In 1952 Frank Ostini bought an old hotel restaurant in the town of Casmalia, which had been a lively cattle center back in the pre-statehood days of the California ranchos. Mr. Ostini called his place The Hitching Post, and made steak his specialty. He had no menu, and customers had no choice: everybody ate the particular cut of meat Mr. Ostini happened to be making that night – a T-bone, a sirloin, or a filet, served with a full complement of side dishes. Frank’s son Bill, now the Hitching Post’s proprietor, notes that back in 1950s, Casmalia was something of a little boom town: “Fourteen hundred people,” he recalls. “We had oil, cattle, a train depot, a harbor just West, and a busy main street.” Now the oil business is gone, as is the train; and Vandenberg Air Force Base looms over the shore. “I am the show in town now,” Bill notes, scanning a near empty main street. But every night, there is scarcely room to park around his restaurant, which is thronged with people who come for miles to enjoy what many consider the best steaks on earth.
The Hitching Post’s top sirloin is pungent with age, oozing juice, an easy chew; but the filet mignon is even better. Its delicate fibres seem to glow with the insinuated flavor of burning wood, and with the piquant smack of a wine vinegar and oil marinade that is applied as the meat cooks. “The trick is in how the steaks are handled,” Bill Ostini said. “You’ve got to know how to cook which steak which way – some are made to be cooked rare, some well-done; it depends on the marbling, and how much age they have. It takes two to three years to train a cook to do it the right way.”
The good steaks are served as part of a full dinner, which is the classic Santa Maria repertoire of relish tray with sweet peppers and chile peppers, celery ribs, carrot sticks, and olives, plus shrimp cocktail made with a teensy-weensy shrimp, a green head lettuce, garlic toast, and potatoes, either baked or French fried.
Ambiance is delicious, too: a big roadhouse with linoleum floors and red tablecloths, a TV above the bar. In the dining room, which affords a view of the kitchen, there are mounted deer heads and old black and white family photos of young Bill and his brother on hunting and fishing trips with their dad when they were young. The hallway that leads to the restrooms is lined with cattle hides. It all adds up to a California cattle-country dining experience unlike any other.