Let's say you're a midsize city, blessed with a location on the Pacific in Southern California where velvety peaks rise dramatically behind your well-preserved downtown. But you're only a few miles down the coast from that 800-pound gorilla of idyllic beach towns, Santa Barbara, where the beautiful people and their platinum cards go.
Well, if you're poor, overshadowed Ventura, you drop some chic bistros and boutiques into your downtown and try to lure people like me, for whom hassle-free goes a long way.
My wife, Joyzelle, and I wanted a weekend away that would be easy — an easy drive from our home in Los Angeles, an easy walk to shopping and dining, an easy stroll to the ocean. And easy on the wallet.
So we came to Ventura. There was an additional motive: Joyzelle spent 10 years of her childhood in Ventura. We'd often craned our necks from U.S. 101, wondering what it looked like today. So, on an overcast Saturday morning last month, we took the plunge.
We drove past the old split-level and Joyzelle excitedly called her parents to report that the subdivision was still flanked by a lemon orchard and strawberry farm. In fact, the whole city seems stuck in the late 1970s, when its suburbs first began encroaching on farmland and no one could figure out how to balance the two modes of living.
This contributes to the charming not-ready-for-prime-time feel of Ventura's downtown. This six- or seven-block strip of Main Street is an odd mix of thrift stores, yuppie shops and an Art Deco multiplex that shows both foreign films and action movies. Off Main, lovingly restored Victorian and Craftsman houses (now law offices and day spas) share the streets with tire shops.
Many of downtown's buildings date to the 1920s and boast attractive detailing; the Ojai International Co. clothing store is worth a visit for its wood ceiling alone. But there's little in downtown that holds the eye for long.
The San Buenaventura Mission, which anchors the western end of downtown, remains a place for locals. When we poked our heads inside, more people were engaging in silent prayer than examining the Stations of the Cross paintings. San Buenaventura State Beach is a quick stroll under the 101 and through the parking lot of the convention center (hosting a gun show the weekend we visited). There's a pleasant path along the thin strand of rocky sand, but driftwood littered the shore after the winter's record-setting rains.
What I know about retail as recreation fits in this sentence. I took refuge at Bank of Books while Joyzelle scoped out the boutiques. She returned with $11 face cream from Bosa Nova. (The boutique's motto, "Bohemian Opulence," is my new favorite oxymoron.) Meanwhile, in the cozy Calico Cat Bookshop, which has a splendid used and antiquarian selection, I snapped up an obscure Stendhal novel.
There was no Barnes & Noble, Borders or any chain retailer in sight along Main Street. In the cosmic scheme of things, prices are pretty low; an elegant glazed plate at the Palermo home shop cost $15, less than I imagine it would in West Hollywood but more than we were willing to drop during a cheap weekend. And so, as we moseyed past the upscale home shops and boutiques squeezed in among the modest thrift stores, the Ventura paradox persisted.
But a variety that feels haphazard in retail can be joyfully eclectic when it comes to dining. Because of the proximity of the bars and restaurants, you can piece together more interesting meals in downtown Ventura than in most three-block stretches of sprawling Los Angeles. Our weekend took on the feel of an eating binge.
We started with lunch at Cafe Bariloche, a longtime local favorite that recently moved into a chic, white-tablecloth space at Main and California streets (Ventura's Hollywood and Vine). An odd cross of tango and trip-hop came from overhead speakers; credit for this so-carefully designed space was found in the restroom, where the interior decorator's card was prominently displayed. Our empanadas and Milanesa sandwich were tasty and moderately priced but took an hour to arrive at our table.
Dinner was in the courtyard of our hotel, the Bella Maggiore. The layout and ambience of this 1920s place will be familiar to anyone who has rented a studio apartment in Hollywood. A prime attraction was the $125 rate (with AAA discount) for our large room, which featured a gas fireplace and the sounds of the Ventura Raceway in the distance. There's free wine in the afternoon in the lobby, where copies of Field & Stream are an agreeable alternative to the luxury travel magazines that litter comparable establishments a few miles up the coast.
At the inn's restaurant, Nona's Courtyard Cafe, my duck in cherry lavender sauce and Joyzelle's seafood in tomato broth were tasty but not at the level to merit $25 and $18 apiece. The 10% discount for hotel guests helped, but the place was dead for a Saturday night, so we moved on for desert.
Wines and samples A few blocks west, we stumbled into the Westside Cellar Cafe & Lounge, which looks as if it could fit in nicely in yuppie Greenwich Village. The narrow room was packed, so Joyzelle and I positioned ourselves on a couch in the front, sipped wine and sampled luscious sorbets and a generous and tasty cheese plate.
Sunday lunch was at a Good Thai & Peruvian Restaurant, which is both the eatery's name and an apt description. It's the sort of soulful place that can get forgotten as trendy eateries proliferate. There are no fusion-cuisine tricks here, just a menu with both Thai and Peruvian entrees, like the excellent Peruvian stir-fry standby of lomo saltado that I had or the spicy shrimp salad Joyzelle enjoyed.
We left Good Thai & Peruvian knowing we had to do something to work off our cumulative meals. Perambulating Main Street wouldn't cut it anymore, so we drove north for 20 minutes into Los Padres National Forest and passed a couple of muddy hours walking the Cozy Dell trail, which, after the winter deluges, resembled a rain forest.
When we could go no farther, we backtracked and pulled into Arroyo Verde Park in eastern Ventura, where we circumnavigated drier chaparral until our stomachs rumbled again.
Even on a Sunday night, Cafe Fiore was bustling. We secured stools at the copper counter in front of the open kitchen and soon saw why: My pappardelle with porcini mushrooms could stand proudly alongside pasta I've consumed in Italy.
But our reaction to Ventura overall is best summed up by our theatrical experience. At the eastern edge of downtown stands the Rubicon Theatre, one of the region's best-regarded venues. We went there to get tickets to the Saturday-night show of a cabaret-style musical, "Songs for a New World," and were stunned to find it sold out.
We marveled at the demand and plunked down $76 for the matinee instead.
We soon saw why the place was full. The entire space had been imaginatively transformed into a coffeehouse for the production. The show was uneven, but three of the four cast members had been on Broadway. Even with iffy material, their sheer talent, good nature and charmingly low-key approach made it work.
Expenses for two on this trip:
Bella Maggiore Inn, one night $134
Nona's Courtyard Cafe $79 Cafe Fiore $49
Other meals $102
Rubicon Theatre $76
Distance from L.A. 68 miles
WHERE TO STAY:
Bella Maggiore Inn (and Nona's Courtyard Cafe), 67 S. California St., Ventura; (805) 652-0277. Inn with 28 rooms in 1920s building. $75-$175. Breakfast included.
WHERE TO SHOP:
Bosa Nova, 493 E. Main St.; (805) 652-1727.
Calico Cat Bookshop, 495 E. Main St.; (805) 643-7849.
Bank of Books, 391 E. Main St.; (805) 643-3154, http://www.abankofbooks.com .
Palermo, 321 E. Main St.; (805) 643-3070.
WHERE TO EAT:
Cafe Bariloche, 500 E. Main St.; (805) 641-2005, http://www.cafebariloche.com .
Nona's Courtyard Cafe, 67 S. California St.; (805) 641-2783.
Westside Cellar Cafe & Lounge, 222 E. Main St.; (805) 652-7013.
A Good Thai & Peruvian Restaurant, 583 E. Main St.; (805) 643-0583, http://www.thaiperurestaurant.com .
Cafe Fiore, 66 S. California St.; (805) 653-1266, http://www.fiorerestaurant.net .
San Buenaventura Mission, 211 E. Main St., (805) 643-4318, http://www.sanbuenaventuramission.org .
Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St.; (805) 667-2900, www.rubicontheatre.org.