Roadhouse rendezvous

Fried chicken sandwich with salad.

With a history that goes back more than 90 years, the Deer Lodge is the oldest restaurant in Ojai. This iconic tavern along Maricopa Highway has lived many lives: military hangout, general store, biker bar. Under the ownership of Sophia Miles, it’s now being reinvented once again as a nightlife hot spot. Thankfully, however, the quality of the humble but hearty fare has been maintained throughout the years and the lodge’s many transformations.

Which isn’t to say that nothing has changed on the menu. Once famous for its barbecue and beer, the Deer Lodge has added some vegetarian and vegan items to its offerings, with quality cocktails, fine wines and microbrews to wash it all down. Miles call this cuisine “California Roadhouse.”

I call it delicious.

I ate here with my family after a long hike, and it was the perfect place to refuel. Even though the rustic hunting-lodge ambience felt just a touch too fancy for three people dusty from the trail, we were warmly welcomed and seated inside without hesitation. The menu’s selection of burgers, sandwiches and barbecue made our stomachs rumble and we were more than ready to dig into some meat and potatoes . . . after wetting our whistles with a cucumber margarita (hubby), ginger ale (son) and a club soda/pineapple juice spritzer for myself (designated driver).

That margarita was fabulous: big, beautifully balanced and incredibly refreshing, with a delicate rim of flavorful Tajín seasoning. Just wonderful; highly recommended.

Truthfully, I could say the same about the rest of our meal.

My husband ordered the fried chicken sandwich (salad on the side), made with Deer Lodge’s famous fried chicken (and at $18, much less expensive than the $32 fried chicken plate). Brined in buttermilk to a silky tenderness, and then spiced and fried to crispy, crunchy perfection…there’s a reason it’s famous. Beware, however, that this sandwich bites back — the pickled jalapeño coleslaw and spicy aioli were great, but more piquant than expected.

If you’re craving something rich and meaty, I’d steer you toward the pulled pork grilled cheese: muenster and cheddar with smoky shredded pork and a finger-licking-good barbecue sauce on grilled sourdough. Yes, you can practically feel your arteries hardening with every swallow, but it’s so worth it. Served with an enormous pile of crispy fries, I ended up taking half of it home to enjoy later.

Everyone was impressed by my son’s buffalo burger, with its fresh greens, melted muenster and delectable pile of bacon jam. And who doesn’t love a pretzel bun? His mac and cheese on the side was super creamy — a little too rich in my opinion, but if that’s your style, you’ll love it.

The Deer Lodge provided us with one of the best lunches we’ve had in a while. Really appreciated the casual, comfortable atmosphere — which seems to straddle the unpretentious but upscale divide with aplomb. The food and drinks were fantastic, and the service was excellent, too — attentive and friendly but not hovering. I look forward to giving the tri tip a go at some point. And making someone else drive, so I can fully enjoy the fruits of the bartender’s labors.

It’s no surprise that the Ojai Deer Lodge has managed to survive and thrive through the decades: Clientele, ambience and food trends may come and go, but quality never goes out of style. And this local institution has that in spades. Whether you’re coming off the road, off the trail, or just out for a good meal, this roadhouse is well worth a stop.

Ojai Deer Lodge

2261 Maricopa Highway, Ojai