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Ojai's Ranch House Restaurant: A Recipe for Romance

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

By Beth Brett

The Ranch House Restaurant is a winning ticket for fine dining and romance. Just ask Greg and Debbie Nelson, a dynamic duo from Redondo Beach, who married here five years ago and return to the Ranch House each year to celebrate their anniversary.

‘It’s our favorite place,’ says Debbie Nelson, adding that it was ‘a no-brainer’ to select this venue for their special day.

With its beautiful rose garden, tea house and two elevated redwood decks, The Ranch House is the perfect spot for a wedding reception, a rehearsal dinner, a birthday party or a holiday banquet. The Ranch House can accommodate up to 150 guests and hosts about 25 weddings per year. Whether a birthday or anniversary, staff members are always on hand to snap a Polaroid of the special moment.

It’s also been the site of countless marriage proposals. If you’re thinking of popping the question, be sure to request one of the following VIP tables, where privacy is the priority: Table 18, which sits adjacent to a beautiful coy pond; Table 101, a perch overlooking the alfresco tables below; Table 200, a lovely tryst situated in an oriental tea house or Table 201, a sweet spot set above the endearing pond and bridge.

Michael Denney, the Ranch House sommelier, adds, ‘In my 26 years here, I’ve never seen anyone turn down a proposal.’

Patrons are drawn to the restaurant’s fine wine and cuisine. Founded in November 1956 by Alan and Helen Hooker, the restaurant features lighter fare and fresh ingredients. Alan Hooker, known as the grandfather of California cuisine, has passed on the tradition of transforming meals into works of art to the current owners David and Edie Skaggs.

‘It’s been a family affair,’ says David Skaggs has been part of the Ranch House family since 1963. I started working at the Ranch House when I was 15 years old and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing’ it’s been a great ride.’

With head chef, Stuart Farnham, running the kitchen for the past 28 years, the restaurant maintains its high quality while always gunning after innovative ideas.

Starters include a daily selection of fresh soups (don’t miss the ‘whole potato’ soup), which generally includes two hot and one cold selection. The Ranch House’s chicken liver pate, which is laced with cognac and based on a creamy and sweet recipe given to Alan Hooker by a ballerina named Carmeleta Maracci, is not to be missed. The signature snow crab cakes and shrimp remoulade are also fine choices for starters. Don’t forget to taste a nibble of the delectable bread, served fresh from the restaurant’s onsite bakery.

Sprigs of herbs, plucked from the restaurant’s own herb garden, dress dishes such as New Zealand Elk Rack, which is served with a cranberry, Madeira and juniper berry sauce and adorned with thyme. Farnham adds zest to sea bass with his trademark parmesan lime pesto. A delicious vegetarian entree is also prepared daily.

Orchids surround sumptuous dessert plates such as fresh lime cheesecake and fudge pie, which goes nicely a la mode with peppermint stick ice cream. Don’t miss the delectable New Orleans delight, a baked meringue served with coffee ice cream, praline sauce and pecans. It’s the most requested item on the dessert menu.

The wine list, winner of the Wine Spectator Award, is fast approaching 1,000 selections. At 55 pages and growing, the menu includes detailed descriptors of each selection’ a practice begun by Hooker’ is updated weekly.

A broad spectrum of wine regions are represented, ranging from exotic South African selections to Australian wines; approximately 60 percent of the list consists of Californian wines from all regions of the state. From the rare 1900 Quinta do Sibio, a Portuguese port, described as ‘subtle aromas with flavors of the finest cognac,’ to the exotic 2002 Viognier ice wine from the Ojai Vineyard, which is characterized as ‘flowery with gobs of gooey fruit,’ you are sure to find a stellar selection.

The wine list has certainly come a long way. Before the restaurant obtained a liquor license in 1965, patrons were encouraged to bring their own bottles of wine, which were kept cool in a nearby stream and opened for a $25 corkage fee.

The Ranch House is Ojai’s place to-be-and-be-seen. Since opening nearly 50 years ago, the Ranch House has been the spot for celebrity sightings, drawing athletes, actors and musicians alike. Over the years, Robert Redford, Marlon Brando and Alan Alda have frequented the establishment. Paul Newman thinks so highly of it that he endorses it on the restaurant’s Web site: ‘Cuisine is cuisine but the Ranch House is original.’

Recently, Ron Howard was the best man at a wedding held at the Ranch House. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were Ranch House regulars when they summered in Ojai in 1977. Barbra Streisand and James Brolin have been spotted there.

Lance Armstrong often stops by when he bikes through Ojai. Armstrong has brought his entire U.S. Postal Team to the Ranch House to celebrate his first two Tour de France victories in 1999 and 2000.

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