Friday, April 19, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 7
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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

The Hitching Post remains a steadfast icon in changing times

REBECCA ROSE

I need to start this column off on a somewhat bittersweet note and tell you all that this will be my last Eats column for the Sun.

It’s been a great ride getting to know the food of our community and the people who provide it to us, in so many different ways. I realized there isn’t a better way to say adieu and to pay tribute to how much I’ve loved writing this column than to write about one of our region’s best and most iconic restaurants—The Hitching Post in Casmalia.


AN ICON
The Hitching Post in Casmalia became a well-known steakhouse in the greater Santa Maria area starting in the early 1950s, along with Jocko’s in Nipomo and The Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe.
PHOTO BY REBECCA ROSE

I probably don’t need to explain the details of the vivid history of The Hitching Post to the regular readers of this column or anyone from Northern Santa Barbara County. The Ostini Brothers (Bill runs the Casmalia operation, Frank heads the Hitching Post II in Buellton), have made a name for their family’s long-running venue by understanding the community they serve and focusing on its specific interests.

At The Hitching Post II, (after being featured in the novel and movie Sideways) Frank Ostini has expanded into wines with his own popular and well-reviewed label that is sold in stores across California. In July, HP2 opened a tasting room at a property next to the original venue and began an expanded lunch menu, designed for tourists looking for a spot to picnic and sample wines.

In Casmalia, little has changed since 1980. Bill Ostini, a Vietnam veteran, came back from the war in the late 1970s looking for what most young American men wanted after their time overseas—stability and familiarity. Standing over the hot red oak fire and the hand-crank iron grill his father worked for decades was where he found his footing once again, and he’s never missed a step since.

Casmalia might seem light-years away from the Santa Maria of late. Far removed from increasingly congested on-ramps of Highway 101, the serene twisting drive along Betteravia to Black Road tells a story in rewind. Housing developments and big-box stores bleed into agricultural sites and finally give way to empty lands that look all but deserted yet serve purposes far beyond what modern eyes can understand.


ARTY ARTICHOKES
Grilled artichokes are practically a must-have with any traditional Santa Maria-style steak dinner. At The Hitching Post in Casmalia, an order of one costs $12 and is steamed and then split.
PHOTO BY REBECCA ROSE

It’s hard to look at these open spaces and not face the reality that it won’t be long before they too are swallowed up by the inevitability of urban sprawl. This too one day will be a line of parking lots and outdoor shopping malls, punctuated by corporate steakhouses offering their own commodified versions of “traditional” ranch-style steak dinners.

But for now, the Hitching Post still exists in a valley of timelessness. It’s not just the traditional decor or the old-school fixtures that tell the story of Ostini’s adherence to the remembrance of things past. The menu hasn’t changed in, dare I say, decades (he may have been talked into a few changes along the way by the other family members who work alongside him).

The original Casmalia Hitching Post started out as a single-room hotel catering to nomadic men who worked local ranches. Known for family-style homemade meals, the restaurant was launched in 1952 with the official Hitching Post moniker. When the Ostini family took it over, they kept many of the traditional features. From 1957 to 1967, they offered only one meal at a set price. For less than $4, guests were treated to a steak with french fries, salad, ice cream, and a shrimp cocktail. The structure of that menu is still there to this day, with entree additions that include pork, poultry, lamb, and seafood, plus appetizers such as ribs, sausage, and quail.

As vegetarians (flexitarian pescatarians to be more accurate), we were tempted to give up our dutiful restrictions and dive into some steak. But with lobster, shrimp, and scallops on the menu, it was easy to find plenty of delicious options.


BOTTOM’S UP
The Hitching Post isn’t just a great steakhouse, it’s an excellent bar. Drinks such as the Maker’s Manhattan are well crafted and flavorful, and they do not skimp on the booze either.
PHOTO BY REBECCA ROSE

We started with two orders of grilled artichokes, an unflinchingly traditional accompaniment to any dish at a Santa Maria steakhouse. At the Hitching Post, the artichokes are steamed, split, and grilled on the same grill where all the meats and other food are. It’s served with a side of spicy aioli, and it’s clear why it’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu.

For the entrees, I went wild and got the lobster tail; my fiancé opted for the shrimp and scallops. Every meal comes with a vegetable tray, bay shrimp cocktail with a tangy cocktail sauce, and a dinner salad. Choices of sides include rice pilaf, baked potato, or french fries, about which the menu claims: “The Los Angeles Times called our fries the best in Southern California.” It’s true, they really are the best I’ve had in a long time.

Don’t underestimate what they say about how busy it gets. Tables fill up fast (we came at 5 p.m on a Wednesday; by 6 p.m. there was a massive standing-room-only crowd filling up the waiting room). But don’t worry about this because service is outstanding; we barely waited for our food, and refills on drinks came as quick as I could think about them.

The bar fills up with locals who intermingle with staffers who’ve been serving them for years. It’s a refuge of familiarity and sincerity. Nothing is a surprise here, as Bill himself once told me several years ago when I first started writing this column.

Get hitched
The Hitching Post is located at 3325 Point Sal Road, Casmalia. For more information, call (805) 937-6151 or visit hitchingpost1.com.

“The real reason people come back is consistency,” he said. He was speaking specifically about the steady quality of the food, but I think it’s more than that. This is a place where the dark inevitability of change stays firmly fixed to the shadows. It’s a hand brushing off conversation about new highway expansion or eyes rolling when someone mentions skyrocketing housing prices in Orcutt.

Whether it’s in your job or your community, change is always a lurking truth. I have no idea if and how The Hitching Post, Casmalia, or regions like this of Santa Barbara County will sustain the waves of growth and change lapping at their dusty shores. But for now it doesn’t really matter. Within this small confined space, there is still a refuge from the storm. 

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose will catch you on the flip side. Contact her at rrose@santamariasun.com. 




Uni may become your next favorite seafood.
PHOTO BY REBECCA ROSE

• For my last Rebeccamendations, I’m going to hand out some solid advice and encouragement. First of all, eat local! Source your food. Find out where it grows, who grows it, who owns it, who makes money off it, what they do with that money, how well they pay and treat the people who grow and pick it for them. Make your decisions based off that, not off of laughably corny feel-good commercials from corporate agriculture interests and lobbyists who want to convince you they’re “for the community” or whatever. Most importantly, find a farm stand, farmers market, or local grower and get your produce there.

Tip your wait staff! Round that bill up to the next dollar amount and add 20 to 30 percent. Or more! They are making $11 to $12 an hour and living in a community where the cost of living is outpacing that by miles. Stop treating working-class people like they owe you something. It’s the other way around, folks. They are literally cooking the food, bringing it to you, and practically putting it in your mouth so you don’t have to do that for yourself. Stop whining on Yelp because someone didn’t fill your water glass fast enough or that no one came to pat you on the head every 30 seconds and make sure you were having a good time. Appreciate the people making and serving your food as much as you appreciate the food.

Try something new, at least once in a while. It doesn’t have to be every day. But step outside your comfort zone and give the new restaurant on the corner a shot; your favorite place will still be there next time. Maybe try some uni (pictured)! Sea Stefanie Fish in Santa Barbara provides the freshly caught product to restaurants all over the region; next time you see it on a menu, try it if you haven’t already. Check out seastefaniefish.com for more info.




Weekly Poll
What do you think of the county's new permitting process for hoop houses?

Farmers already have too many regulations to adhere to.
It was necessary to clarify the permitting process.
The process will help protect wildlife.
Cannabis growers are the problem, not other farmers!

| Poll Results