Monday, January 22 , 2018, 6:33 am | Fair 43º


Local News

Mattei’s Tavern Gets New Life Amid Plans to Retain Site’s Past History

Local chef Maili Halme working toward reopening restaurant at iconic site in Los Olivos

Maili Halme is re-opening Mattei’s Tavern Restaurant in Los Olivos after new owners purchased the property. Click to view larger
Maili Halme is re-opening Mattei’s Tavern Restaurant in Los Olivos after new owners purchased the property. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Chef Maili Halme didn’t simply want to re-open Mattei’s Tavern Restaurant in Los Olivos.

She also wanted to ensure the revived restaurant and beloved Santa Ynez Valley property reflected and celebrated its rich historical roots.

This includes adding a former cook’s corn fritters to the menu, putting portraits of former owners over the fireplace where they once were located, and bringing back wicker chairs to the so-called wicker room.

“I just feel blessed and happy that we can open it up for everyone,” Halme said.

Mattei’s Tavern, built in 1886 as a stage coach stop by Swiss-American Felix Mattei, has been purchased by Brian and Shamra Strange, with the restaurant leased by Halme.

New life comes after its previous owner and wine investor, Charles Banks IV, founder of Terrior Capital, landed in federal prison following pleading guilty to fraud. 

Sitting on 6.5 acres, the restaurant building and eight bungalows totaling 16,600 square feet also came with entitlements to build a 67-room boutique hotel resort. 

Escrow for the sale of 2350 Railway Ave. off Highway 154 closed Aug. 31. Dave Salgado, a real estate broker with Santa Ynez Valley Real Estate Company, represented the buyers of “one of the most iconic and historical properties in Santa Barbara County."

“We are so excited that the property will have life breathed into it once again by someone with so much respect and passion for good food, excellent service, and the rich history behind the building,” the real estate firm’s announcement said. 

Halme said the new owners plan a smaller addition to the inn while staying true to the site’s history, with new cottages and bungalows modeled after existing structures. 

“By the grace of God, the new owners have come in and they are as passionate about history as I am,” Halme said, adding that historical buildings are set to remain.

Mattei’s Tavern, deemed a historical landmark in 2010, reportedly is one of the oldest wood structures in California, and once housed a bar, dining room and inn for travelers between Southern and Northern California. 

Over time, the building has been home to assorted eateries, including The Chart House and Brothers Restaurant. 

In recent years, the property sat mostly empty beyond hosting occasional weddings and fundraisers. 

Upon hearing Halme’s plans, local residents have reacted favorably, she said.

“People have actually come up to me in tears, thanking me,” she said. 

Halme hopes to hold an open house for the restaurant Dec. 2, planning to have carriages on display as a fundraiser for the Santa Ynez Carriage Museum.

A friend’s dad owns the original stagecoach that traveled between Los Alamos, Los Olivos and Solvang, prompting the idea to have the antiques on display.

Response to reports of the sale and new life for Mattei’s has generated much support, so much so that hundreds of people want reservations the first week.

Halme is no stranger to Mattei’s, having worked there at the age of 19.

“This is my family history, too,” she added.

She comes from a multi-generation family in the food industry. He mom and sister operate Solvang Bakery. 

“I started playing around in the kitchen when I was 3, always begging to be in there, and then I started cooking seriously when I was 14,” she said. 

Mostly recently, Halme owned a catering company.

“I got to cook for everyone I ever dreamed of cooking for,” she said, adding that she signed many confidentiality agreements through that career. 

“Every famous person and president I ever wanted to cook for so it’s a been a joy,” she said. “You know, you miss the line because catering’s kind of different.

“Catering’s like being a professional mover where you do a lot of packing and unpacking and packing. In a restaurant, it’s more about the food.”

She will bring some favorites such as fried chicken — only on Sundays — and mini grilled cheese sandwiches for her bar and snack food. 

As a caterer, she said, she often sought to learn about her clients likes without having set menus. 

“I feel like this restaurant, it’s a historical landmark and it has very deep personal connections for the people in our town, so I really have been asking people what they want to eat,” she said.

Of course, Santa Maria-style barbecue and anything grilled over oak-wood will be served, and local produce will be featured as frequently as possible.

The corn fritters of chef Gin Lung Gin, who cooked there from 1900 to 1930, will appear on the menu again.

The former Chart House’s beloved mud pie also will be included per request of residents, she said.

She also been busy researching old menus to determine other items served there, finding out it included “a lot of fresh and delicious things.”

History won’t only be found on the menu. The original bar has been pulled from storage and will be returned to the building.

Modern lights will be replaced with historical lamps. 

“It kind of felt like unearthing the Titanic bringing some of this stuff back out,” she said, adding they intend to be as historically accurate as possible.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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