Reopening the restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos is a dream come true for its new chef-owner, as well as for many local residents and visitors who have missed dining at the historical landmark.
Maili Halme plans to throw open the doors of the restaurant in December with a fundraising event where people will likely see one of the original late 1880s stagecoaches drawn up in front of the tavern.
When the doors open and the first plates of food are delivered, a desire that was planted in Halme’s heart when she was just a child will finally come to fruition.
“I’ve wanted it since I was 11 years old,” Halme said. “I was sitting out front waiting for (U.S. Olympic gold medal speed skater) Eric Heiden to come racing by (on a bicycle), and I kept looking over at the Wicker Room.
“When you’re 11 years old, you don’t have any idea what anything costs, so I said, ‘I’m going to own that someday.’”
It wasn’t perhaps an unusual dream for someone who started cooking when she was 3 years old, although Halme said she didn’t become a formal cook until she was 14.
Nor should it be surprising that she developed such an interest in the kitchen.
“I’m a third-generation chef on both sides,” Halme said, noting her grandfather was a Navy cook during World War II, who later served up food at the big Los Angeles Farmers Market, and her mother owns Solvang Bakery. “I grew up in the kitchen.”
When she was 19, she was the chef for the Barrack family on weekdays. On weekends, she was a waitress in Mattei’s restaurant, which at that time was a Charthouse.
Halme went on to become a restaurant chef, then switched to catering because the long restaurant hours weren’t conducive to raising her children.
“But I always missed the line,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “There is nothing quite like working on the line in a restaurant kitchen. The adrenaline rush is similar to the feeling I get when skydiving.”
She also has been a personal chef for some of the biggest, most recognizable people in Hollywood and professional sports, although she can’t disclose their names publicly.
“Let’s just say I’ve cooked for everyone I ever dreamed of cooking for,” she said.
Through all those years, Mattei’s was never far from her mind.
“I said many, many, many times: ‘If I ever have a restaurant, it has to be Mattei’s,’” she wrote. “I drove by that empty building every time I could and felt as heartbroken as the rest of our valley, that this beloved place was closed.”
Her youngest daughter graduated from high school this year, which gave Halme the opportunity to return to a restaurant kitchen. And in a moment of synchronicity, that chance came a little more than a month ago.
Brian and Shamra Strange were purchasing the Mattei’s Tavern property and invited Halme to interview for the job of restaurant chef and proprietor.
“I’d never met the new owners,” she said, but when she did, she found they had as much love for the historical tavern as she did — and a similar vision for its future and its menu. “They interviewed a number of chefs, and they chose me.
“Now I’m back to 14-, 16-hour days,” she said, adding that since being named the chef-owner of Mattei’s Tavern restaurant, she’s put in at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week, planning for its reopening.
Returning to tradition
One part of preparing to reopen the restaurant is developing a menu. Halme’s will blend classic comfort food, like mud pie and Mattei’s famous turkey dinner, with organic produce and fresh local vegetables.
“I really plan to serve the food that people love,” Halme said. “I’ve been asking people what they want on the menu and what they miss about Mattei’s. I’ll also have a special bar menu because people say they like to eat at the bar.”
That will range from a grilled cheese sandwich and her sister’s artichoke dip with hand-fried tortilla chips to a fresh veggie platter and something she calls “Crazy Expensive Potato Skins.”
But an equally important part of preparing to reopen is restoring the restaurant and bar to their former glory.
Halme said she just ordered wicker chairs for the Wicker Room, and the original bar that was preserved and stored by Rodney Williams will be reinstalled.
“I’m trying to restore it to its original historical condition,” she said, and that idea has struck a chord with many people.
“I’m just running into people all over the Valley who have tears in their eyes because we’re reopening Mattei’s,” she said. “It’s very personal. People had very personal experiences here. One woman said she had her eighth-grade graduation dinner here, and now her daughter can have her eighth-grade graduation dinner here.
“I talked to a couple who had their first date here,” she continued. “He proposed to her here, and now they’ll be able to celebrate their 53rd wedding anniversary here.
“I’ve had people tell me their grandmother worked here, that four generations of their family worked here. … I feel like this is a lot bigger than me. I’m kind of giving a gift back to the community.”
Halme pointed out that Mattei’s was where the stagecoaches carrying people on the perilous journey over San Marcos Pass met the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway trains that ran north to Port San Luis and San Luis Obispo.
“There were people coming down from the gold fields and other people arriving on the train,” she said. “There were wealthy people — it wasn’t just the Wild West. Mattei’s Tavern is the history of our Valley and the history of California.”