Up a forested hill a few miles off the Chumash Highway sits one of the oldest restaurants in the West. Built in 1865, the Cold Spring Tavern was first a waystation for stagecoaches. This explains its out of the way location. It became a tavern in 1885, and has stayed once since. Over the last century and half, it has hosted those passing through from horse carriages to Teslas. Today it is very popular among bikers, and there is usually an impressive collection of Harley-Davidsons out front.
Unlike most sesquicentenarian restaurants, Cold Springs Tavern hasn’t seen many renovations. It remains a cottage frozen in time, its preservation likely due to its hermit location far from the stresses and planning committees of city life.
Cold Spring Tavern would be worth a trip up the hill just for the scenery and brewskis if the food was only average; but its tri-tip is some of the best in the state. It has a penetration of seasoning that suggests brining, and it is grilled until it pulls apart at the grain like brisket. It’s cut in thick layers and placed on a soft bolillo roll, making an excellent sandwich. It comes with the traditional dressings of pico de gallo and BBQ sauce, plus an apple horseradish dressing that contains visible mustard seeds and tastes like a horseradish remoulade. If you don’t like the tri-tip, here, you don’t like tri-tip.
The other important item to get at Cold Spring Tavern is beer-battered onion rings. The biggest ones are the size of bagels and they are crunchy and meaty, accompanied by peppery house ranch. They are a perfect complement to a superb beef sandwich. The only other thing you need is a cold beer or iced tea. The tea is fresh, tannic, and strong, invigorating and refreshing on a hot day.
Regulars swear by the chili at Cold Spring Tavern. All three types are good, so we were happy to get a chili sampler. Red tomato-based house chili is chunks of steak and ground beef. Black bean and venison chili is spicier, and even if overabundant cumin hinders the expression of the venison, it is a very nice bowl of chili. Then there is pork-based chili verde — too loose for our tastes; but the flavors are spot-on and the meat is spoon tender.
We look forward to happy returns to the Tavern for a full course dinner someday, or, more importantly, for the weekend BBQ. Every Saturday and Sunday the red oak pit is fired up and visitors enjoy tri-tip sandwiches, onion rings, and flowing beers to live music.