By Raiza Giorgi

The clopping of horses’ hooves and the creaking of stagecoach wheels were once again heard at Mattei’s Tavern on Dec. 2 as hundreds of people came to the grand re-opening of the historic hotel and restaurant in Los Olivos.

“It feels like falling in love all over again, and I am so grateful to everyone who has helped me in this process and came today to support us and the Santa Ynez Historical Museum,” said Chef Maili Halme, who has been restoring the hotel and tavern to its original glory for several months.

Halme pulled out all the stagecoach stops. Old carriages on display were part of the celebration and a fundraiser for the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and Parks-Janeway Carriage House.

At one time, the hotel and tavern built by Italian Swiss immigrant Felix Mattei was an important link in the transportation chain through Santa Barbara County.

Mattei first saw the Santa Ynez Valley when he was driving a herd of horses through it; he decided after some years to build a hotel and restaurant in Los Olivos in 1886.

Originally called the New Central Hotel, it became well known as the last stop for the northbound 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.

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.

“We want to thank Chef Maili and the Strange family for their generosity to the museum and the valley for this reopening in the very best sense, and for those who came out and made donations to the museum,” said Brian Stenfors, executive director of the historical museum and carriage house.

As people wandered around the hotel’s rooms they saw original light fixtures, portraits of the Mattei family and other historic items, and they were able to watch old movies of when the railroad used to pass through Los Olivos.

Those who came through also signed the guest book, which is an important piece of history for Halme. She has found all the old guest books that contain names of famous patrons from movie stars to local figures, including the founders of Solvang who signed the guest book as they got off the train and stayed in the hotel before going on to Solvang.

Gregg and Jody Cutler enjoyed taking guests around Mattei’s in their Dekalb Wagon, made in the early 1900s and pulled by their two Welsh ponies.

“We love supporting the museum and an excuse to ride around in the wagon. We love showing people a piece of what life was like back then. And imagine having to ride one of these to Santa Barbara and back,” Gregg Cutler said.

People who 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.

Halme has built a fine reputation of her own, cooking for numerous dignitaries and celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey.

She 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 and her grandfather was a chef who owned Bray’s 101 in Goleta.

“You can’t know the feeling of excitement I had when I got to go upstairs for the first time (at Mattei’s Tavern). 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; guests got only a bed and a dresser.

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.

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