Food & Drink | By Ilona Saari
Ojai Diners, Dives & Drive-Ins
A Compilation of Ojai’s Best Comfort Food
I awoke recently wondering WWGFD? (What would Guy Fieri do?) Maybe because I’d had pastrami on rye for dinner. Or not. But, I saw this as a sign — my next Ojai eating adventure would be an homage to Guy Fieri! I spiked my hair (not an easy task with all my long curls) and headed out to uncover Ojai’s diners, drive-ins and cafes. “Cafes,” also known as luncheonettes or coffee shops (not to be confused with coffee houses with latte and frappucino soaked denizens toiling away on their computers).
I began with Home Kitchen of Ojai, formerly known as Eggs & Potatoes, recently bought by the Orozco family who hope to bring a fresh take on this venerable diner/coffee shop with a new farm-to-table menu featuring seasonal produce from local farms.
The new menu is not a farewell to old favorites. You can still enjoy an amuse-bouche (pardon my French), the complimentary Swedish pancake (some call it a crepe) with powdered sugar and rich boysenberry homemade jam to start your meal. Favorite sandwiches and breakfasts (including senior breakfast choices) will remain. New to the menu are corned beef hash made fresh daily, paninis, specialty chilaquiles, salmon lox benedicts and scrambles, and new salad selections. … AND, the kitchen will also be turning all food scraps into compost which the Orozcos will donate to local farmers. Table-to-farm?
My next stop was the hip, retro ‘50s Bonnie Lu’s Country Café, owned by Jenny Newell and managed by Lori Farrar (BFFs since the 5th grade). The menu offers “pancakes & more” choices, including biscuit & gravy and delicious omelettes. Try Bubba’s Country Breakfast, Bonnie Lu’s take on Eggs Benedict: a biscuit topped with sausage patties, poached eggs and smothered in homemade sausage gravy. Or, choose from a variety of salads, or hot and cold sandwiches… a “hot” favorite of mine: Felicia’s Reuben on toasted marbled, dark/light rye. The Reuben is named for Jenny’s daughter. In fact, most of the menu selections are named after friends and family.
Over on 33 in Oak View is J & M Café, a classic luncheonette serving Ojai since the ‘80s, leatherette booths and all. Bought five years ago by Jose Munez, the menu is reminiscent of diners of days gone by. Along with tuna melts and burgers, you’ll find liver, sautéed onions & bacon (be still my heart), hash & eggs, French dip, grilled ham steak with pineapple ring (just like my mom made), and fried chicken. Try Jose’s Special Plate beefeater melt: roast beef, green Ortega chili strip, jack cheese on grilled sourdough bread with French fries and a green salad. AND, J & M’s even has a gumball machine!
Ojai Café Emporium offers indoor/ outdoor dining. Order Belgian waffles or Emporium’s famous freshly made quiche. Special breakfasts include: “The Bruce,” a grilled bagel, fried egg, sliced ham (or oven roasted turkey) with cheddar cheese, or try the sauteed tofu with veggies. Don’t feel like breakfast? Owner Trisha Proud also offers “Tried and True Sandwiches,” including slow-roasted pulled-pork on a toasted sesame bun, topped with creamy coleslaw, or oldfashioned deli sandwiches, “Mex Café” choices and a selection of original salads.
A great little cafe on Maricopa Highway is O-Hi Frostie owned by Michael & Juanita Luevano. Popular with the Nordhoff High School crowd, it offers breakfast and lunch choices, including a selection of sandwiches, salads, burgers, sides and vegetarian dishes. But my personal favorite: Nathan’s chili cheese dog, smothered in cheese and tangy chili.
The Marina Café, owned by Carlos Hernandez, is a welcoming spot overlooking Lake Casitas that offers American and Mexican menus. Most popular are the chicken-fried steak breakfast, chili verde burrito and an avocado omelet. After another amuse-bouche (a Dixie-size cup of salsa and a handful of chips), I went “American” and ordered the half-pound Swiss burger with Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, tomato, and two quarter-pound patties.
For an “eating-outdoors-at-a-burgerstand” experience, try owner Sy Yek’s Jolly Kone in Meiners Oaks. Hot dogs, burgers, burritos, hot and cold sandwiches and more, the menu includes ice cream sundaes, shakes, malts, floats and cones!
If you’re in the mood for a beautiful drive to Upper Ojai, head to The Summit Drive-In. Bought by David and Rachel Cagnacci two years ago, the Summit’s menu of corndogs, burgers, sandwiches, breakfast burritos, shakes and malts remains, but delicious new choices have been added, including the Red, White & Blue burger with blue cheese, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and a secret sauce, plus a crispy western bacon chicken sandwich. You can eat inside the drive-in or picnic at the tables outside.
And that’s WGFWD!