The city’s reputation precedes it: Most people’s eyes light up when you mention Ojai, that magical land less than 90 miles from Los Angeles. Sprinkled with hiking trails, olive and orange orchards, natural springs and wellness spas, (in some ways) it’s like a European vacation without the long flight and pricey plane ticket.
Nicely paired with the long list of every-kind-of-activity imaginable in Ojai is good food. Whether you’re heading to an outdoor summer concert (maybe Michael McDonald or The Zombies) at Libbey Bowl or the Ojai Playwrights Conference in August, these five Ojai eateries are particular treasures in a land of food gold.
Knead Baking Company
The most important details to know about this family-run artisan bakery is it has limited hours (closed on Monday and Tuesday and at 2 p.m. on all other days), and that it does not accept credit cards. Once you’re in the know, it’s sweet sailing. Most people come for the breakfast sandwich (organic fried egg and Vermont white cheddar on any of the house-made breads), but the standout baked good isn’t on the regular menu: homemade blueberry corn bread with jam of the day and butter. It’s served on Saturdays only.
469 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai; (310) 770-3282, kneadbakingcompany.com.
Ojai Tortilla House
This local favorite, which only opened in March of last year, is so quaint and small that a line of only three starts to spill out the door. With just a slight counter to stand at and a bench out front, most of the customers take their tacos to go. And they keep coming back for the homemade corn and flour tortillas, which get a creative spin around St. Patrick’s Day (they’re green) and during the annual Lavender Festival (lavender-colored flour tortillas). Ojai Tortilla House also serves burritos, quesadillas, desserts and freshly made aguas frescas, plus its newest offering: bacon-wrapped hot dogs every Saturday night starting at 8 p.m. For starters, try a steak taco on the rosemary-garlic “specialty tortilla.”
104 N. Signal St., Ojai; (805) 797-8675, facebook.com/Ojaitortillahouse.
This vegan café is quintessential Ojai, from the grilled seitan Reuben to the Greens & Grains salad option and fresh veggie juices. The menu items are from the surrounding land, and the atmosphere is casual, do-it-yourself cool (i.e., pour your own water). Hang outside at the picnic tables on pebbles out front, or choose to be in the center of all the action inside, as the servers come flying through the swinging doors holding baked ginger tofu and peanut coconut rice. One of the most popular plates is, of course, the burger, which at Hip Vegan comes in the form of a tempeh patty with all of the fixins — and it’s just as messy and delicious as any all-beef patty anywhere. Prepping for a hike? End your meal with Vietnamese coffee with coconut creamer.
928 East Ojai Avenue; Ojai; (805)646-1750, hipvegancafe.com.
On the other end of the eating spectrum is a fancy Italian meal at the renovated restaurant where the French L’Auberge once stood for 25 years. Perched atop a hill, Nocciola opened its doors last year and has been racking up rave reviews ever since. Maybe it’s because chef Pietro Biondi walks around personally greeting everyone while slipping in recommendations, or because all of the homemade pasta is made with organic egg yolks, or because of the seared sea scallops with Parmesan fondue and truffle shavings. Most of the pastas are knockouts, but it’s the scallops, so tender floating in a creamy swirl, that make Nocciola a must-stop dinner spot.
314 El Paseo Road, Ojai; (805) 640-1648, nocciolaojai.com.
Many restaurants on Ojai Avenue have come and gone — and more have come — over the years, but Azu has remained, like a loyal friend. For 13 years and counting, Laurel Moore and her daughter have stuck to their culinary mission: farm-fresh tapas and local wine and beer. Sure, they now have live acoustic reggae and bottomless mimosas (and sweet potato waffles and blueberry lemon pancakes) for Sunday brunch, but what makes Azu the place to be in Ojai Valley is one particular dessert: chocolate soufflé with fresh whipped cream and salt caramel gelato. Be sure to order it ahead of time, as it takes 20 minutes to bake.
457 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai; (805) 640-7987, azuojai.com.