The Wandering Wino Blog

Santa Barbara Restaurant Pays Homage in Wine Country


For wine travelers, great wine and dining experiences are often a partnership. That partnership may be dependant on great palettes, pairings, or simply an appreciation for the sensory experience. Nearly any wine traveler will appreciate stepping into hisory at the new Mattei's Tavern located in Los Olivos, just off Highway 154.


Mattei's Tavern Bar

Mattei's Tavern partner and chef, Robbie Wilson, may be among the very best in the culinary world, but you would not know it with his humble approach, demeanor, and complete lack of pretense. I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Robbie and discuss things that interest him like local history, football, food, wine, and what's new at the historic Mattei's Tavern. The conversation was light, fun, and authentic with Chef Robbie discussing various cuisine, local ingredients, and Mattei's trail map of influence. However, when discussing his amazing culinary background, he shies away from such attention.  


Chef Robbie shared his appreciation for the places/people he has worked, but he doesn't want those places to define him. Chef Robbie commented on some aspiring chefs. 

"Some are driven more by fame, but I think let's just nourish people with a good meal. I think it's about desire, not the passion. Passion is perishable. My desire with Mattei's is to really exploit and define what this region is about with its products."


Santa Barbara Historic Map

Mattei's Tavern food style cannot be summed up in just a few words like so many other restaurants. It's not Mexican, Chinese, Italian, continental, steak or seafood; however, these influences can be seen in the menu. Chef Robbie elaborated on the style, influence, and approach to the seasonal menu.


"This was Mexico way before we got here. We use maize flour and that's what they would have used here. Maize is corn and it tastes delicious. This trail map defines our cuisine. We have something on the menu called sea creatures. Local abalone and ridge-back shrimp, and we make maize out of tempura dough. We use sparkling wine from up the road."



Gin Lung Gin

Photo Above - On tiles, former Chef Gin Lung Gin with current Mattei's Tavern Team Member


Mattei's Tavern

Chef Robbie clearly has done his research on the local history, the building, and the foods of the time. 


"There is a history of Chinese immigrants from the railroad. Gin Lung Gin was a railroad worker and an amazing baker. I can only imagine what his kitchen looked like back then when he would pull trout out of the stream and come back and cook it seven days a week- breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He was the first chef at Matteis Tavern, hired by Felix Mattei, when the 'tavern' was a (Wells Fargo) stage coach stop, brothel, little inn, and a bar, in the early 1900's."



Mattei's Tavern Menu

Having worked the restaurant business for 10+ years from coffee shop to 4 star, I really began to get excited about all that's happening in this iconic and historic location in Santa Barbara's wine country. I found Mattei's Tavern menu to be creative, serious, simple, eclectic, genuine to the region, historic, playful, and, no doubt, pleasing to the most discerning wine traveler or foodie. The menu has two sides, an 1886 and an updated 2014 version to fit both the modern and the nostalgic travelers. 

Kids menu

The beauty, charm, and level of service may have some believing the children should be left at home, but nothing is further from the truth at Mattei's Tavern. The children's menu can be found on a throwback toy some may remember as the view-finder. The outdoor lush lawn area is filled with old school games and even has a playhouse. 

"Everything you see on the menu, there is a reason for it. There is a reason for what we do. We want people to find it delicious; but, at the same time, there is a trail map and a flow of an evolution in this valley to where we are today. We are bringing those things together to pay homage. All of our shellfish come from Morrow Bay up the road. This is such an amazing property."




Q:  Is there a cooking style you gravitate towards?


A: "Not necessarily. The last place we visited was in Italy. We are kind of all over. There is nothing I dislike. I love Vietnamese as much as I love French and I think we are very much fortunate as cooks in America that we can finagle all of that into what we do. The things that generally excite me are foreign profiles - uber ethnic things at this point. Those are the things that really inspire me."




Q: You have worked with several world class chefs at a number of prestigious restaurants. What would you say has been your biggest influence?


A: "Ironically, it's probably been forgetting where I have worked. I always try to take a step back and do my own thing. A lot of chefs try to build a resume and work for the best people, and what you take away from that, I think in other professions would be considered robbery. I try to take a mentality from that and not so much like 'Wow he worked at the French Laundry.' I specifically try to avoid those things.  I will never be Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio Colliciou, or Nobu Matsuhisha. Maybe there is something about approaching the day,  inspiring people, maybe a way about organizing a kitchen, or the respect for the profession. I really, really, try to forget about yesterday. For most interviews, if I could redo my bio, I  would not want to put all the places I've worked. I would rather put, 'I amthinking about tomorrow.' I am trying to evolve this place as a simple, delicious,  little place. I hate to be defined by the places I've worked. I think it takes a little bit away from what we are doing. I am so all over the place that I'm not really influenced by any of those places. "




Q: What does influence you? 


A: "I think just what tastes good."


"I am influenced by my surroundings. The biggest influence, since I have been here, has been wood. We have red oak in this area. We try to put as much smoke in our food because it's amazing.  Is it BBQ? No. The dish that is starting to define us- we are nearly 6 months open- is a grilled avocado. This dish is a perfect avocado from this area that a guy picks for us at the right texture so that we can grill it just like a steak, with ponzu and fresh wasabi. It's simple, there is no fat. I couldn't do that dish in Chicago. I would not have access to that avocado. I couldn't afford that citrus juice to be imported. You can't fly lemons in. I am really influenced by what is great around here."


Red Oak



Q: Tell me more about the foods you smoke?


"We have a pot-roast dish that is essentially a short rib. We cook it about 36 hours. In lieu of gravy, we make it with a really flavorful Raman broth. You hit it with your fork and it falls apart. We have a fish that we put a light smoke into the creme fresh. If you've got the most flavorful local wood, why not exploit it?"




Q: Are their any menu items that require you to use untraditional techniques or unexpected? 


A: "Absolutely, and I think that is part of the appeal here. First, let me say we don't do things to be different, we do things that make sense.  We have a clothesline for our salumi. Each piece of salumi has a clothespin. It might be goofy to some people, but it is acutely quite practical. We have a seafood platter. We ice down a custom-made bowl and put that on a vintage turntable and we call that Morrow Bay's Greatest Hits. Our presentations are a little different; we use smoke in a lot of things. We'll even grill kale. We try to impart one little thing different from the kid next door."


"We didn't get into this to get rich, but to have fun. We are very serious and focused, but we like to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously. We want to nourish people but at the same time there is a level of entertainment. I think we owe it to our guests to put on a show. On our spring menu we are doing a table-side salad. We have these amazing long-boards. We like food to be playful. Here it's a little bit interactive and it is fun for us to present in that way."


Mattei's Tavern Bar

Santa Barbara Restaurant



Q: Tell me about the history of this building?


A: "Rumor has it, that it was a brothel. Felix Mattei was a Swiss immigrant and opened a little tavern by a stagecoach stop. It was a place for people. At first, he had a place for people to crash and to have a drink and maybe a quick bite before they went north. Then Gin Lung Gin, who was a railroad worker looking for work,became famous for cookies, breads, and trout. The little shack that he lived out back is still out back and pretty historical. We wouldn't dare touch it. Over the years it (Mattei's) became a Chart House, and then had a couple of other owners. When the railroad came, the stage coach went away. Then it became more of an inn and hotel in a sense" (circa late 1920's). 

Mattei's Tavern


Wells Fargo Stagecoach Stop

Stage coach stop

"There is no other place like it because of the history. The room we are sitting in is where people waited for the stagecoach a hundred years ago or more. So you sat here and the dusty stagecoach pulled up and we'd go to the bar to get a drink and then you were going to ride to San Francisco or San Louis Obispo. It's been so many things over the years. It's part museum, and there is a little nod to gastronomy and the wine industry. It's a landmark. It's comfortable, it's taverny, it's lodgy. For me, success has always been measured by people. Then there is this guest space and they want to sit at the same table, pouring wine and eating local food that defines this region."


Bocce Ball

"These date palm trees. If you look at the pattern of these trees, that was for the cowboys. stagecoach, and rancheros. It was like a street sign off in the distance. You can see these clusters."






Pizza oven 




Q: Tell me about your outdoor space?


A: "We have a little outdoor (wood burning) oven and it's really outdoor. There is a little roof over it and it's a wood-fired oven. This spring/summer under the willow and olive trees we'll do really simple maybe 5-6 pizzas and a salad. We will flavor our pizzas with red oak."


Mattei's Tavern Outdoor



"You can sit out and we'll have wines by the glass and there's no waiters. The idea is to sit out under the stars, with music, and linger. We have bocce ball, it really starts to embrace that wine country life style, glass of wine, and wood-fired pizza with black bubbles."


Mattei's Tavern Outdoor


"Bring your own wine if you want to. We just want people to come and hang here. We planted a cornfield with a crop circle and there will be lights out there and the corn will be lit up and wireless speakers. To hear the wind hit the corn stalks when they are mature, and to just sit out here with a glass of wine with a pizza."

"We want people to come from all over. It really is a gathering place, that porch lifestyle. There is no reason to get in a hurry out here." 

I for one cannot contain my excitement for the new Mattei's Tavern and, in particular, this new "pizza under the stars." A stop into this historic Santa Barbara wine country restaurant will undoubtedly be a highlight for many more travelers to come.

2350 Railway Avenue, Los Olivos, CA