By Raiza Giorgi
When Chef Maili Halme was shown the old bar’s mantle, portraits of the Mattei family, and other relics of the historic Mattei’s Tavern, she started jumping up and down with glee.
“I can’t even begin to tell you the amazing response I’ve had since we announced that we are restoring Mattei’s to its former glory days and breathing new life into it,” she said.
Halme, the new chef and owner of the restaurant that will open early next year in the Los Olivos tavern, will host an open house on Dec. 2. For the occasion, she is pulling out all the stagecoach stops; she plans to have old carriages on display as a fundraiser for the Santa Ynez Valley’s Carriage Museum.
“People have been contacting me from all around saying they have photos of their first date, rehearsal dinner, artifacts from the restaurant, historical photos, and I am just soaking up all of it. I keep pinching myself that this isn’t a dream,” Halme said.
Those that have grown up in the Santa Ynez Valley know the significance of the historic white building on Highway 154 in Los Olivos, and many have wondered what it was like when trains rolled up in front of Mattei’s Tavern.
“Mattei’s became to me what it was to everyone else in the valley: the place we all gathered to celebrate birthdays, graduations and anniversaries. It was a beloved restaurant filled with memories of personal celebrations,” Halme said.
She also recalls a fond memory of sitting on the fence at Mattei’s and thinking that one day she would like to own it.
Halme started her career as a chef at 19 years old, cooking for the Barrack family and working as a waitress at Mattei’s. Her mother and sister own the world-famous Solvang Bakery, where she helps out when she can, and her grandfather was a chef who owned Bray’s 101 in Goleta.
“I loved their tomato soup so much that I snuck into the kitchen to copy the recipe and I made that tomato soup from then on. I loved the crisp salad bar with the cold plates. I loved the squaw bread and the artichokes. I loved everything about it,” she said.
Halme has built a fine reputation of her own, cooking for numerous dignitaries and celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey.
“I am a total history buff and love collecting cookbooks. It’s fitting that I have a cookbook from the White House in 1887 and I hope to incorporate some of those recipes from the day into the restaurant,” Halme said.
On a tour of the restaurant as a construction crew restored the floors, took out modern lighting and replaced the original lamps and portraits, she paused as she took a step on the stairs.
“You can’t know the feeling of excitement I had when I got to go upstairs for the first time. I have wanted to do that my whole life.”
At the top of the stairs are the original hotel rooms, which are now used as offices. The rooms were tiny, as guests got only a bed and a dresser.
At one time, the hotel and tavern built by Italian Swiss immigrant Felix Mattei were an important link in the transportation chain through Santa Barbara County.
Mattei was born in 1854 in Cevio, Switzerland, the son of a doctor. He emigrated to New York and rode the train to California to visit relatives near San Francisco, according to a history book by Walter A. Tompkins. He then became a dairyman and worked his way down to San Luis Obispo County and operated the Huasna Rancho near Arroyo Grande.
He married Lucy Fisher, daughter of a San Luis Obispo gunsmith, in 1879, and they had five sons. In addition to the ranch they also operated a hotel in Cayucos, where Mattei found his love for the hotel industry.
He first came to the Santa Ynez Valley when he was driving a herd of horses and decided after some years to build a hotel and restaurant in Los Olivos in 1886.
Originally called the New Central Hotel, it became a well known as the last stop for the stagecoach from Santa Barbara; the train took travelers north from Mattei’s. Later it was known as Hotel Los Olivos and eventually Mattei’s Tavern.
In 1901 the expansion of the Southern Pacific Railroad allowed travelers to take the train down the coast, so the Los Olivos Depot was no longer used, according to the Santa Ynez Historical Museum.
Among many colorful tales told about Mattei’s Tavern is the one of a lynch mob in 1891. According to stories told by the family, the mob gathered outside of Mattei’s as suspects in the murder of Fred Hoar, the Los Olivos telegraph operator, awaited transportation to the Santa Barbara Jail.
The suspects had been caught in Los Alamos and Sheriff Broughton was adamant that they stand trial. To escape the mob, the sheriff dressed the suspects in Lucy Mattei’s dresses and sneaked them out when the tavern was being emptied.
The suspects were then tried and found guilty, ending their days in San Quentin Penitentiary.
Adding to the tavern’s historical significance, Halme added, is that Solvang’s founders stayed there when they arrived in the valley. They signed the guest book as they got off the train and stayed in the hotel before going on to Solvang.
“The first ride for the founding of the Vaqueros Visitadores also came to Mattei’s and they all signed the guestbook as proof of who attended their first meeting. I love our valley so much, and this is way bigger than me reopening Mattei’s,” Halme said.
The Mattei family line in the area ended when Bert Mattei died in August 1961. The tavern has been sold several times since then. The new owners are the Strange family, longtime friends of Halme’s.
Halme wants to respect as much of the tavern’s history as possible, including some of its classic dishes, while adding her own touches. She hopes even to bring back some of the menu created by its renowned cook Gin Lung Gin, who was Mattei’s chef and a trusted family friend for 37 years. He is even buried on the property.
“Gin could take anything and make it into something fabulous. from what I read in the history books. That’s the level of cooking I want, where people come to appreciate not just the history of the tavern but can taste it as well,” Halme said.
She invites anyone who has something to share, whether that is a story about the Mattei family or an experience at the restaurant, to contact her on Facebook.