by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

We always eat well in Ventura County, thanks in no small part to a robust ag industry and a beautiful environment that seduces chefs from near and far. Looking back over our restaurant reviews in 2019, a few trends stood out. There were a lot of not-so-new places that our reviewers felt compelled to revisit and write about, and a real interest in cocktail culture, too. As in years past, diners were drawn to eateries emphasizing a fresh, healthy, local and organic approach. In 12 months of consuming a wide variety of cuisines, here are the restaurants that inspired us the most.

Putting the Happy in Happy Hour

Craft culture is alive and well in Ventura County, and there’s no lack of options when it comes to exceptionally prepared drinks and good eats to go with them.

Our reviewer loved Slate Bistro and Craft Bar in Camarillo. Owned by the same people who brought us Blvd Brgr in Old Town, expectations for this chic eatery (formerly Safire) were high. Lucky for food lovers, they exceeded them. The menu is filled with wonderfully gourmet entrees — mushroom taquitos, lobster fritters, inventive pizzas and more — and delightfully colorful cocktails to go with them. With lots of polished concrete, geometric art, sparkling chandeliers and pops of color, Slate’s a very stylish place to grab a drink as well. 4850 Santa Rosa Road, Camarillo, 805-388-9888, theslatebistro.com

Cocktails from Oak and Iron: PB&J whisky drink, the Reviver #7 with watermelon-infused Casamigos and Strawberry Fields vodka cocktail. Photo by Kateri Wozny

Farm-to-table dining isn’t just for the plate. Oak and Iron in Thousand Oaks specializes in “garden to glass” cocktails, and the freshness of the ingredients is matched only by the beauty of the concoctions. Owner Andrew Pletcher emphasizes locally sourced as much as possible, meaning that the menu is constantly changing based on what’s in season. Impressive libations have included the PB&J (made with whiskeys infused with peanut butter and blueberry), Reviver #7 (which includes watermelon-infused tequila), and the Smokey Edward, an old-fashioned smoked right at the bar with your choice of wood chips — not just a drink; an experience. 2967 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 805-370-9095, oakandironto.com

Water’s Edge now occupies the spot once called Rhumb Line (and before that, Steak and Sirloin). Floor-to-ceiling windows with an extraordinary view of the ocean (the restaurant is aptly named) are reason enough to come here for a drink. But bring your appetite, too, because the happy hour menu is expansive and delicious. Lamb sliders, ahi poke, shrimp bruschetta and oysters on the half shell are among the many offerings, all under $10 and sized just right for sharing. The cocktail menu is equally impressive, whether you’re going for a perfectly prepared standard or something more creative. 1510 Anchors Way Drive, Ventura, 805-642-1200, www.watersedgeventura.com

Revisiting Old Favorites

This was a year when many reviewers felt drawn to the old, familiar places. Perhaps we were all feeling nostalgic after the sudden closure of the beloved Vagabond Coffee Shop after more than 50 years. There’s comfort in these longtime favorites — and their very longevity attests to the quality of the food and service.

Boccali’s pepperoni and mushroom pizza on thin crust. Photo by Dane Edmondson

With red and white checkered tablecloths, jugs of wine in straw baskets and braids of garlic on the wall, Boccali’s in Ojai is the epitome of the old-school Italian restaurant. The menu follows suit, with pastas, pizzas and sandwiches rich in garlic, marinara and cheese, all of which you can wash down with homemade wine. Eating here is like enjoying a meal lovingly prepared by your Nona, and with many of the staff members having served here for years, the sense of tradition is strong. The desserts are famous, so try to save room. 3277 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, 805-646-6116; 840 Ventura Ave., Oak View, 805-649-1057, www.boccalis.com

Ottavio’s is another Italian restaurant with a long history (51 years!) in Ventura County. Founded by native Sicilians Ottavio and Noella Belvedere in 1978, it’s still in the family — siblings Julie and Lenny and their respective spouses now run it — and still serving up delicious cuisine to customers who view this Old Town Camarillo trattoria as an institution. Tried-and-true dishes like veal piccata, shrimp scampi and tortellini sit beside more modern dishes (including gluten-free pastas and Pollo e Ripieno), while the big, fluffy bread rolls and minestrone soup have become legendary. 1620 Ventura Blvd., Camarillo, 805-482-3810, www.ottavio.com

Doin’ the dip — the French dip, that is — at Ventura favorite Danny’s Deli. Photo by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

If old-school deli sandwiches are your thing, head to Danny’s Deli in Midtown Ventura. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2019, this New York-style diner features a large dining area, big, comfy vinyl booths, a drool-worthy bakery counter and jars of homemade kosher dill pickles on every table. The menu is large and varied, with wonderful Jewish comfort foods such as knishes and potato pancakes. There’s not a bad meal here, but the French dip sandwich is a true standout, filled with a generous quantity of melt-in-your-mouth brisket. Save room for a slice of fresh-baked pie — or better yet, buy a whole one to take home on your way out the door. 3263 Telegraph Road, Ventura, 805-289-9200, www.dannysdeli.com

Local Mojo

It’s easy to specialize in locally sourced ingredients when you live in an agricultural paradise like Ventura County. Even so, a few new farm-to-table eateries caught our reviewers’ eyes in 2019.

Pacific by NoRu in Downtown Ventura has it all: a cool, artsy vibe; stylish bar with fabulous craft cocktails; an eclectic menu that takes inspiration from all points of the globe (put together with the freshest of fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood); and a great backstory. The owners are two surfer buddies (one a Ventura local, the other from Hawaii) with a passion for “honest, local, organic food.” It just doesn’t get more SoCal than that. 394 E. Main St., Ventura, 805-205-9618, pacificbynoru.com

Go a bit east into Midtown to find Native Pizza, where the menu rotates regularly based on what’s available — all ingredients are obtained from farms within a 30-mile radius. The one-time Palermo spot has gained a reputation as offering some of the best, freshest pizza in town, helped in no small part by creative flair in the kitchen and produce picked at the peak of flavor. Spicy chiles, earthy mushrooms, fragrant fennel and more top a thin, crispy crust made from an organic flour blend. 1751 E. Main St., Ventura, 805-667-8991, nativepizza.com

Of all the wonderful foods grown, fished and raised here, wheat is the one item not commonly associated with Ventura County. But that’s just what you’ll find at Roan Mills, where a variety of heritage grains are grown on 50 acres in Fillmore. The wheat is ground into whole-grain flour, sold in two to 10-pound bags, or used to make bread, pasta, sandwiches, pastries and pizza (Fridays only) sold at Roan Mills Bakery on Central Ave. Hours are very limited and preordering is recommended, but it’s worth the effort.  411 Central Ave., Fillmore, 818-522-4686, roanmills.com