Updated: Aug 4, 2020
One of the most famous old-school restaurants in Southern California — The Ranch House in Ojai whose bright, fresh, garden-fueled food was at least an indirect antecedent to what was to become known as California Cuisine — has changed hands. This is only the second time in its 70 years that it has had new owners, and the first time it has been sold.
The Ranch House was started by Alan and Helen Hooker, a quiet, white-haired couple who left a commune in Ohio, where they were studying Asian philosophy and had embraced vegetarianism, to follow their guru, Jiddu Krishnamurti, to Ojai in 1949. Alan was also a musician, but he became interested in cooking because his family’s next-door neighbor growing up was a former chef at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Alan didn’t start out as a restaurateur in California. The Hookers rented an old ranch house in Ojai and set up a boarding house with vegetarian meals provided to make money. They opened to the public in 1950, and then closed down four years later. They found a piece of land nearby and built another ranch house, which was to become the basis for the modern-day Ranch House, and reopened as a restaurant in 1956. However their vegetarian cuisine didn’t draw enough customers, so they closed down after a few months, reopening one more time in 1958 — this time with meat and poultry on the menu. The first additions were beef stroganoff, veal scaloppine, and chicken cacciatore. Hooker later wrote in his New Approach to Cooking, “As I began to investigate meat dishes, I came upon names which held a certain fascination for me but had no meaning as far as personal experience went…. I had no way of knowing how things should taste… so I had to depend upon my own palate and sensitivities.” The restaurant soon became a success, not only with locals but with visitors who traveled to Ojai for the golf and climate.
The Ranch House kept its rustic look as its fame grew. The surroundings felt like country; live oak and eucalyptus trees, open fields, and paddocks. The main dining room was small, with unfinished wood paneling and louver windows, but most preferred to sit outside on a redwood deck, overlooking a garden full of fragrant herbs. A stream meandered through the restaurant, which is where diners would chill their bottles of wine before the Ranch House obtained a wine and beer license. They ate Hooker’s new meat specialties, but also dishes such as a vichyssoise-thin electric-green pea soup, a rich chicken liver pâté with a touch of sweetness and a belt of cognac, and abundant salads plucked straight from the garden.
In 1969, the Hookers retired. David Skaggs, who had started at the restaurant as a busboy in 1963 and has since become manager, was left in charge. Alan died in 1993 and Helen followed seven years later, willing the place to Skaggs and his wife, Edie.
Over the years, the menu evolved, though many of the old favorites remained and the wine list grew into an extensive and beautiful selection of vintages from around the world. In 2012, the Skaggs couple divorced and while they continued to run the Ranch House together, they put it up for sale.
In 2014 Steve Edelson, a property owner and manager in the Ojai Valley, bought the Ranch House and gifted the restaurant to his wife, Maria Angela Edelson, for their wedding. They were married in the gazebo beside Alan Hooker's original herb garden.
Current owner Maria Angela Edelson.