After dinner, we slip out of the old post office — with its wall of cubbyholes stuffed with faded letters — into the Cornell night. The velvety black sky is spangled with the stars you never see in the city. The night smells of wood fire, pine and horses. It's as if we've slipped through time at the Old Place roadhouse in the folds of the Santa Monica Mountains between Agoura Hills and Malibu.
The food is hearty and good — not always perfect, but satisfying if you stick to the basics. And the place is so warm and welcoming — and fun — that everyone I've brought has immediately declared it one of their favorite restaurants ever.
Founded by actor Tom Runyon, who bought and converted the rundown Hank's Country Store in Cornell in 1970, the Old Place looks something like a frontier saloon with its weathered boards, porch where guests go to smoke or enjoy the quiet, 20-foot bar and five booths with high sides and built-in benches. There are a few small tables jammed together at the back. Walls are decorated with vintage photos of the area and memorabilia, including write-ups of the restaurant in the old days.
That would be when the entire menu, written out on a sign at the front, consisted of steamed clams, steak and baked potatoes. Friends who frequented the place then recount how there was sometimes a long, long wait before you got anything to eat. Sometimes Tom and his wife, Barbara, whose paintings hang in the restaurant, ran out of food. But you might see the likes of Steve McQueen or Burgess Meredith making a pit stop there. In those days, the crowd was mostly local: no suburbanites in expensive jeans and bespoke cowboy boots then.
Tom Runyon passed away in the summer of 2009. And since then, the Old Place has been run by Runyon's son, Morgan, and Tim Skogstrom, who owns the Cornell Winery and tasting room next door with his wife, Denise. They've brought in chef Oscar Ledesma, most recently executive chef at Pierpont Inn in Ventura. He's expanded the menu while still cooking almost everything over a red oak fire. The old Cornell post office, which dates from 1884 and was used by the elder Runyon for poker games, is now a private dining room for nine to 12 guests.
Sometimes when you arrive at the Old Place, there's a crowd just inside the door, with everybody who hasn't already reserved a booth or a table angling for a spot at the bar. It's relatively easy if you're two, but for three or four, much tougher. That's when the winery next door comes into play. Leave your name, go over and have a glass of wine there while you wait.
Cornell Winery is more of a wine shop and tasting room than an actual winery, showcasing local wines in a great barn of a place, all stone and timber, with a long central table lighted with candelabra and chandeliers. It's a friendly place. You may have heard of Rosenthal Estate Vineyard or the Malibu Vineyard, but now there are more than 50 wineries in the Santa Monica Mountains, and you can try a good many of them here, including those from the Casa Dumetz label, our waiter's winery. Any bottle you buy here you can drink at the restaurant for a $5 corkage fee.
Meanwhile, back at the restaurant, guests are crowding in for their assigned seating. The place takes reservations for just three times a night: 5, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. A small blackboard hangs on a hook at the end of the five generously sized booths with the names — and times — of the reservations. That's plenty and feels even a little luxurious because the kitchen at this incredibly busy spot gets the food out fast. Waiters are brisk and efficient, with warm smiles and zero attitude. More spoons so everybody can taste the soup? Not a problem. More wineglasses? Of course. Only they are indestructible stemless bistro glasses, practical but not ideal. If you want to drink out of stemmed glasses, you'll have to bring your own.
You might want to start with a bowl of soup. Each night there's a different one, maybe a lovely purée of oak-roasted cauliflower smoothed with cream or an old-fashioned chicken dumpling soup with a rich clear broth and a confetti of vegetables.
The steamed clams are a must and plentiful enough to share, with lots of garlicky broth to scoop up with rafts of bread. Morgan Runyon will tell you he's a big hiker and forages for chanterelles and other 'shrooms that appear, usually mixed with some cultivated ones, in the dreamy mushroom gratin, served like so many dishes here from the 61/2-inch cast-iron skillet in which it's cooked over the oak-fired grill. Halved Brussels sprouts with cubed apples and swatches of bacon is another standout. They also do a sort of mac 'n' cheese made with wide ribbon noodles, comforting on a cold winter night.
But let's cut to the chase: the steak. Two kinds, either sirloin at $19 or rib-eye — 18 ounces at $29 or 27 ounces and bone-in at $42. The latter is big enough to feed two and is twice as flavorful as the regular sirloin.
That sirloin is a great deal, though. For that price, I expected a skinny steak, but this one is tall and proud, cooked with the exactitude you'd expect at an expensive steakhouse, but not necessarily at a place like this at these prices. Truth be told, it's a little tough and could have more flavor, but still, it's a good steak for less than $20 a person.
And either steak comes with potato — either mashed or baked. You want the latter, fully loaded with butter, sour cream, chives and real bacon bits. Occasionally it can be a tad undercooked. The mashed potatoes can be a bit gluey.
Another main course to consider is the oak-grilled chicken braised in pale ale with fresh rosemary. It's half a bird, browned and juicy and falling-off-the-bone tender.
Specials can be hit or miss. A hefty pan-seared veal porterhouse with chanterelles gathered from the hillsides is flat-out delicious. But an elaborate fish dish with two sauces and numerous garnishes is wildly overcooked and not that fresh. Still, grilled mahi mahi another night is perfectly done, wonderful with a load of baby vegetables on top.
The kitchen doesn't have a clue about chicken pot pie. I tried it twice — once it was dried-out, the other time the crust was greasy and the interior swimming in gravy. Inedible. Back to the drawing board on that one.
Desserts — apple cobbler, various fruit crisps — get the skillet treatment too. But the best is a chocolate chip cookie that covers the entire bottom of the skillet and is served with a ball of whipped cream on top, a fine way to end an evening at the Old Place.
That is, if you don't hang around at the bar or out front, listening to local musicians sing and play the guitar. It's an inviting scene — and just an hour's drive from downtown L.A.
And if you don't fancy making that drive at night, there's always weekend brunch. The sticky-sweet homemade cinnamon buns are obligatory. Steak 'n' eggs too. And definitely the frittatas cooked in the cast-iron skillets, maybe one with sausage and wild mushrooms, or spinach and goat cheese. Good strong coffee. And "manmosas," 16 ounces of orange juice and sparkling wine.
And after you're done, you can saunter over to Peter Strauss Ranch across the street, now a park, before the sweet drive home with the windows open.
Good food. Great place.
Rating: ✭ 1/2
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 29983 Mulholland Highway, Cornell (near Agoura Hills); (818) 706-9001; http://www.oldplacecornell.com.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $6 to $17; main courses, $18 to $42; dessert, $8. Corkage fee, $20 ($5 for wine bought at Cornell Winery next door.)
Details: Open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. (doors close at midnight) Thursday to Sunday and for brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Beer and wine. Parking lot. Dinner reservations for four or more accepted up to 30 days in advance for 5, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Seating at the bar is first-come, first-served.