The bad news is we had to cancel our vacation to Europe.
The good news is we decided to have a different kind of vacation: a holiday at home. And why not? Ventura is a wonderful tourist town, so who better to take advantage of all the attractions of a sojourn by the sea in a perfect climate than someone who lives here 365 days a year and tends to take it all for granted.
First I called to stop newspaper deliveries, something I routinely do if we’re leaving own. The Star this time managed to actually stop delivery on the days specified. The Times and the NY Times kept delivering. And for some strange reason, the post office, usually pretty reliable, didn’t get the message. And my mail continued. Bills and all.
And don’t answer the phone. (Sorry Cheryl and Ann at the Ventura Music Festival, but we’re on holiday!)
Went to the artists gallery for a black and white photo exhibit and discovered we were a day early.
No problem — popped into the buzzing Aloha Steakhouse opposite the Crowne Plaza for a Bass ale and a martini and met friends Gail and Simms Taback, transplanted New Yorkers just beginning to adjust to the sound of the surf.
The great thing about being on vacation is that the most urgent question you have to answer turns out to be: Where shall we have dinner? We wanted it to be somewhere we’d never been before just like it would be if we were strangers in town.
So we drove to Santa Paula. That town is a time warp. Get off at 10th Street, turn onto Main and you feel like you’ve traveled back in time: You’d swear you’re in a John Travolta ‘70s movie, albeit one with a Spanish accent.
Summertime and the weather is a balmy 76, warmer at night than in downtown Ventura. We stroll for a couple of minutes then turn into The Mupu Grill, 930 E. Main Street (525-9779).
But what’s this? On one wall are the predictable Lemon crate posters beloved of all Santa Paulans, but the other wall? This does not compute. There are photographs of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Jimmy Stewart all hanging out with two dudes whose faces I recognize — a couple of old mates, fellow Brits — Ronnie Clint and Phil Scully, the guys who ran the once legendary Chasens Restaurant. In its heyday it was the place to dine for Hollywood’s rich and famous — from Ronnie Reagan who reportedly proposed to Nancy there, to Elizabeth Taylor with and without Burton. Henry Kissinger dined with Richard Nixon as he poured ketchup on his cottage cheese. Bogie and Bacall would leave the kids behind on a Saturday night and cozy up in a Chasens booth.
For decades starting in the ‘50s, it was the hot celebrity dining spot for everyone who was anyone in Hollywood. Only the big boys went to Chasens. As a young reporter covering movies I went to lots of parties there: It was at Chasens I chatted to Sammy Davis Jr. shortly before he died and interviewed Jimmy Stewart, Robert Stack, Richard Burton and Richard Harris — both Richards propped up the bar.
Their chili was world famous. Liz used to have it flown to film locations around the world.
Back in Santa Paula I took another look at the red naugahyde booths we were sitting in. They looked vaguely familiar. Yup. They came from Chasens, too. So either I’m in the Twilight Zone or something’s going on here.
Turns out one of the café owners (and there are, would you believe, about 20 of them) was able to acquire this great chunk of Hollywood history. Jimmy Brucker purchased 10 red booths from Chasens when they closed in l997 and brought them to Santa Paula.
So now you can ask for the Sinatra table, or the Kissinger table. Sorry the Reagan table is at the Reagan Library. It’s like you stepped into a New York, Chicago or San Francisco saloon. It’s sort of Santa Paula’s answer to Musso and Franks, the wonderful, historical eatery on Hollywood Boulevard.
Despite the clunky name, the Mupu food is good, and the prices are even better. We had a bottle of Wild Horse Pinot for $31 (anywhere else it would have been $50 plus). My wife and I split a gigantic 18 oz. steak with all the trimmings and a huge salad for $24.95 with a super dessert for $3.95.
While the service is friendly, it’s not exactly Chasens. But manager Richard Leon is working hard to bring in the crowds. And it’s a place that deserves attention. It mixes a bit of old Santa Paula with old Hollywood, and that can’t be bad. Once the word gets around Ventura County, the invasion will begin.
After dinner we wandered Main Street, eyeing the murals and the bridal shops. Then into the local bakery for a 50-cent sweet roll for breakfast. Then home.
Started off at the “Village Pump” — better known as Farmer’s Market at Santa Clara and Palm Streets in downtown Ventura — listed in the Los Angeles Times, no less, as one of the top four farmers markets in the Southland. Fun spot: among the avocados, the dried apples, the warped looking Heirloom tomatoes, organic strawberries, cheeses and the popular tamales stand where the line starts as soon as the market opens at 8:30 a.m, ran into lots of people we know: from neighbors to Councilman Bill Fulton and Deputy Public Defender Steve Lipson. Great place to catch up on local gossip.
Walked to the Crowne Plaza’s C Street Cafe for breakfast, at 450 E. Harbor Blvd. (648-2100) in Ventura. Pretty crowded. I order a bread basket, sweet rolls, etc. and coffee. My wife has huevos rancheros.
Nice setting overlooking the plaza and its sometimes functioning fountain. Nice décor, linen napkins, Wedgewood silverware. Breakfast was adequate but the setting is great. Word of advice: skip the $14 buffet and go for the a la carte menu. You can also sit in the outside patio and enjoy the morning paper and the smell of the sea with your breakfast.
We could have lingered longer over coffee, but it was time to continue our “vacation at home,” so we hit the road, picked up our previously arranged test drive of an Eos convertible hard top from the ever efficient Barber Volkswagon on Main Street and headed out on the open road — Foothill to be exact — to try it out.
The sea mist lifted, the sun came out. In 21 seconds and a push of a button the hard top opened in a silent ballet to show us the world without a car ceiling. I felt like Troy Donahue in one of those ‘50s movies where they used to cruise up and down Sunset Boulevard in an open top. Only Sunset never came with the heady scent of lemon blossom and almost no traffic. This was Ventura before the urban sprawl.
The sun was feeling just a mite too warm on our backs so it was time to go back downtown, via Highway 126, for some antiquing and rubbing shoulders with the LA and Santa Barbara decorators who come to our town to scour for bargains.
First stop was midtown at Malinowski and Todd, at 1725 E. Main St. (643-2002), which is run by Dave Malinowski, a Ventura High school graduate made good.
He has some great stuff at amazingly reasonable prices — furniture, glass, decorator pillows to die for and the paintings and geles of Elain Thompson, the local artist whose oils capture the beauty of Ventura.
Downtown I broke off to hit the Retarded Children’s Thrift Store at 265 E. Main St. (653-0271) to pick up some old videos including a favorite: The Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera.” It set me back $2.
My wife continued to comb the antique stores … particularly Arthur Condie’s “Antique Trading Co.,” which was forced to move from its berth on Main Street by escalating rents to its current home at 70 S. Oak (641-3828). He has lots of fantastic European furniture — much of it British, which made us come over all nostalgic for our youth — and a terrific selection of stained glass.
We crossed the road to Zoeys’ Cafe at 451 E. Main St., Suite 8 (652-1137), for mid-morning coffee. If you’ve never sat on Zoey’s balcony looking down the picturesque alley to Main Street, you’ve missed one of our town’s great pleasures. You could be in Italy or the South of France, without worrying about jet lag, passports — or the French. Zoeys is noisy with music and comedy improv shows at night, but in the morning it’s a little slice of Mediterranean tinged paradise, with a slightly funky hippie vibe thrown in.
More antiquing and video purchases, then a light lunch at Johnny’s at 176 N. Ventura Ave. (648-2021). The best chicken tacos I have ever tasted, better than that over-hyped famous joint in Santa Barbara — you know the one! And dirt cheap. It’s very basic but a popular eating spot for the cognoscenti. There’s always a large group of people waiting for their orders, but be patient. It’s worth it.
Somewhere along the afternoon, after perusing the sports pages, I noted that “Salty Sally” (my wife is Sally) and “Turks Rebecca” (my daughter is Rebecca) were once again running at Hollywood Park. So I stopped by briefly at the satellite wagering club at the Fairgrounds to place $2 win bets on each of those horses. I usually lose, and true to form, this time was no exception.
Finally the cocktail party at the Artists’ Union Gallery, 330 S. California St. (643-3012). Cheese and wine and nibbles. A friendly crowd and assortment of local artists including Michelle Chapin, Linda Carson, Theresa Davis (no relation) and Harvey Steinberg, to name a few.
Next we whizzed south down Highway 101 to the Tower Club (330 E. Esplanade Dr.) in Oxnard (983-7777). It is members only, I know, but General Manager Robert Lopez said we could admire the sunset from their high above the glass and concrete aerie; and we did, fortified by a couple of “killer” martinis (very dry with an olive and an onion.) The view — Oxnard and Ventura sparkling beneath us to the horizon — is indeed spectacular.
Then to another spot we hadn’t tried before: dinner at La Dolce Vita in the heart of Oxnard’s impressive Heritage Square, 740 S. B St. (486-6878).
Good service, great ambiance and it lived up to all we’d heard. We split a fantastic Caesar salad (with extra anchovies on the side) and enjoyed Italian Pot Roast and Chicken Cacciatore. After those Tower Club martinis we managed only to split one glass of pinot noir.
Sunday morning, concerned at the enormous poundage I must have gained from all that eating and drinking, I devotedly made an early morning call to the Fast Track Gym at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. Once again cleansed, I felt ready for the day — and an early lunch/breakfast.
In a Pontiac G-6 hardtop convertible — our next test drive from Bunnin Pontiac — we varoomed over the Conejo Grade to Westlake and a delightful lunch at Brent’s Deli (2799 Townsgate Road, Westlake Village, 557-1882), our latest import from the Valley, where it has long deserved the reputation as the most authentic New York style deli in Southern California.
The new place is much more elegant — an impressive, high ceiling, gastronomical cavern devoted to high-profile eating. We decided to split a wonderful fish plate: smoked salmon, and two other white fish, bagels, pickled herring, cole slaw, potato salad, onions, tomatoes and cream cheese ($35). The menu alleged it would be ample for two, but it turned out to be enough to feed the entire Ventura Symphony Orchestra.
After lunch we drove around the lake then happily returned to our hotel (actually our house) to peruse the Sunday newspapers. Mexico was playing the USA soccer team on the telly so I became a couch potato for a couple of hours — required R and R for anyone who has survived the Brent’s fish plate.
By early evening we were ready to venture forth for additional exploration. At 6 p.m. the weather was incredibly balmy, so we headed to the Ventura Pier and discovered hundreds of people still frolicking in the surf.
There had been some unexpected excitement. Two pier walkers had decided to jump into the ocean — and were perturbed when local lifeguards jumped in to rescue them. Real life drama. In living color.
The great thing about Ventura is you can actually dip your toes in the brine. No sweat. The beach is amazingly swimmer-friendly and accessible.
After our stroll, we fortified ourselves with a beer and glass of wine on Eric Ericsson’s open air deck. Then we walked happily to the Westside Cellar at 222 E. Main St., Ventura (652-7013) for a cheese plate — splitting a glass of wine.
Ready to stop eating we popped in to see Michael Moore’s latest expose, “Sicko,” about the sad state of healthcare in the United States but left before the end because it was too depressing after our wonderful vacation at home and we weren’t in the mood for doom and gloom. On the contrary, we went to bed congratulating ourselves on our great good sense in choosing this wonderful place and prepared to continue enjoying it for another 27 years.
Footnote: We can’t wait for our next vacation at home. There’s so much we didn’t have time to see and do. Oil our bikes for a ride along the promenade to Emma Wood State Beach, whale-watching or an Island Packers trip to our neighboring islands, the Museum of Ventura County, Downtown Ojai, kayaking at Ventura Marina. Maybe even to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley to check out that Chasens booth where Ronnie proposed to Nancy.