in Los Olivos
A First Sojourn to The Inn at
Mattei’s Tavern Earns Raves
By Roger Durling | March 23, 2023
An average work day during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) is 20 hours, and that routine is sustained for 10 days. Once you’re in it, the adrenaline keeps you going — tuning out your body and mental fatigue. After it ends, it all hits you, and figuring out how to slow down your thought process becomes a major task. I normally take about two weeks off after closing night, but due to my teaching commitments at Santa Barbara City College this year, I couldn’t plan anything until spring break at the end of March. To hold me over, I booked a two-day weekend stay at The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern Auberge Resorts Collection in Los Olivos. It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.
At only 30 minutes from my house in Goleta, it felt as if I had traveled to another country — and the moment I stepped out of my car, I started to sense the accumulated stress and wear and tear melting away. This is a five-star luxury resort — there’s nothing quite like it in the area — and it rivals and/or tops similarly sized places in the Napa Valley region. It beckons total immersion. Yes, there are plenty of activities and great restaurants to partake in the surrounding area, but this place is so self-sufficient and relaxing that I can’t blame anybody who does what I did and decides to just stay within its perimeter to regenerate and refresh.
Established in 1886 by Felix Mattei and his wife, Lucy, Mattei’s Tavern was initially called the Central Hotel. Passengers that arrived at the railroad terminal directly across from it found shelter and food as they waited for the next morning’s stagecoach to bring them to Santa Barbara.
In 2021, the California-based Auberge Resorts Collection took over the historic site’s renovation and expansion on the surrounding 6.5 acres, renaming it The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern. The newly refreshed property now features 67 luxury guest rooms and cottage-style abodes.
Two things struck me from the get-go and made me instantly fall hard for this place. First, the love and care that has gone into the remodel is obvious, keeping things faithfully the way they were while bringing the standard of luxury and comfort up to the 21st century. The history and character of the place are right there in all their splendor, and contemporary elements have been added for the discriminating traveler.
Secondly, the genuine warmth and professionalism of the employees is downright infectious. From the sincere welcome I received at check-in to every interaction I had with staff during my stay, I felt this was a seasoned team who’d been at it for a long time, despite only starting a few weeks ago. A lot of them were born and raised in the area and will proudly tell you about the significance of the place and the local culture.
Surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, the resort does not feel like a hotel but more like a small community. It has plenty of hangouts — whether you long for a quiet nook or seek a lively atmosphere. There’s a “town square” dominated by the iconic water tower, with outdoor seating and fire pits that invite you to slow down and partake in a complimentary wine tasting or an oil infusion class. Next to that is The Tavern — with its totally renovated restaurant and its iconic cozy Wild West Bar. A big state-of-the-art fitness center is tucked away toward the back, surrounded by newer structures and providing daily yoga and other wellness classes. The fitness center’s windows overlook the gorgeous swimming pool with cabanas and a soon-to-open casual restaurant called The Shed — serving a poolside menu. A luxury spa called The Lavender Barn is currently under construction and due to open this summer. In the meantime, there’s a cottage set up for treatments and massages.
Hands down my favorite place is The Bar — which has now also become one of my favorite saloons in the whole world. Decorated with vintage rugs, velvet and leather chairs, and deer mounts, the room is rustic, chic, and so alluring — with lots of wood, dim lighting, and a stone fireplace. While I nursed a martini there, my imagination transported me back in time. Everywhere you look, there’s a feeling of authenticity and vibrancy in the upgrades.
The bar itself is a splendid altar — shining with brass and glass reflections. The cocktail menu includes some of the inn’s longtime signature drinks: The Old Gus Berg is an Old-Fashioned, named after the founder Felix Mattei’s right-hand man, for example. We opted to eat there the first night we arrived, since the bar has its own separate food menu, and the fare ranges from small bites to hearty options. We shared delectable baby artichoke hearts, and after, I had a terrific wedge salad with cherry tomatoes, blue cheese, and buttermilk dressing topped with delicate onion rings. My companion had a crispy chicken sammie, and I kept hearing hallelujah sounds as he bit into it. The atmosphere is lively and sexy. I struck up a conversation with a local couple who were so excited to have The Tavern back in full swing.
We had the opportunity to stay in two different places during the weekend. The first night, we experienced one of the original cottages in the property, which had been fully remodeled — the Oak Cottage. It has two bedrooms and two baths, wooden floors, whitewashed walls, four-poster beds, a spacious living room, a fireplace, and a landscaped outdoor sitting area with a fire pit. That first cool evening, we sat outside, star-gazing and sipping on cocktails until the late hours.
The second day we moved to a brand-new cottage that was a replica of where we had first stayed. I’m glad we were able to compare the old with the new. This one had a claw-foot bathtub, and it felt more secluded. Both cottages had front porches with rocking chairs. The bedding was extraordinary. I can’t recall having a better night’s sleep. The following morning, we splurged with breakfast in bed, happily devouring plates of huevos rancheros.
The highlight of our stay was dinner at The Tavern, and it was an extraordinary culinary experience. We got to meet and speak with the stellar Executive Chef Rhoda Magbitang, who had previously worked with big names like José Andrés, Suzanne Goin, and Josiah Citrin and was executive chef at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.
The food is sophisticated yet accessible and so welcoming to vegetarians like me. As expected, there’s an emphasis on grilled meats on the menu, but also plenty of vegetables prepared in creative ways. Chef Magbitang spent her childhood in the Philippines, and Asian influences are everywhere. We started with a crispy cauliflower with local honey and tahini. It was a healthy portion and we devoured it. My partner ordered the ocean trout that came with roasted mushrooms, and he raved about it. Visually, it looked gorgeous. I was brought several vegetable side dishes, including broccolini, peas, and carrots, but the killer plate was cabbage served with chickpeas, and a tomato stew. The latter could easily have been a main dish, and it was so satisfying and creative for us on a plant-based diet. The room is electric with its open kitchen. On a Saturday night, there were a lot of Santa Barbarans dining, all pledging that this was their new favorite place to eat. I concur.
I took my dog Sophia with me for the weekend, and she was treated like a special guest everywhere we went. A lot of the staff started greeting her by name, and she was even spoiled with a thoughtful gift.
The resort is still under construction. The landscape is newly planted, and once grown in, it will look even more spectacular. Everything is there, and it is only going to get better. The staff is working in great syncopation. I cannot wait until my next staycation. This place is a gem.
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