When brothers Derek and Blake Ulrich were growing up in Ojai, they never expected to go into the food service or hospitality industries. But after leaving for college and establishing separate careers, they both came back to Ventura County in 2014 to open upscale coffeehouse Prospect Coffee Roasters. It quickly became a hangout for a new generation of coffee obsessives looking for unique, interesting and exotic blends and novel ways to enjoy them.

Success had the siblings thinking about expansion, and they discussed opening up another coffee business. Then the owner of a building on Oak Street approached them about giving the restaurant business a try.

“We just jumped in,” Derek Ulrich admits.

In September 2019, the brothers signed a lease on a space formerly occupied by a photography studio and a furniture store called the Wooden Nickel (now named Folke and relocated to Main Street). A few months later, COVID changed the game plan . . . for everyone, but especially restaurants.

“It took an extraordinarily long time to open,” Ulrich says of Model Citizen, which made its official debut in March 2022. But judging by the quality of the food and drinks, as well as its growing popularity, it was well worth the wait.

Starting from scratch

The pandemic shutdown posed a challenge, but the new restaurateurs made good use of that time.

“We had to basically build the restaurant from the ground up,” Ulrich recalls. “It was a lot more work and took a lot longer than it might have, but it also gave us creative freedom. And the good thing was, we were in the middle of build-out during COVID when no one could operate anyways.”

The concept: clean, modern, fresh and open — not unlike the feel evoked by Prospect. To help them carry out this vision, they hired Los Angeles-based architect Brent Lucy, whom Ulrich had known in high school.

“Ideally, we wanted something that would look well designed and age well,” he says of Model Citizen’s style. “We didn’t want it to look outdated over time.”

Pale wood, a sand and sage color scheme and planters filled with succulents evoke the Central Coast’s seashore and hillsides. The beachy, Cali-cool feel is augmented by large windows that let in ample light. Seating includes large, comfortable booths and a banquette, traditional tables, and a smart bar.

Changing with the seasons

“It’s a somewhat collaborative process with my brother, me and my head chef,” Ulrich says of the menu.

The kitchen is led by Chef Gabriel Lindsey, who worked in fine dining in Nashville and New York City before joining the Model Citizen crew.

“He’s really talented, young and excited for this opportunity,” Ulrich emphasizes. “He just ran with it.”

Together, the three came up with a contemporary California cuisine-inspired menu centered around “relatively simple food that highlights local produce and seafood.”

Sourcing fruits and vegetables nearby is easy in ag-oriented Ventura County, although the seafood is sometimes brought in from all over the West Coast. But Ulrich and his team insist on exceptional quality and seasonality — which is why he describes Model Citizen as a “hyper-rotating” restaurant.

“If you come in at the beginning of the month, the menu will be very different from what you find at the end of the month,” he notes.

Some of the best produce being harvested right now can be seen in the mid-April offerings: Tender ricotta dumplings (like gnocchi) in a lemony sauce with leeks and peas; carrots roasted and served with Ojai pixies and a pistachio crumble; local halibut paired with artichokes, squash and fennel; and a silky-smooth Gioia Burrata accompanied by Sungold tomatoes and dandelion pesto.

Ulrich highly recommends the steamed Blue Savory clams from British Columbia. The big, meaty bivalves swim in a heavenly white wine, butter and garlic sauce finished with fennel, green tomato water, slices of firm chorizo and white beans — delicious enough to eat by the spoon, or sop up with hunks of sourdough.

“Our steak is one thing we haven’t changed because it’s just so popular,” he adds. “[Lindsey] grills it and serves it with smashed fingerling potatoes and a bone marrow salsa verde. I can’t get enough of it.”

Happy hour highlights

Visit between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. (or all evening on Mondays) to take advantage of Model Citizen’s high-class happy hour. The smash burger and large, crispy hush puppy-like shrimp fritters are filling and flavorful — and at $10 a pop, two of the better deals on the menu. Oyster lovers can get their half-shell delights for just $3.25 each, served with a shallot mignonette that is not to be missed.

Classic drinks like martinis and margaritas are beautifully prepared and just $10. But for a few dollars more, epicures will want to order off the craft cocktail menu. Most are under $15 and, like the food menu, feature ingredients at the peak of freshness. The strawberry-forward Sittin’ Pretty is particularly good right now, while the Flamingo Spritz (bourbon, watermelon, lime, mint and sparkling wine) is a light, refreshing sip for these warmer days. Risky Business, made with smoky mezcal and bitter aperitivo, tames those assertive flavors with sweet vanilla oil and fragrant grapefruit and lime.

Delicious diversity

Head into Model Citizen any night of the week, and you’ll find an eclectic collection of patrons eager to indulge in its upscale cuisine and libations: friends enjoying good food and conversation, date night duos, multigenerational groups and even the occasional young family with babe in arms. Model Citizen is a place where everyone can relax, indulge and enjoy.

Ulrich lays credit for the restaurant’s many assets at the feet of his team.

“I think you wind up with the best outcome when you have the most voices in the conversation,” he explains.

Clearly, democracy is alive and well — and undeniably delicious — at Model Citizen.

Model Citizen

70 S. Oak St., Ventura