Thursday, March 5, 2015

Old San Marcos Past

The tavern appears much as it did more than a
century ago, including the spittoon
 Old San Marcos Past - PDF
On a brisk Friday afternoon recently, my girlfriend and I took a ride up through the winding hills above Santa Barbara on one of my favorite roads. When I moved out west from the flatlands of Michigan, State Route 154 was a revelation to me: a pristine ribbon of road that bestows upon travelers curves, elevation changes, and breath- taking views of the Pacific. And the tributaries that serve it offer count- less little adventures and crannies to discover, from the off-roading challenges of Camino Cielo, to the epic viewing platform that overlooks Lake Cachuma.

The history of this road has consistently fascinated me, offering up glimpses into the development of the American West, and the story of how we came to be as interconnected as we are now. And what better way to dis- cover that history than a stop at Cold Spring Tavern.

The tavern lies along another one of those wonderful offshoots, Stagecoach Road. Part of the historical San Marcos Pass, Stagecoach is a twisting path that picks its way through the wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.
Along our drive, we swung around sweeping corners while dodging various potholes and pieces of debris, the route being a bit worse for wear. But the scenery was a serene combination of overhead trees and picturesque precipices. 
Prior to the road construction, the pass had been used by Lt. Col. John Fremont to capture Santa Barbara from Mexico, as the U.S. fought to wrest California away from that country. During that journey, his unit lost many of its horses, mules, and cannon to the slippery, rain-soaked hillside, reinforcing the need for a real road.

The road was constructed in 1865 to offer, as its name suggests, a route for “stagers” from Santa Barbara, north through the Santa Ynez Mountains. It was built upon the San Marcos Pass, which had first been established by the Chumash natives, and the path is a bit different from the Highway 154 of today.

The stagecoach trek was made easier with the establishment of the Cold Spring Relay Station in 1886, which was a halfway house to water both people and horses, between Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos and the Summit House, which stood on what is now Kinevan Road. The establishment’s beneficial location placed it among 42 fresh-water springs, which continue to supply its needs to this day.

It was a welcome relief for stagers who had to contend with a treacherous journey over the pass. Challenges included runaway horses, bandits who would frequently target the gold-stuffed saddle bags of cattle traders, and the high tolls levied by Patrick Kinevan to pass his Summit House, which only felt like highway robbery.

The author’s car outside the rustic Cold Spring Tavern
In fact, the first car that traveled the pass, in 1910, was actually left at the Summit House by the driver, who was too incensed by the fee Kinevan tried to impose and declined to pay. This is according to the 1992 school report by sixth-grader—and San Marcos Pass resident—Ewan Kummel, so I have no doubt of its veracity (he does cite his sources).

From there, the route changed in geography and importance, with por- tions of the Old Pass becoming part of the 154, while others, like Stagecoach Road, were relegated to scenic route status. Of course, when the 101 was built, the 154 itself became the scenic option. And the Cold Spring Tavern became a hidden gem not experienced by most who traveled through Santa Barbara.

The tavern feels – and smells – like time stopped before modernity could creep in. The scent is driven by old fireplaces in each of the dining rooms, and the sights include visages of some of the wild game featured on its menu. Those dishes have included everything from the traditional elk, antelope, and buffalo, to more exotic fare like gator and kangaroo, and they once even served lion. That didn’t end well, with bomb threats aimed against the restaurant, so it was only on the menu once.
Cold Spring Tavern used to serve bear, but the practice was outlawed years ago

We sat down with Matt Bush, who’s been helping manage the place for the past decade. He let us in on a little of the history of the tavern itself. It has been owned by the same family since 1941, when the Ovington clan bought it for a few thousand dollars. Their granddaughter Joy and her husband, Wayne Wilson, are the current proprietors.

While eager to keep its traditions alive, the tavern has embraced new ones with gusto, particularly its entertainment and weekend tri-tip cook- outs. These have been going on for more than 30 years, with musicians Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan being a consistent presence for the whole run. They’re here every Sunday, with other acts rotating throughout the weekend.

And you’ll always see Tom Perez at the tri-tip smoker. If you’ve been here before, he’s probably served you a sandwich, and maybe even thrown some wry guff your way if you’re finicky. The meat is tender and delicious, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the spread of barbecue and horseradish sauces and salsa, which make for a surprisingly harmonious combo.

The Sunday cookouts were so popular that a few years ago they started up a Saturday version, as well.

You might also see a bunch of steel hogs, as Cold Spring has been a favorite gathering place for bikers for years. As its legend has spread – with exposure through newspapers and even Food Network and Travel Channel plugs – the tavern has become a more popular place for cars to gather, and Bush said that they get yearly visits from the Cobra, Porsche, Corvette, and even Plymouth Prowler and scooter clubs.

No doubt, these clubs are drawn by the tunes and grub, but the great driving roads in the area are a huge plus. Ultimately, it is a magical confluence of great elements, like car culture, food culture, history, and natural beauty, that makes the Cold Spring Tavern and the San Marcos Pass one of the most special experiences you can have in the Santa Barbara area.

If you have a story about a special car or piece of car culture in the local area, email Randy at

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