The Rebirth of the Cuyama Buckhorn, a Classic Roadside Motel

As a fan of classic American architecture, especially when it’s been brought up to date, I was intrigued by the Cuyama Buckhorn motel as soon as I heard about it. “Under new owners Jeff Vance and Ferial Sadeghian, of the Los Angeles–based design and architecture firm iDGroup, the property is emerging from 18 months of renovations after decades of neglect,” reported the Ventura County Star last month. That wasn’t entirely accurate, though. In 2015, the Santa Barbara Independent wrote about how the previous owner, Johnny Thomsen, had just reopened the Buckhorn with plans for an RV park and music festivals.

No matter. I made a reservation, enticed by the photos online, a desire to see a part of the state (on the other side of Los Padres National Forest from Santa Barbara, sort of between Ojai and Bakersfield) that was virgin territory, and the news that chef Victor Totoris, formerly of A.O.C. in Los Angeles, is heading the kitchen. The motel isn’t done yet—it’s only open weekends, when construction is paused—so rates are 20% off. As a precaution, I booked for a single night.

The drive to the town of New Cuyama takes about two-and-a-half hours, whether you go up to Santa Maria and then east, or east to Ojai and then north. We chose the latter and were thrilled: Route 33 is gorgeous, especially this time of year, when some of the foliage is changing color. And we stopped at the Santa Barbara Pistachio Company on the way.

The motel is across from Route 166, on a small parallel street. Beyond the terrific sign, the main building is home to the Buckhorn Restaurant & Bar and a coffee counter called the Buck Stop.

There’s also a second dining room, with a stage set up for playing music, and a patio. The manager said that sometimes the staffers form a house band, whose performances are the only ones happening so far.

The guest rooms are behind the restaurant, in a series of low-slung buildings around a fake lawn.

Our room, a deluxe king, was spartan but pleasant. The owners seem to have had fun doing all the branding—on notepads, pens, robes, and so forth.

My husband and I arrived in time for lunch—the meat loaf was excellent—after which I suggested a walk. Exploring the commercial strip took all of 10 minutes: There’s a market, junk shop, laundromat, deli, community center, gas station, and, most photogenic, the ruins of the Burger Barn restaurant, which has moved in with the deli. (I took a city slicker’s delight in the piles of tumbleweeds.) Across the street is nothing but scenery.

Therein lies the challenge for the Cuyama Buckhorn. There is nothing to do—not in the town, and not at the motel. That will change come May, by which time the motel should have its pool completed; a place to lounge outside would be most welcome. (We toggled between the Adirondack chairs and the long picnic table.) Even once there’s a pool, however, I’m not sure the owners have an easy sell. New Cuyama isn’t exactly Palm Springs or L.A., and despite the proprietors’ best efforts, you never forget that you’re at a cinder-block motel. A local I chatted with said the plan is to host weddings and corporate gatherings, relying on the nearby airport. I have a difficult time envisioning the latter, but I do think one could have a lot of fun with a group of friends at the property, where you’re your own entertainment. Whether you think you’re getting a good deal—non-discounted rates will start at $329 for a queen or double room—is another question. Throwing in a free coffee at the Buck Stop certainly wouldn’t hurt.

On the plus side, the food was generally excellent. Standouts were the aforementioned meat loaf, the tri-tip sandwich, the roasted sweet potatoes, and the cowboy pie (akin to shepherd’s pie). In a league of its own, and the best dessert I’ve had in the past 12 months: a homemade dish of dulce de leche topped with roasted pistachios and served with sliced apple for dipping. The dulce de leche was voluptuous, like pudding fit for royalty.

I’m curious to know what the locals think of the restaurant. There were many at breakfast, a few at lunch, and only a handful at dinner. While the menu is hardly tweezer food, it’s presumably more sophisticated—and more expensive—than anything within an hour-and-a-half drive. And this isn’t wine country; it’s country-country, the kind of town where you hear the crowd cheering at the high-school football game on Saturday night and roosters crowing at dawn on Sunday. It’s the kind of town where diners will ask the server about her gun collection, and she’ll rattle off a list a half-dozen long. In that regard, the Cuyama Buckhorn felt like much farther away than it is, and sometimes that’s the most you can hope for in a one-night vacation.