The Deer Lodge
2261 Maricopa Hwy, Ojai

In keeping with this week’s important theme, we highlight The Deer Lodge, the famous haunt tucked away in the Ojai Valley, and its visionary team of proprietors Sophia Miles and Sydney Romero, and executive kitchen manager Marissa Luboff.

Long an “it” spot for a multitude of cliques, The Deer Lodge has a history as rich and delicious as the menu. Starting as a gas station, the rustic stone and wood structure has undergone several transformations throughout the years. Ranging from a general store, to a biker bungalow in the ’60s, and finally settling into the present-day uber-cool atmosphere, which can look like a complete casting call for a Richard Linklater film about Millennials.

Miles, who is also the former manager of The Deer Lodge, and Romero have created two distinct environments for patrons to enjoy. The first is the main dining room and bar, which share a space and tastefully rock antique Americana décor throughout. The second is a wraparound outdoor patio, which also features a converted mud room/solarium. My partner-in-dine and I chose the latter, landed at our table and the evening of edible adventure began.

Cheddar and Gouda mac and cheese Photo by Stefani Blain

Chef Luboff creates starter plates both devilishly classic, such as the “legendary” white cheddar and Gouda mac and cheese, and consciously healthy, like the kale salad with pink grapefruit, citrus quinoa, flax seeds and Greek yogurt. Being a sucker for nostalgia, I went with the mac and cheese, but also could not overlook the wild mushroom crostini. Both were divine, and worked profoundly together. The artichoke hearts bolstered the sweet “meaty” textures of the wild mushrooms, all wooed by the truffle cream sauce and enough arugula to provide sufficient kick. Adding a few dollops of mac and cheese to each crostini only magnified this Frankenstein’s flavor.

Wild mushroom crostini with artichoke hearts Photo by Stefani Blain

Feeling the need for greens and a palate cleanser next, the chopped panzanella salad was crisply refreshing. A healthy serving of spinach, strawberries, avocado, pumpkin seeds, goat cheese and toasted bread croutons came together famously, bound in flavor by a mild agave cayenne dressing. 

Moving on to the main course, the temptress that beckoned was the buffalo burger. And while some can be quite gamey, this was anything but. It boasted a perfectly balanced tone of buttery richness, further accented by the bacon jam, Havarti, local greens (Rio Gozo Farms) and a chipotle aioli-slathered pretzel bun. We obviously added avocado too because Ojai has the best in the world. Some truffle fried green beans to round out the plate and it was an all-American meal with a “locourmet” (locally-sourced gourmet fare) quality. Pairing it with a Chief’s Peak IPA from local brewery Topa Topa was near art, but a glass of red from any of the hometown wineries could accompany just as well.

The buffalo burger is served with bacon jam, Havarti, local and a chipotle aioli slathered pretzel bun. Photo by Stefani Blain

We decided to call it an early night, but those in the mood for a nightcap need only hang out past dinner, as The Deer Lodge features both local and nationally touring acts. It is quickly becoming a must-stop music destination. It also hosts a Backwoods Bazaar for local artists, fundraisers, and even has a plan in the works for a Haunted House this coming Halloween, complete with a pumpkin carving contest and pumpkin beer on tap.

And if backyard barbecue is your thing, there is a great weekend spread that is reminiscent of a family-style experience (available until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday). The usual barbecue suspects line up here, so I suggest throwing down and grabbing the combo plate.

Miles, Romero and Luboff have also taken the food truck route, literally. By venturing into this niche market, they are bringing a taste of Ojai to weddings, parties and festivals across the county. To find out where the truck will be next connect on Instagram @ojaideercrossing. These dynamic women are combining the power of community and commerce, with a little bacon jam for flavor.