus west of Lake Tahoe. If you wanted to take advantage of the new Southwest service from SBA to Oakland, it would be a three-hour drive northeast, with Napa as a tempting detour or itinerary add-on en route.
Last fall, I had the pleasure of spending three nights as a guest of the Holbrooke before it officially opened to the public. I got to see what Villanueva and her team accomplished firsthand, painstakingly bringing the 1852 building back to its original glory and seamlessly integrating the modern comforts today’s travelers expect. That weekend, more than 500 locals came in for tours. I was struck by their curiosity and palpable excitement over seeing the cherished landmark reborn, and it was clear to me that Acme was uniquely suited to the task, particularly given the part the company played in making Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone what it is today.
When Acme acquired the hotels and started the renovations more than two years ago, Villanueva made the almost seven-hour drive north at least every other week to personally oversee the complex projects. As stewards of such beloved community treasures, she knew it was important to bring residents into the fold. “The locals in both communities have been warm and supportive and more than anything grateful that we have ‘saved’ their beloved hotels,” Villanueva reflected. “Both properties were in dire need of upgrades and extensive deferred maintenance. The locals are very proud of the hotels’ histories, so they are thrilled to see them come back to life more beautiful than ever.”
In its first act, the likes of Mark Twain, Jack London, and President Ulysses S. Grant were Holbrooke guests, as were gold prospectors and outlaws. That colorful history was woven into the masculine persona Acme developed to guide the design of the hotel — an approach they also took with the National, whose distinctly feminine persona is the yin to the Holbrooke’s yang. Villanueva describes the Holbrooke muse as, “An educated frontiersman exploring life with wit, buoyancy, and a sharp eye for truth. He is both an adventurer and a wily intellectual with a tough grit and solid work ethic.”
The 28-room, three-level hotel retains its historic integrity down to the original brick and stone walls. Local architects and craftspeople were brought in to help preserve and enhance period elements like the woodwork and stained glass behind the bar at the 1852 Golden Gate Saloon — one of the longest operating bars west of the Mississippi. Villanueva and her design team scoured local sales for the authentic vintage prints, taxidermy, and pianos you can see in public spaces and guestrooms.
While the hotel restoration was underway, Chef Zachary Ahrenholtz spent time in Santa Barbara with Acme’s culinary team to learn the company ropes. The alum of premier Napa Valley kitchens developed the hotel’s signature Californio cuisine inspired by the early days of California. “We deliver creative, handmade food, sourced locally and seasonally, alongside craft cocktails and an extensive selection of local wines,” Villanueva explained. “I think our [Santa Barbara] fans will recognize how we use design to create beautiful, comfortable, and welcoming places filled with period details and a sense of humor. We use this to tell the story of our buildings and the unique style of hospitality within it.”
Less than 10 minutes down the road from the Holbrooke is its sister property, the National Exchange Hotel, which opened May 6. When I was in town last November, Villanueva led me on a walk-through of the 38-room hotel. It was still very much under construction, yet enough progress had been made to envision what was to come — updated Victorian rooms with high ceilings and gorgeous floral wallpapers, as well as the destination restaurant, Lola, named for dancer Lola Montez, their Gold Rush–era muse for the restored 1856 hotel.
The fact that it’s on the National Register of Historic Places made bringing the National back to life an even more complicated affair that demanded great patience. Based on the images I’ve seen of the recent opening festivities, Villanueva and the “village” of artisans, craftsman, hospitality pros, chefs, and more who had a hand in both the National Exchange and the Holbrooke projects have created two modern icons where countless golden memories will be made.
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