Meaty Milestone: Buellton's Hitching Post II Celebrates 25 Years

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on January 26, 2012)

It’s impossible to talk about the success of Buellton’s Hitching Post II restaurant without mentioning an Oscar-winning film named Sideways.

“A flash of celebrity,” chef-owner Frank Ostini calls it. 

Rex Pickett, the man who wrote the book that inspired the movie, has readily admitted that it was time spent sitting and sipping at the wine bar at the Hitching Post II – and a crush he developed on a waitress who once worked the floor there – that aroused the now-famous focus on pinot noir that remains a boon to Santa Barbara’s wine industry to this day.

It was a clear boon for Ostini’s restaurant, too.  “It led to at least three years of nonstop, steady demand!” Ostini says with evident amazement.

The movie’s success, and the influx of customers it created for the Hitching Post II, did lead the affable restaurateur to make key improvements to better meet the surge in demand.  “We finally fixed our air conditioning and we got Open Table to manage reservations,” he says.  But the core philosophies of his business – the things that had already made his eatery a local’s favorite and a special dining option for wine country tourists – remained the same.

“Our values, and our kitchen, did not change,” insists Ostini, as he ponies up to the same wood bar that once hosted Pickett.  “I told my employees that the movie was going to get people coming through our door, but that we still had to give them a compelling reason to keep coming back.”

Indeed, the Hitching Post II has always been a culinary draw.  The restaurant is now celebrating 25 years in a business that can be as volatile and competitive as it can be lucrative and rewarding.  To diners go the spoils, with a celebratory $25 three-course menu that runs through February 12th and that features Hitching Post II staples like prime sirloin steak, natural turkey steak, smoked pork chop and market fresh fish.  A soup or salad starter and a hot apple sundae (think pound cake, hot apples, vanilla ice cream and caramel) are also included.

Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley
The quarter-century milestone is also being marked with the release of a special wine, a 2010 pinot noir made with fruit from Rio Vista mainly – that’s the closest pinot vineyard to the restaurant – as well as the celebrated Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills.  A glutton for a full plate, it turns out Ostini is not only a chef, he’s also a winemaker; the pinot-centric Hitching Post label, which Ostini produces with business partner and cellar master Gray Hartley, is readily considered a quintessential Santa Barbara wine producer.  The commemorative bottle sells for $25 at the restaurant (with generous discounts for half-case and full-case buys) and is also offered at $7.50 a glass. And wine buffs will notice something new on its label: the signature Roman numeral II (two) appears next to the Hitching Post logo for the first time.

That distinction in nomenclature, in fact, is important.  Ostini’s restaurant is actually preceded by the original Hitching Post in the nearby town of Casmalia.  That original steakhouse dates back to 1945 and was purchased by Ostini’s father – a cabinetmaker-turned-restaurateur – in 1952.  “My parents worked harder at that restaurant than I ever have,” says Ostini, humbly.

Ostini and his brother, Bill, began working at the restaurant when their father died in 1977, and they bought it outright from their mother in 1981.  Admittedly, there were creative differences in the kitchen.  “We wanted to take it in different directions,” recalls Ostini.  “Bill wanted to keep things the same and I wanted to try new things: a more extensive menu, offering soups made from scratch, featuring desserts and focusing on the business from Southern Californians coming up here to visit wineries.”  So Ostini took a leap of faith and opened up his own place – Hitching Post II – along Highway 246 in Buellton, just off Highway 101, in May of 1986.  And the rest is culinary history.

The original Hitching Post is still thriving, with a lengthy, storied past and an avid repeat clientele.  But the Hitching Post II has made its own claim on the valley’s food scene with a focus on quality Santa Maria-style barbecue – fare grilled over an open oak wood fire – and a penchant for infusing hearty, smoky flavors throughout the menu.  “A third of our menu is beef,” says Ostini, “but it’s 75 percent of what people order.”  The Hitching Post sources its meat from small packers in the Midwest – Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, mainly – and doles out cuts like prime top sirloin, New York strip and filet mignon in a variety of portion sizes and made-to-order temperatures.  The menu also features daily fish specials and popular renditions of fowl, like Texas quail, Shelton chicken and duck breast.  Its rack of lamb and pork baby back ribs are big sellers.  And several appetizers are almost legendary, especially the grilled artichoke, which is steamed and then cooked over that distinctive oak wood fire before being seasoned with Ostini’s proprietary Magic Dust (a blend of three peppers, onion, garlic and salt in secret percentages) and served with his signature spicy smoked tomato mayonnaise.  The restaurant is specific about using the green globe artichoke variety exclusively, which it sources from growers in Castroville.

Weekly reduced-price specials have become popular, especially with locals.  Steak sandwiches are featured on Tuesdays and pulled pork sandwiches are headliners on Wednesdays.  A $12.95 oak grilled burger reels in the crowds on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; extras like Tillamook cheese, grilled onions and avocado are $1 extra each.

The wine list offers several Hitching Post wines, mostly pinots, by the glass.  Interestingly, it also includes a Hitching Post merlot, a response by Hartley and Ostini to the hit that the red grape takes in the Sideways film; the main character’s foul-mouthed critique of the wine has been credited with a nationwide downturn in merlot sales that’s being felt to this day.  “We felt bad,” Ostini admits.  A mention of Sideways in the back label of this merlot (in defense of the grape) is the only reference to the movie that the consumer will ever find on any Hitching Post wine bottle or menu.  “But we were swimming upstream since 1986 with having pinot noir as the house wine at a steakhouse,” asserts Ostini with a chuckle.  “The movie definitely changed the stream’s direction.”

Ostini also retooled the restaurant’s wine list two years ago to bolster the inclusion of local wines; they now make up 90% of the list.  “These wineries referring people to our restaurant was crucial for us when we got started,” Ostini says.  “I don’t want to forget what got us here.”

But it isn’t the food or the wine that Ostini points to when he speaks of the Hitching Post II’s longevity and success.  Aside from loyal local, he credits his employees, many of whom shuffle back and forth behind him in dinner preparation as he sits calmly at the bar.  His restaurant, he says, is in good hands.  “With this 25-year celebration, I’m really honoring the everyday work all these people do,” he says with a noticeably genuine tone.  He makes special mention of staff who’ve been there since day one, like server Kelly Fairbrother, sous chef Jesus Montano and the restaurant’s executive chef, Bradley Lettau, who “taught me how to cut and cook fish,” admits Ostini, “and who makes a bacon that’s just incredible.”  Eight kitchen workers have been clocking in for more than 10 years.

Ostini recognizes that each employee “spends a third of their time with and for the Hitching Post II.”  And as he plays with the calculator function on his iPhone, he figures out that those who’ve been with him since the doors opened in 1986 “have done their daily chores 6000 times!  There’s a load of honor in that.”

These days, Ostini wears the hat of general manager (a signature pith hat, at that) and describes himself as a “systems guy” who ensures things run smoothly.  Peak season for the restaurant is March through October, and his duties after that are consumed by the annual grape harvest’s rigorous demands on any winemaker.  January and February tend to be calmer, which makes the timing of the current 25-year celebration ideal.

Ostini also focuses on shaking hands and mingling with guests often.  “We had this little miracle happen with the movie, my picture was in like 500 newspapers,” he says, “so that’s become important to a lot of the people who come here.”

The downturn in the economy in 2008 has softened sales some; but, buoyed by the earlier Sideways effect, no jobs at Hitching Post II have been lost.  “The movie gave us the opportunity to make a first impression all over again,” Ostini says, “and we knew that if we did things right, people would keep coming back.”

Mission accomplished.

Hitching Post II, 406 E. Highway 246, Buellton.  805-688-0676

Local Wine Merchant Passes: Remembering Frank Crandall

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on January 8, 2012)

Frank Crandall may well have been one of those lucky people who lived two unique incarnations to their fullest.

Renegade Wines
For more than two decades, he was the go-to guy for many Santa Barbara wine aficionados.  As founder and owner of Renegade Wines, he garnered a following for his expansive selection of fairly priced bottles, his large wine storage space and a knack for tracking down hard-to-find labels.  But a younger Crandall lived a completely different reality – a young man’s rock and roll dream.

“You know, his brother in law was Alice Cooper,” says Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association and longtime friend of Crandall.  This fascinating fact – that Crandall’s longtime wife, Nickie, was the sister of a rock legend – wasn’t something a decidedly unassuming and humble Crandall would readily mention.  But his affiliation, with both Alice Cooper and the world of rock and roll, extended well beyond family ties.

Crandall taught himself to play electric guitar and bass a young teen.  Many a prepubescent’s dream, but Crandall had a special knack.  In the 1970s, he helped found a classic rock band, Jett Black, that would soon become familiar with the roaring of crowd-swarmed stadiums by touring the East Coast and opening for hot names like Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen.  When he moved to Southern California, his skill with strings got him headlining gigs on the wildly popular Sunset Strip and with accomplished performers like Tony Childs and The Motels.  And it was sheer talent that garnered him songwriting awards alongside colleague Alice Cooper; the domestic connection simply made the accolades sweeter.

It is quintessential irony that such an accomplished strummer would be afflicted with arthritis.  Crandall’s was, in fact, especially severe, and it affected both his hands and feet.  Those who met him in his later years undoubtedly noticed a visibly crippled hand whenever they went to shake it.  But Crandall always extended it without hesitation, and always with a distinctive, infectious guffaw.

Necessity forced Crandall to look at a different career track.  “His arthritis is why he gave up the bass,” recalls Fiolek.  But the wine business proved more than mere employment; it became a veritable way of life for Crandall.  His new incarnation started at the wine department inside Jurgensen’s, a now-closed but once-popular grocery along Coast Village Road in Montecito.  “People would come by asking for rare wines and Frank would put together these fabulous cases for them,” remembers Antonio Gardella, a fine wine specialist with wine distributor Henry Wine Group, and Crandall’s longtime supplier and friend.  “Over the years, he had this Rolodex of all these people and their wine wants, and when Jurgensen’s closed, he took it with him.”

Briefly, he sold wine while he worked at the Wine Bistro, another Coast Village Road landmark of yesteryear.  But, as friend and Renegade business partner Steve Wayne tells it, “he soon said to himself, ‘Hey, I could do this on my own.’”  His solo venture launched in 1990 from a wine warehouse near Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone run by then-wine merchant and successful winemaker Chris Whitcraft.  But it wasn’t long before he found a quirky spot at East Gutierrez and Santa Barbara Streets to open a wine shop that would be his own.

“The Wine Cask had just opened so a lot of people called him nuts for going off on his own,” recounts Wayne.  “They called him a renegade.”  The name fit, and stuck.

Renegade Wines opened in a 1500-square foot, no-frills storage space in an industrial complex.  Not a splashy spot, and not easy to find.  “The speakeasy of wine shops” is how one tourist recently described it after finally finding his way there, Wayne recalls with a laugh.  Indeed, committed wine buffs have made their way there over the years, enough so that Crandall expanded his shop twice – once around 1995 and again about six years ago – by knocking down the walls to neighbor spaces that became vacant.  He built his business by engaging customers with genuine enthusiasm for wine and making a point to keep prices competitive.  And he forged solid, long-lasting relationships with purveyors like Gardella, who still recalls the largest order Crandall ever placed with him: “25 cases of Dow’s Port,” he says.

Crandall also developed a keen palate for tasting wine.  “We’d have distributors come in with samples and Frank would take on sip and say, ‘Corked!’” recalls Wayne.  “And after two or three more sips, you’d realize, yeah, he’s right, this wine is corked.  And the distributor would tell us he’d been tasting other buyers on the same bottle all day and they’d loved it!”  Crandall preferred whites, chardonnays in particular, and especially those from the Corton-Charlemagne appellation in Burgundy.  “On special occasions, the bottle he’d open all the time was the Louie Latour,” remembers Wayne.

Today, Renegade Wines is a nearly 5000-square foot shop with a burgeoning selection that Crandall regularly updated for his customers online, at  Most of the space is, actually, home to temperature- and humidity-controlled lockers for wine storage that are under 24-hour video surveillance.  Budding collectors have smaller eight-case lockers to rent; serious connoisseurs can choose spaces that hold close to 600 cases.  The store’s total storage capacity is more than a quarter-million bottles.  Renegade obtained a license to hold monthly tastings four years ago, which has also helped bolster business.

When Crandall passed away on December 29th, it came as a surprise, a shock even, for many who knew him.  “I had no idea he was that sick,” says Fiolek.  Par for the course, perhaps, for a man who wore humility on his sleeve.  Wayne says the 64-year-old ended his daily visits to the wine shop in May of last year, a victim to health complications wrought by cancer.  But his spunk managed to survive.  “He was still cracking jokes last time I spoke with him on the phone,” says Wayne, “about three or four days before he died.”

Wayne worked with Crandall at Renegade Wines for 10 years.  He is hoping to buy Renegade Wines outright.  For now, he says the store is still very much open for business.

For Fiolek, the few days since Crandall’s passing have spurred memories of both wine and rock and roll.  Turns out, the man who successfully lived two incarnations found a way to perfectly, wonderfully – but briefly – enjoy the two together.  The launch of Renegade Wines in 1990 coincided with the formation of a band of Santa Barbara-based winemakers and wine aficionados called “H2S”; the formula for hydrogen sulfide was a tongue-and-cheek title equating the chemical compound’s notoriously stinky rotten-egg smell to the purported talents of the band members, which included Fiolek and Whitcraft, among others.  “Our first gig was [winemaker] Fred Brander’s 40th birthday party in October of 1990,” remembers Fiolek.  Crandall was the rock band’s bassist for about three years, until the debilitating pain from arthritis won out.

“But Frank always played through the pain, had this fierce look in his eye, just kept it going, kept it going, and always kept our rhythm, and made sure things always fell into place,” recalls Fiolek.  “So he was a lot like the instrument he played: steady, and always kept the beat going.”