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Keeping the Old West alive in Santa Ynez Valley

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Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley is known for its fine wines and upscale horse farms, but some of the Old West remains, including two historic stagecoach stops that continue to operate as successful restaurants.

Cold Spring Tavern, near the top of San Marcos Pass (Highway 154) between Santa Barbara and Solvang, and Mattei's Tavern, in Los Olivos at the north end of the valley, date to the 1880s and are chock-full of historic collectibles and nostalgia from the stagecoach era.

One hundred years ago, travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco meant a stagecoach ride over the nearly 2,500-foot pass above Santa Barbara and through the Santa Ynez Valley. The route was treacherous, hot and dusty, and the stagecoaches had to negotiate hairpin turns with sheer drop-offs. The road was so steep in places that the stages required six horses rather than the four typically needed for the remainder of the trip.

Today, Cold Spring Tavern looks much as it did a century ago. Built in 1886, it's nestled deep in the trees and skirted by a crystal-clear creek. Dark planking and moss-covered roof shingles attest to its age. There are two main structures — the original tavern that houses the restaurant and the Log Cabin Bar next door. The restaurant serves traditional fare, such as sandwiches, salads and vegetarian meals, and is known for its wild game menu that features venison, rabbit, boar and wild trout. There's live music in the bar on the weekends, and tri-tip sandwiches, cold beer and music every Sunday.

The journey from Santa Barbara to Cold Spring Tavern would have taken about eight hours. Once travelers finished with their meals and the stagecoach was outfitted with a fresh set of horses, they would re-board for another eight-hour journey down the mountain and across the valley to Mattei's Tavern.

Marcia MeierBrothers' Restaurant at Mattei's Tavern

Today, Mattei's is home to Brothers' Restaurant, owned and operated by Jeff and Matt Nichols. It too was built in 1886, and was originally called the Central Hotel. History seeps from every creaky floorboard and the dozens of stagecoach photographs that cover the walls.

The tavern is named for founder Felix Mattei, who with his wife, Lucy, had five sons. The tavern remained in the family until the early 1970s, when Brooks Firestone and his wife, Kate, bought it. Mattei's is owned today by an investment group.

The brothers have renovated a bit, but the tavern retains its Old West charm. A large stone fireplace dominates the front room, and along one wall a glass case protects hotel guest books that date to the early 1900s. A cozy bar gives the impression of a warm and inviting waystation.

Each of the seven dining areas has a different name and feel to it, Jeff explained. The Red Room features red-velvet flecked wallpaper and white wainscoting. The Wicker Room, the largest, is a vast, closed-in porch named for the furniture it held for more than 100 years.

Jeff and Matt studied with some of the best chefs in the world, including Wolfgang Puck and Rick Bayless, and that influence is reflected in their menu, with its emphasis on ingredients from local producers, and the wine list, which showcases the region's vintages.

Cold Spring Tavern, 5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara; (805) 967-0066, http://www.coldspringtavern.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Breakfast served 8 to 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Breakfast is $8.25; Lunch entrees from $8.50; dinner from $17.50.

Brothers' Restaurant at Mattei's Tavern, 2350 Railway Ave., Los Olivos; (805) 688-4820, http://www.matteistavern.com. Open daily for dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Entrees from $20. Reservations recommended.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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