One of the most famous old-school restaurants in Southern California, The Ranch House in Ojai (technically in the adjacent hamlet of Meiners Oaks) — whose bright, fresh, garden-fueled food was at least an indirect antecedant to what was to become known as California Cuisine — has changed hands. This is only the second time in its more than 50 years that it has had new owners, and the first time it has been sold.
The Ranch House was started by Alan and Helen Hooker, a quiet, white-haired couple who left a commune in Ohio, where they were studying Asian philosophy and had embraced vegetarianism, to move to Ojai in 1949 because that's where their guru, Jiddu Krishnamurti, had set up shop. Alan had been a musician, but he once said that he'd gotten interested in cooking because his family's next-door neighbor when he was growing up in Illinois was a former chef at the Waldorf-Astoria.
He didn't start out as a restaurateur in California. The Hookers rented an old ranch house in Meiners Oaks and set up a boarding house just to make a little money , where they served no idea how they were going to support themselves, the couple rented an old bungalow in Meiners Oaks and converted it into a boarding house, with vegetarian meals provided. They opened to the public in 1950, and then closed down four years later when the house was sold. They found a piece of land nearby and built another place, which was to become the basis for the modern-day Ranch House, opening as a restaurant in 1956. Their vegetarian cuisine didn't draw enough customers, though, so they closed down after a few months, reopening one more time in 1958 — this time with meat and poultry on the menu.
The first additions were beef stroganoff, veal scaloppine, and chicken cacciatore. Hooker later wrote in his New Approach to Cooking, "As I began to investigate meat dishes, I came upon names which held a certain fascination for me but had no meaning as far as personal experience went.... I had no way of knowing how things should taste…so I had to depend upon my own palate and sensitivities." That was obviously the right decision, as this time the place became a success, not only with locals but with visitors who came to Ojai more for the climate or the golf than for philosophy.
The Ranch House kept its rustic look as its fame grew. The surroundings felt like country — live oak and eucalyptus trees, open fields, paddocks. The main dining room was small, with unfinished wood panelling and louver windows, but most people preferred to sit outside, on a redwook deck, overlooking a garden full of fragrant herbs and a stream in which, before the restaurant got a wine and beer license, diners used to chill their BYOB bottles of white wine. Here they ate Hooker's new meat specialties, but also things like a vichyssoise-thin electric-green pea soup, a rich chicken, liver pâté with a touch of sweetness and a belt of cognac, and abundant salads plucked straight from the garden.
In 1969, the Hookers retired. David Skaggs, who'd started at the restaurant as a busboy in 1963 and become manager, was left in charge. Alan died in 1993. Helen followed seven years later, willing the place to Skaggs and his wife, Edie.
Over the years, the menu evolved, though many of the old favorites remained, and the wine list grew into a serious catalogue of good stuff from around the world. The Skaggses kept the place thriving. In 2012, however, they divorced, and though they continued to run the place together, they put it up for sale.
"The Ranch House is a full-service restaurant which sits on 2/3 of an acre of property in the scenic Ojai Valley," read the listing. "The business is priced to sell at less than one times current earnings plus inventory. The real estate, which is packaged with the business, consists of two adjacent parcels totalling nearly 2/3 of an acre, is for sale for $630,000, significantly below a recently appraised value, making the entire acquisition, including the business and the real estate available for $825,000. The business and real estate are being sold together, with each contingent upon the sale of the other.
According to Lisa McKinnon in the Ventura County Star, locals first realized that a sale was forthcoming when a change-of-ownership notice was posted on an exterior wall in March. The new owner is Ojai resident Steve Edelson, who has run a variety of mid-level Hollywood nightclubs and assorted small hotels, and onetime proprietor of Ojai's historic Deer Lodge. McKinnon quotes new executive chef Marcus Hollingsworth, who had worked at the Ranch House as prep cook in the 1990s, and later become chef at the Pierpont Inn in nearby Ventura, as saying that the menu and wine list will evolve gradually, with an increased use of local produce.