Two Sisters Are Harnessing Ojai’s Bounty to Create the California Restaurant of Our Dreams
Come along on an exclusive look into the highly anticipated recipes from Rory’s Place.
In Ojai, bridge seasons are delightful and disorienting. Early in autumn, the heat of summer recedes but refuses to yield, the temperature toggles between balmy and chilly depending on cloud cover and time of day, and the aroma of wood-burning ovens stoked with fallen local oak perfumes the air. Meave McAuliffe pushes a cast-iron pan loaded with heirloom pumpkins into the back of the wood oven, flames licking the domed ceiling. She peers in to make sure they’re in the blast zone that will convert them from starchy and pale orange to sweet and jeweled. “Whew,” she says, grimacing from the fire. “It’s going to be a hot one tonight.”
Tonight is the calm before the storm, if you will: a celebratory dinner with friends before Meave and her sister, Rory, open their new restaurant, Rory’s Place, in this tiny California town known for its ranches and citrus groves and boho pastoral vibes.
The restaurant, situated in an old theater on the western edge of the tiny town’s main drag, has been several years in the making, knocked off track like so many restaurants by the pandemic. It’s a beautiful space with soaring ceilings, a bar hewn from local timber, and ceramic sconces made by Meave, who also made many of the serving dishes. During the shutdown, the McAuliffe sisters also threw backyard pop-ups with wood-fired dishes and lots of oysters, sold arty T-shirts, gained a little Instagram following, and fine-tuned the recipes that will end up at the restaurant: steak topped with compound butter enriched with a friend’s domestic bottarga, grilled vegetables dressed with a lemony aïoli, sides of salmon marinated and seasoned with wild local herbs, all on the menu today. The sisters know a thing or two about California cuisine. They grew up helping their mom with her bakery in Los Angeles. Meave went on to chef around the country, opened Venice’s Gjelina, and ran the kitchen at Saltwater Oyster Depot up in Inverness. Rory, a former film producer, did stints working front of house in restaurants and bars and dreamed of opening her own bar. The two felt the pull of rural Ojai, decided to join forces, and here we are today.
Rory nestles bottles of Malvasia and other natural wines into a tub of ice on the stone patio at a friend’s gracious Spanish-style ranch house. It’s a quintessential Ojai setting: Orange groves surround, the Topatopa Mountains loom in the distance, an ancient oak tree shades the guests from the soon-to-be setting sun. It’s a gathering of people who’ve all had a hand in the restaurant’s evolution. Roni Ginach, an importer and distributor of natural wines who’s curating the list at Rory’s, fills wineglasses. “It’s been a long time coming,” she says, raising her glass to toast the impending opening. Other friends in attendance include Kenny Osehan, the hotelier behind the reboot of the town’s Ojai Rancho Inn, Capri Hotel, and Hummingbird Inn; Brittany Cole Bush, a.k.a. Cole the Shepherdess, who grazes her herd of goats and sheep in the hills of Ojai and beyond; event planner Kat Ferguson; general manager Caroline Copley; and baker Corban Fairbanks, whose sourdough boules grace the groaning board on which platters of broiled oysters, grilled treviso, and other wood-fired delights are laid out under sprays of local flowers.
The dinner today and the restaurant itself are a love letter to Ojai. “Ojai and the surrounding areas have the best produce we’ve ever had,” says Rory. “Having sourced for Gjelina in the past, Meave had relationships with some of the surrounding farms. The freshest fish is pulled out of the Ventura and Santa Barbara waters. We get local lamb from our friend Cole’s flock, and sustainably raised pork from Casitas Valley Pastures [in nearby Ventura]. All the best ingredients available in L.A. come from here! So we decided to go right to the source. Now we can’t imagine doing this project anywhere else.”