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Historic Mattei's Tavern restaurant closing June 3

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After operating for six months under local Chef Maili Halme, the restaurant at the historic Mattei's Tavern in Los Olivos is closing June 3.

Mattei's was pulled out of foreclosure in the summer of 2017 when it was purchased for $12 million at auction by Los Angeles lawyer Brian R. Strange and wife Shamra, of Malibu. The Strange family also owns Strange Family Vineyards located in the St. Rita Hills AVA known for their pinot noir and chardonnay wines.

The tavern consists of the restaurant building and eight bungalows totaling 16,600 square feet on 6.5 acres located on Railway Avenue adjacent to Highway 154. The site also came with approved entitlements to build a 67-room boutique resort hotel.

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matteis_sign

According to Maili, the Mattei's Tavern sign hand-carved and painted by Earl McCutcheon will stay with the property as it was a gift to the community.

Halme signed a seven-year lease with the Strange family and opened the restaurant in December 2017, with hopes of achieving her childhood dream.

In recent months, though, Shamra Strange said they knew Halme had challenges with the terms of the contract.

"The finances of running a restaurant are hard, especially a restaurant of this size. This is a 225-table restaurant," said Strange. 

According to Strange, Halme had requested a renegotiation of the contract; and when they were unsuccessful in their attempt to rework the numbers, the Stranges suggested bringing in a consultant to assist with a creative financial strategy. Shamra Strange said Halme declined the option.

"We helped her find an exit strategy and released her of her obligations," Strange said."This is a failed business venture and we are all just doing the best we can. We are very disappointed; it's a huge financial setback for both of us."

The chef's voice

A recent social media post by Halme on May 1 states:

"My last day at the restaurant will be June 3 and we will open early at 12:00 for our traditional Fried Chicken Sunday Dinner... Please be sure to use any gift certificates you may have purchased or received before June 3.

I will be returning the items on loan from the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum as well as all of the items that were given to me on loan from individuals in our community. The hand-carved and hand-painted signs that were given to me as gifts will stay with the restaurant. It was an honor to share this chapter in history with all of you.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to fulfill my dream and I look forward to returning to other pursuits.

The future of the restaurant is in the hands of the Strange family and they have asked the community to stay tuned for their upcoming plans."

Halme told the Santa Ynez Valley News, “I wish nothing but the best for the future of the restaurant,” and declined to comment further. 

A long history

In 2007, a company controlled by Charles Augustus Banks IV purchased the historic property. Banks declined to renew the restaurant lease with brothers Matt and Jeff Nichols, closed the space and spent nearly two years renovating it. Although the restaurant reopened in 2013 under chefs Emily Perry and Robbie Wilson, it eventually closed in January 2016 when Banks was indicted after pleading guilty to wire fraud.

Given Mattei's recent past, Strange said they had a deep concern for its future.

"We wanted to protect it; we were afraid of who might purchase it," she said.

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Portraits of the founders of Mattei’s Tavern, Felix, center, his wife Lucy, left, and one of their sons, Clarence, hang over a fireplace at the historic landmark.

In 2015 the Strange's son, Johnny, died in an accident 10 days after his sister Brianna was married at their family vineyard. He was 23 years old.

"We have a beautiful memory of the wedding rehearsal dinner held at Mattei's and the toast he made that day," she said. "Since we lost our son, Mattei's is another way we can connect with him," said Strange.

Purchasing the property was more of an emotional buy, she said. And although the Stranges had never managed a restaurant before, their desire to preserve Mattei's history and honor the building's integrity was paramount. 

"We are deeply committed to this project. We are not out-of-towners, we have a life here; we want to give Mattei's back to the community. It belongs to the community. We are just custodians of it," said Strange. 

Built in 1886 as a stagecoach stop by Swiss American Felix Mattei, the tavern provided an inn, a dining room and a bar for travelers making their way up and down California via the rugged San Marcos Pass. It also represented the southern end of the line for the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway that linked the Santa Ynez Valley all the way up to San Luis Obispo.

Mattei’s Tavern became a gathering place for farmers, ranchers, cowpokes, gold miners, politicians, lawmen -- and travelers. As the population grew in the Santa Ynez Valley, it served as a focal point for private and social gatherings and became intertwined with the lives of local residents.

Over the decades, the tavern's facade and theme remained relatively unchanged, and the Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission designated the inn a historical landmark on Nov. 15, 2010.

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Figuring it out

After the Stranges closed escrow on the property on Aug 31, 2017, they immediately began interviewing to get the restaurant going.

"It's a big mortgage," Strange said.

The last interviewee to walk through the door, Strange said, was Halme. The Stranges were immediately excited by her love and connection to the property.

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One of the dining rooms at the historic Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos is shown.

Strange said not long after the initial meeting that an agreement that fulfilled both the lifelong dream of Halme's to own Mattei's, and their desire to revive the heart of the historic tavern -- the kitchen -- materialized through a seven-year lease. The lease obligated Halme as the lessee and proprietor of the tavern’s restaurant.

Strange didn't respond to a request for details of the contract.

Collections Committee Chairman of the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and local resident, Curt Cragg, said he is working closely with the Stranges because he knows they want to keep Mattei's history alive.

"Mattie's is an important part of the community," Cragg said.

He said he is willing to keep the historical artifacts on display that he lent to Mattei's in the months Halme restored the property.

The Stranges are interviewing for restaurateurs to lease the tavern.

"Our number one priority is to find someone local who knows and loves the property like Maili does," said Strange. "The chef gets to choose their own menu."

As the Stranges take interviews and wait for the dust to settle, they will continue to explore all possibilities, said Shamra Strange. "We're all in."

If you are interested in learning more about the leasing opportunity or have questions or concerns, Shamra Strange asks that you contact them at info@matteistavernbungalows.

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Lisa André is the Lifestyle Editor for the Santa Ynez Valley News. You can follow her on twitter @LAndreSYVNews

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