(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|
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.”
Hitching Post II, 406 E. Highway 246, Buellton. 805-688-0676 www.HitchingPost2.com.