Nurturing nostalgic nosh while cultivating the hand-crafted cuisine that’s widely craved today. Modernizing buildings that haven’t been used in decades while retaining their rustic, rural spirit. Carving new corners for celebrations while ensuring each offers a distinct experience and feel. And doing it all under the shadow of a global pandemic.
These are just slices of a big pie being quickly but carefully baked at Zaca Creek, the three-acre property located just north of Buellton on the west side of 101 that was home to Jim Buell’s beloved steakhouse and raucous saloon from 1960s to 2001. After multiple owners failed to fire up the grills over the past 20 years, an extended Santa Ynez Valley family is now at the helm, and their combined backgrounds in food, drink, contracting, permitting, and event venue management are enabling an ambitious, multi-pronged plan to take root.
“We all have a long lineage in the valley,” said Stephen Villa, a Lompoc native and former assistant winemaker at Fiddlehead Cellars who co-owns the property with his wife, Santa Ynez High grad Chelsea Rushing. “We’re all from here.”
The couple stumbled into the event business by turning their Highway 246 property into a wedding venue after hosting their own nuptials there on New Year’s Eve of 2015. Almost immediately, the olive-and-walnut-tree-dotted ranch called La Arboleda started selling out far in advance, a testament to the dearth of appropriate venues in the area. Zaca Creek represented an opportunity to double down on that success while expanding their services, so the couple jumped on the property at the end of 2018 and started redevelopment the following year.
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In a region rife with complaints over slow permitting, the plans for Zaca Creek clipped along with comparable ease, thanks to the intimate involvement of Chelsea’s parents, Joe and Sally Rushing. Sally knows the ins and outs of county planning like few others, and Joe is a contractor by trade — so when ideas pop up, construction is soon to follow. It didn’t hurt that the property came with a relatively open array of potential uses. “The zoning on this property was one of the most attractive things,” said Villa.
So far, they’ve converted half of the old dining hall — which once seated a whopping 250 people — to six hotel rooms, whose stone-walled, barn-beamed style blends French chateau with California ranch life, and turned the rest into The Tavern at Zaca Creek, a 125-person-capacity restaurant of mostly outdoor tables. There’s a ceremony space under a large oak tree up the hill; a pool and waterfall area that may also become a space for “club members” in the future; a more casual eatery called The Treehouse that’s gone from rendering to reality in just months; and the huge barn-like building in the center of it all, which served as the saloon and dance hall during the heyday of the Buell ownership.
“The key to this property is that there are so many different aspects to it,” said Villa, explaining that a wedding party could host a welcome reception, rehearsal dinner, ceremony, wedding dinner, and dance party without ever seeing the same area twice. “We wanted people to think that, if they didn’t need to leave, they didn’t have to.”
They were planning to open in March 2020 when COVID-19 hit. They pulled off one wedding but soon realized that there’d be no large events at all in 2020. While rescheduling bookings to 2021 and 2022, the team focused on The Tavern, patiently watching how other restaurants handled the health code guidelines and then opening on August 22. Said Villa, “We wanted to give people an experience that felt intentional.”
To do so, Villa left the wine industry, a career he began at East Beach Wine on Milpas Street as a UCSB student before spending 13 years in the cellar at Fiddlehead. He left that job earlier this year to take on The Tavern’s GM and beverage management roles, about which he is super jazzed. “It was really exciting to take the relationships that I formed and the knowledge that I accrued, and the love of it, and to translate that to a wine list that shines a light on what the valley is about,” said Villa, who is showcasing smaller producers and hopes to host intimate winemaker dinners and educational events in the future.
He’s become a student of spirits and cocktails as well, turning Brazilian cachaças, Mexican mezcal, and pink-hued Amalfi Coast gin into colorful, balanced drinks while curating what may be the deepest library of brown liquor and rare chartreuse in the Santa Ynez Valley. “When I knew I was going to take over the restaurant, I just dove into it,” said Villa of his ongoing liquor education.
For the food, they interviewed dozens of potential chefs, but none clicked. So Chelsea called up her friend and former Santa Ynez High water polo teammate Kaitlyn Paul, who’d been working the kitchens of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the past five years. “She was ready to take the reins on a place all her own,” said Rushing.
Paul was also ready to come home, having hit the top of the chef food chain in Wyoming, and was pleased to find a solid Zaca Creek team. “This is the most well-functioning management group that I’ve worked with in a restaurant,” she explained. “This is the fifth restaurant I’ve opened, and the smoothest.”
Respecting the restaurant’s steakhouse history, The Tavern’s entree menu features all wagyu beef, raised nearby by the Branquinho family, as well as other classic meat and seafood options, from lamb racks to diver scallops. The modern creative streak — or what Paul calls “approachable weird food” — shines more brightly in specials and the menu’s “Bells & Whistles” and “Unforeseen Greens” sections, from chorizo-stuffed squid and a refreshing wagyu tartare to red onion flowers with shishito peppers and grilled Caesar salad with tangy, crunchy anchovy bits called alici. Desserts are pies and cakes freshly baked daily by Chelsea’s sister-in-law Sadie Rushing.
Thanks to a covered patio providing plenty of pandemic-fighting airflow and ample dining space, business is quite steady, though the owners quickly admit that the reaction can be a bit mixed. Most are immediately enthused about The Tavern’s delicious offerings, but others are melancholic, wishing somehow that Buell’s original Zaca Creek formula was stuck in time.
Villa and Rushing are sensitive to those memories of the past, which is why the popular steak bites remain on the menu. But they aren’t afraid to push comfort levels. “We give them what they want,” said Villa. “But we also give them something that they might not realize that they want.”
The balancing challenge takes center stage in the property’s biggest building, the centrally located former saloon and dance hall. “It was supposedly a really happening place,” said Villa, of what was once known as El Reno Room but is now called The Buellhouse. “We hear about wild things that happened at Zaca Creek,” confirmed Rushing, laughing about rumors of an errant bullet lodged somewhere in the ceiling.
They’ve updated the building’s kitchen, brought it up to code, and even turned the basement into a dinner-ready wine cellar. But when it comes to the main room, they’re kept the original layout, merely dusted off the furniture, and done just cosmetic improvements to that hallowed space. “We tried to keep it as much intact as possible to keep the original mystique alive,” said Villa. Added Rushing, but referring to the whole property, “It just has so much nostalgia with it.”
1297 Jonata Park Rd., Buellton; (805) 688-2412; zaca-creek.com
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