Sunday, May 11, 2014

Home Staging Q&A with Lila Francese of Ojai Home

Photo by Ojai Real Estate Imaging.
As published in Ventana Monthly magazine, April 2014 

Lila Francese of Ojai Home has been designing and flipping homes for 13 years. Five years ago she and her husband moved to Ojai from Los Angeles to plant roots and raise their daughter (now 9). They decided to forgo the flipping, which was no longer a family-friendly endeavor since it meant moving every year or two, and focus instead on home staging. With a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Francese keeps current on what buyers want by talking with realtors, shopping (a lot) and following the trends as reported by the National Association of Realtors.

What exactly is home staging, and why do it?
Home staging accentuates the best aspects of a home, creating flow, beauty and a story buyers will visually learn through marketing pictures or a live showing. Home staging diminishes a home's flaws, and buyers are able to imagine how they will enjoy the fulfilling lifestyle they will have in the home. The whole point of staging is a fast sale at a higher price.

How is staging different than interior decorating?
It’s different from decorating because it’s not personalized. (With staging), I’m doing two to three homes a week, whereas with decorating I might take six months. For example, if I were decorating a home, I would put a rug in the entrance area. But if I were staging, I wouldn’t. (For buyers), a little echo goes a long way!

You’ve called your signature style “getting Lila-fied.” What does that mean and what style works best in home staging?
We do it based on the science of staging, based on what 90 percent of buyers like according to the National Association of Realtors, like white towels and spring colors. Women (or the more feminine side of a relationship) usually make the final decision, so the staging design tends to be more feminine. I want life to look easy in the houses I’m in – decluttered and light colors to make your soul feel lifted.

Do you have a design manta?
“Less stuff equals more space, which equals more life.” Less is more. We don’t need as much as we think we need. (After decluttering), clients often tell me, “Why didn’t we do this 10 years ago?”

How emotional is the process?
Everyone’s process is different. Some call it psychological warfare. I worked with a woman who lived in her home for 50 years and lost her husband. There was a lot of crying and a lot of hugging. There’s a whole process that’s cathartic.

The homes you stage range in price from $300,000 to $3 million. How do you feel about tackling homes with a lower price tag?
            Those are fun to do because we can do them quickly. The smaller homes sell faster and above asking price. In this price range, it’s going to look like you’re in a Pottery Barn store. When we can, we try to work with what clients own. We did a $400,000 bungalow for just $600, plus her handyman re-hung the drapes. It sold right away, but the home next door had been on the market for eight weeks.

How does your pricing work?
Sometimes we’re full service, or I can do a verbal staging, where (the clients) do all the work and I’ll just tell them what to do. No job is too big or two small. It can range from $300 to $6,000 – that was for an $8 million house. I had to work on that house for two months.

What difference does it make?
We know what works to seduce buyers into the home. I had one lady in Ojai who had agents walk through (the home she was selling) and they told her she couldn’t get the price she wanted. We packed her up, we stored her stuff, and we re-did the driveway. She spent $6,000 with us. We had the agents come back, and they set the price $120,000 higher, and it sold.

How have design trends changed?
Effective staging evolves with industry demands. People used to just want pretty, but now they want a little bit sexy. I like to envision who the buyer might be. We used a blue mohair sofa recently and a mid-century ottoman as a coffee table.

Talk to me about shopping.
Home furnishing shopping is my hobby. It’s my family’s hobby – my nine-year-old can quote furniture prices! One of our favorite things to do is go to resale stores in Palm Desert. Palm Desert is particularly good at stocking brand new looking high end furniture – a result I am told from all the model home sales in the area.

White walls, yes or no?
Yes – when selling a home. White walls make rooms feel bright, open and clean. Always leave ceilings white – colored ceilings shorten the height of a room. For colored rooms, I love the color wheel Restoration Hardware sells for $10. You can match other brand paint to it as well, and they really have perfect hues of almost every color.

You’ve said always choose shiny chrome instead of brushed nickel to make spaces look brighter, bigger and more expensive. What other DIY design tips do you have for our readers?
My favorite tip: I think everyone hangs their drapes wrong! I believe that people should “White House hang” from the ceiling (yes, just like the home on Pennsylvania Avenue). If you hang your drapes at 94 inches, your room will double in size. You can find 94-inch drapes at Target or Pottery Barn.
Don’t have a throw pillow for 20 years. Go to T.J. Max or Home Goods and get a down-filled fresh pillow for your sofa. You can do that for your bed, too.
White orchids are timeless and beautiful and work anywhere. You can buy one at Trader Joe’s for $9.00. Put it in your bathroom with white towels and white soap, and your bathroom looks amazing.
Don’t be scared of white. White lightens a room. White makes a house feel fresh and clean. You can use bleach on white, but you can’t on colors. White sheets and towels are great because you can wash them in hot water.
Make beds looks like Macy’s department store beds.
Put a French Laundry cookbook in the kitchen.
If a hallway is too long, put a great vase or art piece at the end of the hall.
The same rules that apply to fashion apply to home staging, like having a Gap T-shirt and a Prada handbag. Buy an inexpensive couch from IKEA, and then buy expensive pillows – you only need two!
Cost Plus rugs are thick and plush and inexpensive and look just as good in a million dollar home as in a $300,000 home.

What will become of that sexy blue mohair sofa?
It is part of our permanent inventory collection. Who knows? It may retire in my living room some day.

For more, visit


As published in Ojai Quarterly magazine, Summer 2012.

Cover story by Lisa Snider. Photos by Guy Webster.
She doesn’t wear a speck of makeup, not even when she’s performing, and her blond locks hang long and unkempt, but she still manages to look stunningly gorgeous. In fact, she is a sweet articulate young woman, blue-eyed and freckled, who also happens to be a cigarette-smoking, tequila-shooting, rising international rock star. But today, she’s just a local gal about town, walking her fluffy little dog, Byron, from her house in downtown Ojai to Libbey Park.

Lissie Maurus, known professionally simply as Lissie, is taking the music world by storm with her signature blend of pop, folk, country and rock, showcasing deeply personal lyrics and intense vocals that stretch from razor-sharp raspy hair-raisers to angelic affecting melodies. In 2010, she released her first full-length album, Catching a Tiger, and won critical praise from Paste, Spin and Rolling Stone. Last year she released another album, Covered Up With Flowers, a collection of a half-dozen covers, including Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” 

Born and raised in Rock Island, Illinois, in the heart of the Midwest, Lissie left college before earning her degree to break into the music business in Los Angeles. Three years later, she landed a record deal, but a bad break-up made her desperate to flee the bright lights of the City of Angels. After a fellow airplane passenger told her about Ojai’s small town charms, she packed up her things, rented a place sight unseen in a town she had never heard of and has been here ever since. That was three years ago.

On a break from touring and making commercials – she makes the rounds to music festivals like Coachella, SXSW and Bonnaroo, and sings in the latest commercial for Twinings Tea in the U.K. – Lissie, 29, surprised and mesmerized a standing-room-only audience recently at Ojai’s The Village Jester. The one-hour set gave Lissie and her band an opportunity to rehearse new material in front of a live audience and gave Ojaians a rare glimpse into the rocker’s world.

Lissie sat with the OQ to talk about settling into life in Ojai, writing music and making a new album.

Do you ever miss living in Los Angeles?
I was ready for a change and that’s when this came up. I kind of try not to go back to L.A. because it still reminds me of some of the hardest times of my life. But I love it, too; it’s where I was able to secure my management who got me a record deal in the U.K. I came out here and I was happy that I didn’t know anyone, stayed under the radar, low key. In the last year, though, I’ve gotten more social and I’ve been meeting a nice group of people.

Coming from the big city, does it ever feel tedious to you?
Last night I felt a little stir crazy, so I went to Jimmy’s and had a glass of wine and some potato chips and read a book, and that was my idea of a wild night. I went to a farm party a couple weeks ago. Last weekend there was a band up from L.A. at the Deer Lodge. There’s always stuff to do. When I tour I’m so busy I think when I come home I’m happy. I hang out with my dog. I watch Mad Men and Friday Night Lights. My girlfriends will come up, and we’ll just drink wine on my porch. I’m totally content.

Where do you like to go out to eat? 
My favorite, favorite place to eat is Suzanne’s, but it’s pricey. I always get the same thing there – the sand dabs – it’s amazing. But, of course, I love Farmer and the Cook and Papa Lennon’s. And my favorite place to get an egg sandwich is Knead.

On one hand, you have this sweet and genuine personality, and on the other you smoke and drink and rock unabashedly on stage.
I’m goofy and silly and full of contradictions. There’s sort of a humility that comes with being a Midwesterner that’s ingrained. When I was young I was always like, “Look at me, look at me, I’m gonna sing for you!” I think being a good person and being happy is much more important than everyone thinking that you’re cool.

Do you think your small town roots growing up in Rock Island, Illinois, are what attracted you to Ojai?
Probably. I mean, this is smaller; the town I’m from is 40,000. I was a disgruntled teenager, and my good memories were canoeing on the Great Lakes. I sort of always had this relationship with nature where it was always the place I felt happiest and calmest. I think I was drawn here because of the hikes and the rivers and the mountains.

What are your favorite outdoor spots in Ojai?
I get up in the morning and go for a hike on Shelf. I’ve also been going swimming in this swimming hole I found, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s up the 33 on the side of the road, but I’ve been joking that I’m going to try to keep it a secret.

What makes Ojai special?
I noticed when I moved here three years ago that there’s definitely a vibe that they want to keep the riff-raff out. Just this past year there’s a lot more musicians coming up, and I feel like now I’m one of those people that’s like, “Hey, I found it first, it’s mine,” kind of like the swimming hole! I don’t want to feel like I’m in LA.

How has living in Ojai affected your songwriting process?
The first song I did write here three years ago came to me in two minutes. It’s a song called “Bully.” I had just come out of this hard time. I was being so hard on myself, and I was so sad, and my parents were worried about me. I used to just write a song all at once, and it was good enough. But now that I am in a position where people are actually really hearing my songs, it’s changed how I’ve written in general because I’m a little bit harder on myself. There really is a craft to writing. You really want it to build and pull and push in these ways so when the chorus comes in everyone is like, “Oh, that’s so rewarding!” It’s one thing when songs just come out, but there’s other times where you really are crafting a song and it becomes a bit more like a puzzle.

At The Village Jester, you debuted your newest song, “I Bet on You,” a heart-wrenching break-up song, which had such powerful raw emotion, it made me sad, too.
I just couldn’t handle how sad I was, but I worked through it. This cycle of writing has been interesting and it’s helped me prove my mettle a bit as a writer where I’m using more of my memory to write. I don’t actually have to be heartbroken to write about heartbreak. Now I can write about it as an observer as opposed to actually going through it, which is nice. I’m sorry it made you sad, but it’s nice (to know) when stuff makes you feel.

What’s it like to be the only woman backed by an all-male band?
It’s kind of nice being the only girl around a bunch of guys because it sort of gives me a bit of independence where I can engage, but I can also sort of disengage and do my own thing. I’m kind of a little bit of a loner, so it’s nice ‘cause there’s not that sensitivity to not wanting to do everything with them all the time. They are so sweet to me. And they are really talented. They’ve helped form my sound. I think it’s gone more in a rock direction because live that’s where I want to take it, and I want the next record to feel live. You don’t need a lot of fancy bells and whistles, just straight forward music, guitars, turn up the amp, put a little distortion on there and grit, and dirty it up.

Where are you when you are not in Ojai and not on tour?
I’m signed in the U.K. - my business runs out of London - so I go there every other month. I do a lot of co-writing, and I go between Nashville, the U.K. and getting people to come stay (in Ojai).

What’s your connection to photographer Guy Webster? 
“He’s probably one of the first people I met around here. He’s just so excited and in the mix. He’s so supportive of young artists. He shot the Mamas and the Papas album cover, and I have those records from my parents, and he signed them! He’s so accomplished but he’s so nice.

What’s next for you?
I have to go out on tour again in the fall and I won’t be around here a whole lot, but this is where I always come back to. I love living here. I like staying low key. I think people here are really friendly. It’s definitely a place I came to heal and never left. Hopefully this will be my home for a long time.

For more about this rising star, visit her Web site at

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Foodie Field Trips

As published in Ojai Quarterly magazine, Fall 2013.

Follow the oyster shell trail to the Jolly Oyster. Photo by Bill Snider
With a voracious appetite and a MapQuest print-out in hand, I declare a foodie field trip. “I’m hungry,” I say. Hungry for adventure, something fresh, something to feed my soul – and my growling stomach. Soon we’re on the road. With my husband in the driver’s seat, I co-pilot him to an uncharted locale, where we stake our claim to two seats and a menu full of possibilities.
After 14 years in Ojai, sometimes we just get an itch to escape from our usual grind in nirvana, where there are more great restaurants than a town our size deserves. Don’t get me wrong, living in one of the last unspoiled valleys in Southern California is an absolutely dream. We’re lucky to be here, and we know it. I love living in a small community where everyone knows your name, and we know all the menus by heart, but that’s also why we feel the need to get out sometimes. Fortunately, it’s just a short drive to discover bold new flavors and fantastic scenery (not that the Pink Moment ever gets boring).

The Jolly Oyster
San Buenaventura State Beach Park, Ventura
Just 20 minutes down the 33 to the 101, the Jolly Oyster has been bringing oysters from their farm in Baja, Mexico, to Ventura’s State Beach since 2011. Considered sustainable, healthy and local (after all, Baja’s beautiful clean waters are only 300 miles away), you really can’t beat the interactive experience of fresh-shucked oysters and views of the Channel Islands. Their trailer sits adjacent to the beach and dunes, selling oysters by the piece and clams by the pound to go or to stay. Picnic tables and barbecue grills are available, so bring your favorite side dishes and beverages (alcohol is welcome here), and make a day of it. Though the Jolly Oyster was originally exclusively shuck-your-own (with free lessons), the newly added Jolly Oyster Kitchen food truck offers several prepared oyster dishes – raw, baked or fried – along with steamed clams, scallop ceviche, crab claws and grass-fed beef burgers with homemade pickles for the kids (or finicky adults). “This isn’t a rubbish shack on the beach,” says owner Mark Reynolds, who has taken great pains to ensure an authentic culinary destination by seeking out local organic produce from Ojai’s Rio Gozo Farms and creating innovative sauce pairings like their signature Jolly Sauce – boasting Vietnamese-Thai flavors, what Reynolds calls, “A bloody good sauce!” for his raw Pacific and Kumamoto oysters. Parking is free for an hour, or all day for just ten dollars. The Jolly Oyster is open every day except Tuesday until sunset, and their kitchen does the cooking for you Thursday through Sunday.

Don’t miss:
The oyster taco featuring a homemade GMO-free corn tortilla filled with three panko-fried oysters, pickled cabbage, arugula and a saffron-paprika aioli.

Hozy’s Grill
1760 East Lemonwood Drive
Tucked into an industrial park south of the 126 in Santa Paula, Hozy’s is a secret gem. In a classic rags-to-riches tale, owner Gary Holazpfel of Automotive Racing Parts right next door decided to create a restaurant that served great food and wine that not only accommodated his culinary tastes, but his clients’ and employees’, too. Dubbed a “hobby” restaurant by the server I spoke with (it seems making good food is the priority, not money), the menu is comfort food with a modern spruced-up twist featuring pastas, gourmet pizzas, fresh seafood, prime steaks and occasional Mexican specialties. You’ll be hard-pressed to easily spot it from the street, but once inside the bright neon walls adorned with posters of high-performance vehicles signed by famous racecar drivers, there’s no mistaking you’re in a NASCAR supplier’s eatery. Come as you are and linger over cocktails and appetizers before your first course – diners are encouraged to sink in and enjoy. The impressive mile-long wine list has given them the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for several years running. Hozy’s is open daily for breakfast and lunch, and dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday. It’s a small restaurant, so reservations are a must.

Don’t miss:
The chicken-fried steak or the abalone if it’s on special – so buttery, delicate and sweet.

The Italian Job Café
2810 South Harbor Boulevard, Oxnard
A graduate of the Culinary Art Institute of Italy, chef and owner Fabrizio Iannucci brought his authentic flavors to the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard in 2009. With a passion for sharing the recipes of his youth in Sardinia, Iannucci serves incredible dishes that are a welcomed departure from the typical fare served up at more Americanized Italian restaurants. Thin-crust pizzas tossed by hand include the authentic and hard-to-find pizza bianco with salty ham and a bleu cheese blend. Handmade fresh pasta dishes include traditional lasagna; strozzapreti or “priest-stranglers” - a hand-rolled pasta sautéed with grilled Italian sausage, eggplant, garlic, spices, tomato sauce; and my favorite pasta of all, the totelloni di zucca stuffed with ricotta and pumpkin. Fish, chicken, lamb and steak dishes prepared using time-honored recipes round out the entrees, including chicken with garlic, lemon, fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and white wine sauce; whitefish with a horseradish pistachio crust in a fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil; and bistecca - New York steak with mushrooms, roasted garlic and herbs. Substitutions are never scoffed at, and small plates can be made as entrees and vice-versa. The Italian Job is open daily for lunch and dinner.

Don’t miss:
The panna cotta – a luscious silky custard made with cooked sweetened cream and gelatin.

Whether you’re just visiting or you’ve been in Ojai your whole life, consider a foodie field trip. It’s always worth the drive to discover new gastronomic gems.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Off Market Tasting Trail – Beer and Wine Goes Industrial in the VC

As published in Ventana Monthly October 2013
An industrial park zoned for manufacturing off Telephone Road in midtown Ventura isn’t where you’d expect to find award-winning boutique wines and craft beer, but then again, it’s exactly as it should be.
“We're considered a manufacturer because we use raw materials to create a finished product,” says winemaker Marlow Barger, who together with his wife Janis opened Plan B Cellars (more on the name later) just last year.
With four wineries and a craft brewery scattered among irrigation and tile wholesalers, the DMV, window tinting installers and plumbing suppliers, the newly-dubbed Off Market Tasting Trail may seem out of place, but it’s certainly blazing a trail into the hearts of more adventurous would-be connoisseurs.
Plan B resides in an interesting neighborhood for a winery; on one side, there’s a granite fabricator, on the other, the railroad tracks. Not only is the rent cheaper in industrial parks, there’s a quirky and appealing charm factor.
“We have a toast whenever the train rolls by,” Marlow says, looking out past the roll-up doors to the railroad tracks where ocean breezes flow through. It’s those curious traditions and the view past the tracks to an agricultural field, the harbor and beyond to the Channel Islands that bring wine lovers in. It sure beats a two-hour drive up the coast through the Santa Barbara wine country. And the wine’s pretty darn good, too.
Specializing in typical Rhone varietals – Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah – using grapes sourced from Santa Barbara County and Edna Valley, Marlow makes only reds. One of their more popular wines, a dry rosé, comes with a fun gimmick – a refillable full-liter Italian glass bottle with a swing top. It’s sort of like what their neighbor down the street, Surf Brewery, does with glass refillable growlers, which keeps patrons coming back for more.
The growlers over at Surf, though, get filled with craft beer made with ingredients sourced from around the world. If a 64-ounce growler’s too big, pints and five-ounce samplers are also available. The taproom and brewery offer a relaxed vibe in a large converted warehouse with surfboards, surf memorabilia and surf art adorning the walls, and vintage surf punk piped in through the speakers.
Since opening in 2011, Surf’s business quickly took off. With the distinction of being the largest commercial brewer and the only packaging microbrew in the county, it’s no wonder the place is usually packed.
“We haven't aggressively promoted any of this,” says co-founder Doug Mason, a homebrewer since the late 1980s.
He credits social media for much of their success, and the beer. “Craft brewing over the last decade is exploding,” he says. They’ve also got a gold medal under their belt from the Los Angeles County Fair for their County Line Rye Pale Ale.
A homebrew shop at the front of the taproom and class offerings have helped them tap into a new niche, turning customers into hobbyists. Escabeche food truck, routinely parked right outside, offers hungry beer drinkers tacos, chile rellenos and sopes.
Just across the parking lot, Panaro Brothers Winery has an intimate space to taste their affordable wine (half bottles start at just $8.00) inspired by their Italian grandfather’s traditional winemaking style. Reds and whites sourced from Santa Barbara and Monterey counties are handmade using a small press just like they were taught when they were kids. David Panaro’s quick wit comes alive between sips, doling out wine trivia and bad jokes.
“You know what you're supposed to do if a bottle of wine won't breathe?” he asks. “Give it mouth-to-mouth.”
He and his brother Vito started making wine here nearly five years ago, but the tasting room opened just a year and a half ago when things started to get interesting with the newly-formed urban tasting trail.
David, a geologist for the County by day, felt that going into the family wine business was fool proof. “You can't go wrong with wine no matter the economy,” because, he says, people drink when times are tough, and they drink when times are good.
Farther down the street in a fancy modern tasting room, Four Brix Winery, which opened in 2011 a few months after Surf, is on their third harvest. Owned by Gary and Karen Stewart, “Brix” is the term for measuring sugar in grapes, and “Four” references the couples’ favorite sweet spots for wine: Italy, Spain, France and California.
Gary, a roofing contractor, started making wine in their garage in 2001. When he decided to pursue winemaking more seriously, he took classes in viticulture at U.C. Davis.
“After several thousand dollars worth of classes, I learned you just need good fruit to make good wine,” he says.
Their grape choices are paying off and getting noticed. Their “Scosso” Cab-Merlot-Sangiovese blend received 89 points from Wine Spectator and a gold medal from Sunset magazine, which will feature Four Brix in their October issue.
In 2001, the first place to open on the trail was Ventura Wine Company. Owner Nick Fisher wanted a place for food and wine tasting, so in 2008 he opened The Cave, where enomatic tasting machines offer one-to-five-ounce tastes of 32 different wines with the swipe of a pre-paid card and the push of a button, making this is the candy store for oenophiles. Small plates of wine-friendly gourmet bites allow patrons to have a full gastronomic experience in an ambient space molded with gunite to look and feel like a wine cave.
While The Cave is the trail’s veteran, Plan B is the new kid on the block. But the Bargers are in their early 60s, and they’re banking on this new venture as their retirement. In fact, the name of the winery is a nod to their newly-adopted and not- so-traditional retirement plan.
Marlow, who’s been in construction for 40 years, says he likes to be challenged, and after apprenticing with Mike Brown of Camarillo’s Cantara Cellars, he decided, with Janis’ urging, to forge ahead, investing a big chunk of their IRA, even though it seemed risky.
“We ran some financial scenarios, which we ignored,” he says with a smile.
They’ve kept their plan simple and lean, yet they’ve managed to make their warehouse space comfortable and pleasant. Picking bins tilted on their sides cleverly border the outdoor patio adjacent to the tracks, and bench seating at tables topped with burlap tablecloths allow patrons a relaxing space for a BYO-picnic.
Having the support of the other four establishments on the trail, he says, has been helpful, because they all encourage and help each other, which leads to everyone’s success.
“A rising tide,” Marlow says, “floats all boats.”

 For more information and a map of the Off Market Tasting Trail, visit

Shabby Goes Chic in Midtown Ventura

As published in Ventana Monthly September 2013

Photo by Gaszton Gal
Christian McCord sees beauty in the most unlikely places. Driving down Poli Street one day in 2005, on a route she’d taken many times from her home in Santa Paula to visit her in-laws in Midtown Ventura, a “For Sale” sign in front of a run-down old house caused her to hit the brakes.
“I always called this the yard sale house because they had yard sales all the time.”
All of the windows except two were busted out. The yard was overgrown and full of weeds. But McCord had to have it. After a fair amount of persuading, she and her husband, Bryan, made an offer the very next day.
She remembers telling him, “I know what I will do to this house.”
But it was even worse than they thought. The front door had been kicked in and ultimately removed. There was essentially nothing left in the kitchen – no appliances and the dilapidated cabinets housed a couple of dead rodents. Interior and closet doors were either missing or unsalvageable. Old beat-up cars and more weeds littered the backyard.
“It was a total drug house in bad, bad condition,” says McCord, a 41-year-old colon hydrotherapist.
The three-bedroom, one-bath, 1,100-square-foot Tudor cottage needed a lot of work. Though it had been in the same family, it was an old house that hadn’t been touched since it was built in 1924. Before signing on the dotted line, the McCords had two big concerns: was the foundation cracked, and had meth been cooked in the house? The last one was especially critical because at the time they had a 6-month-old baby girl.
“Everyone thought we were crazy.”
A retired fire captain gave the house a thorough inspection, reporting that the foundation was solid, and that, much to their relief, no drugs had been manufactured on site, which would have been a deal breaker. “That was the part I was super concerned about.”
            When escrow closed, the realtor had no keys to hand over – there wasn’t even a front door. Neighbors welcomed them with open arms and told them horror stories of a motorcycle being driven in and out of the house and people taking up residence in tents in the backyard. It took two months to renovate the house to a point that it was livable and the family of three could finally move in.
“Everything in the house was a disaster,” McCord recalls.
Having just moved from a 1926 craftsman bungalow in Santa Paula, and having lived in old houses as a child, McCord felt confident she could use her design savvy to turn the tattered house into a charming home.
“I grew up in old houses, so it’s where I feel comfortable.” McCord also has a background in retail buying, styling and designing. “So I’ve kind of always had a style thing in my blood.”
She visited her favorite flea market in Santa Monica, searching for pieces that would fit the home’s era and size. She says flea markets are a source of inspiration and are more authentic and less expensive than antique stores. It’s how she designed their Santa Paula home, when her style leaned more toward Romantic French Country. Today, she favors the more comfortable and less frilly Prairie Style.
“Since I’ve been married, it’s kind of evolved to include my husband more so he’s not overcome by pink.”

When choosing pieces, she’s fairly particular. But perfection is not for her; scuffs, bumps and chips are what she covets most.
“I have to have original. I won’t even buy it if it’s been touched up. Layers and layers and layers of paint – I love that.” She doesn’t refinish or distress the pieces – she buys them completely untouched. Obvious signs of wear and tear, she says, show authenticity. “It just shows life and personality.”
McCord found that her attachment to “original” had to be compromised when tackling the home’s renovations. The original floors were stripped and stained when they first moved in, but termite damage made the floors drafty and the wood was beyond repair. Ultimately, they installed wide-plank hickory hardwood floors, stained to a deep dark chocolate brown and hand distressed.
            The kitchen proved to be the biggest hurdle.
            “Nothing in the kitchen is original. It was really bad.”
            The couple installed white cabinetry and marble counters. A friend’s European flea market find serves as the kitchen’s center island, lit by a vintage Italian toile chandelier adorned with strawberries. A Dutch door cut into the kitchen’s back wall floods the whole house with natural light and allows gentle breezes to flow through.
“My grandmother had a Dutch door, and I loved it.”
Since Bryan is an electrical contractor, his expertise eased many aspects of the renovation. He installed vintage light fixtures throughout the house, including a crystal chandelier over the dining room table and sconces in the living room.
“It’s nice having a contractor husband.”
As their household grew - Lily is now 8 and her little brother Noah is 7 - so did the need for functionality.
“They can have whatever they want as long as it fits in one toy box and one cabinet.”
Avoiding clutter drives most of her furniture purchases.
“I live by cabinets,” she says, which are found in every room, serving not only a functional purpose, but a decorative one, too. The one small bathroom has a dresser-style sink cabinet. A bathtub/shower does double duty while fulfilling the 1920s design esthetic. McCord found the then footless tub sitting in the dirt outside a shop on Padaro Lane in Carpinteria for just $75.
The house, which has been featured on the Web site “The Old Painted Cottage” and in designer Fifi O’Neill’s book “Romantic Prairie Style,” exudes a rustic charm that’s cozy and peaceful. Even the kids’ rooms feel like dreamy sanctuaries. Soft creamy-white walls offset with muted earthy pastel accents create a subdued color scheme.
“I like for my color palate to be in my pieces and fabrics.”
            Subtle details, including McCord’s collection of turn-of-the-century Barbola mirrors and early 1900s cast iron doorstops, harken to another time. “My great grandmother had those in her house when I was growing up.”
            More than a dozen English paisley eiderdown quilts drape beds and top cabinetry, using a favorite design technique. “I like mixing textures,” she says.
Walls are decorated with various architectural pieces, including an upside-down picket fence, a rusted gate piece and corbels from old porches embellish the tops of doorway corners. Recycled porch columns and urns create more visual interest.
With the home’s interior now finished, McCord turns her gaze out beyond the Dutch door.

“I can’t wait to tear into the yard,” she says, imagining an English garden with elegant roses, hydrangeas and pea gravel. And like the rest of the house, it will surely feel like it’s been there for nearly a century.

A Meal in Your Hand: Ojai's Celebrity-Worthy Sandwiches

As published in Ojai Quarterly Summer 2013

Photo by Bill Snider
Each summer, my family heads to the South Carolina coast - a tradition we’ve had since the eighties. We sprawl our pasty white selves across old rickety chaise lounges, down too many cheap beers from my brother-in-law’s Igloo or frozen lemonades from the push-cart guy and burn ourselves to a crisp. After we’ve had enough of the sun, the waves, the sand and a game or two of ski ball at the corner arcade, we take refuge from the sweltering heat in the upstairs condo’s air conditioning. My sister wrestles Kroger’s finest deli meats, cheeses and condiments from the fridge, and I join her in the assembly line, painting bread slices with mustard and mayo, and quickly doling out slapped-together sandwiches for her hungry kids. Then there’s the secret behind what we now call her famous Myrtle Beach Turkey and Cheese Sami: 15 to 20 seconds in the microwave. I’m not sure why lukewarm grocery store deli meat and weeping American cheese on softened white bread tastes so good, but it does. It tastes just like summer.
At home on the left coast, my husband, Bill, prefers to take his time building the perfect sandwich. One of his specialties is an adaptation of the classic BLT, taking full advantage of the local summer tomato haul. He layers crisp bacon, thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, chunks of fresh avocado, a slab of Buffalo mozzarella and piles of arugula, wedging the whole lot between slices of toasted sourdough wheat. The pièce de résistance is the addition of his own pickled shallots, thinly sliced and steeped overnight in one of his favorite vinegars with fennel, peppercorns and sugar. A pickled dill carrot from Ojai’s Kult Kitchen and a pepperoncini seal the deal. I call it the Bacon, Lettuce and Awesome! sandwich, and I’m not sharing. Well, on second thought, maybe I will. Here’s why:
Several months ago, my friend and local graphic designer, Evan Austin, invited me to join him in a campaign to get actor Robert Downey, Jr., who has visited Ojai once or twice, to join us for lunch. He’s a big fan of the Golden Globe winner’s movies, and I’m a big fan of the local food scene, so Evan figured we had a winning combination. He launched a Web site and pages on Facebook and Twitter, which we shared with a few friends. Soon, “I’m having lunch with RDJ” snowballed from a silly conversation into a crazy idea that resonated with more than just us. And it might be crazy enough to work. “It’s so Ojai,” they say.
We don’t do fanfare or paparazzi in this town, which actually makes us a magnet for real celebrities who aren’t looking to get their mugs onto magazine covers. That’s what makes this whole idea plausible, because it really is as simple as a sandwich – tablecloth and utensils optional – shared in good company on one of our town’s breezy intimate patios, packed to-go to enjoy on a bench on the Shelf Road trail, or devoured quietly while perched on a barstool at the local watering hole. Here’s where a celebrity – or an average citizen, for that matter – can get an opportunity to experience the real Ojai – and a damn good sandwich.
To me, a sandwich is simply perfection served between two slices of bread. A whole meal right in the palm of your hand – barbaric and sophisticated all at once. Ask any of the locals where to get a good sandwich – and I’m not including burgers, wraps or burritos here – and you’ll get barraged with too many excellent choices.
I’ll get some of the usual suspects out of the way right up front. The Pulled Pork at Feast Bistro, the Tuna Stack at Rainbow Bridge, the Tarragon Chicken Salad at Marché Gourmet Deli, the House Sandwich at Knead Bakery, the Caprese at Papa Lennon’s, the Jamon Serrano at Azu and the Carnitas Torta at Diaz Bakery are all amazing, but let me tell you about a few other gems.

Bonnie Lu’s Café
328 E. Ojai Avenue
            A quaint diner in the heart of the downtown arcade serves up the typical diner fare you would expect for breakfast and lunch, but with an Ojai spin. Most of the dishes are named after local celebrities (friends and family of the owners), including the Titus Scramble, made with egg whites, chicken breast, spinach and mushroom, and Bubba’s Benedict, served with sausage patties and poached eggs on flaky biscuits and topped with their hearty homemade sausage gravy. Lunchtime favorites include Joanne’s French Dip (I like it with turkey, but you can order beef if you prefer), Alicia’s Yuppie Hippie with no shortage of sprouts and veggies, and the one I dream about, Niles’ Monte Cristo with white bread, ham, turkey and Swiss, dipped in egg batter, fried until golden brown, dusted with powdered sugar and served with strawberry jam. A few dishes have yet to be named, so I’m sure there’s room for an RDJ special sandwich.

914 E. Ojai Avenue
A choice hangout for the local softballers, this casual sports bar at the far end of town has big screen TVs tuned to the big games, and they make their own dough and tomato sauce daily for their New York style thin crust pizzas. Their submarine sandwiches are all the rage because with any sub purchase, you can add a beer for a just a quarter. Now, that beer is limited to Budweiser, Bud Light or Coors Light, but you can certainly upgrade to any of their other 19 beers on tap. Popular sandwiches include the Club Double Decker one deck has turkey, ham and Swiss; another deck has bacon, lettuce and tomatoes – the Philly Cheesesteak, the Pesto Turkey Melt, and a traditional Central Coast institution, the Tri-Tip, marinated in their special Italian seasoning blend, slow cooked and bathed in barbecue sauce.

Ojai Coffee Roasting Co.
337 E. Ojai Avenue
            A coffee house is the last place I’d think of for a sandwich, and though they are best known for their small-batch in-house specialty coffee roasting, it’s the first place many of the locals think of for a great sandwich. With a lunch menu a mile long, some of the stand-outs include the Roast Beef and Brie, the Muffaletta with provolone, ham, salami and their own tapenade, and everyone’s favorite, the Messy Pita with turkey, onions, tomatoes, feta, greens and their own creamy yogurt tzatziki. This is the kind of place where if you’ve been in once, they’ll remember your name and what you ordered, and they’ll probably ask about your kids and your pets, too. It’s like most of the places in Ojai – you get treated just like a celebrity.

So what do you say, Mr. Downey? Will it be my sister’s microwaved turkey sandwich, my husband’s Bacon, Lettuce and Awesome!, or a proper sit-down at one of Ojai’s finest establishments? We’ll let you decide, but if it’s OK with you, we’ll get the check.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Grocery Store Dining

As published in Ojai Quarterly Spring 2013 Issue

I don’t like grocery shopping. I’m not good at it. I get lost in the condiments aisle, picking up each bottle and jar to feel its weight in my hands, noticing every curve, pondering its handling and ergonomics and wondering how it will look next to its counterparts taking up space in the door shelves of my refrigerator. I scrutinize the ingredients for too much sodium and words I can’t begin to pronounce, and mentally calculate the price per ounce before ruling it out and moving onto the next bottle. By the time I choose what I think is the perfect salad dressing, I realize I haven’t seen my husband since we walked in the door. I waltz through the aisles, stopping at the butters, repeating the whole sorted process.       
By the time I find Bill, he’s already at the checkout stand, shaking his head at me. He shows me the butter he already bought – the same one that took me an eternity to choose – and reminds me that he’s making the salad dressing from scratch. Of course! He always makes it from scratch.
The truth is, he hates it when I shop with him. I’m not on task. For me, it’s about discovering and exploring. For him, it’s all business. Get in, scoop, get out. And he never forgets the reusable bags. I’m the one who holds up the line and says, “No, no bag for me, I’ll be right back.” Yeah, I’m that person.
So most every Sunday, he gladly leaves me at home to write and heads out on a short mission to shop for the week’s groceries. He prefers to shop at Starr, because, he says, he can count on ample parking, wide carpeted aisles and Bob, the same produce guy who’s been there for years. He keeps his head down, grabs the basics and gets home in time for whatever televised sporting event has his attention this week.
On the other hand, in my discovering and exploring, I’ve come to find that Ojai’s independent grocery stores offer something you can’t get at the big chains: an alternative dining option. You read that right. You can dine at the grocery store, and we’ve got some gems. In addition to the old-school macaroni and cheese and fried chicken you’ll find at Bill’s favorite store, Starr Market, our three other independent grocers offer their own signature flavors.

The Farmer and the Cook
339 El Roblar Drive
            The local hippie market in the small enclave of Meiners Oaks sells fresh-from-their-farm produce and basic organic staples, but, best of all, they have a café featuring recipes inspired by their weekly harvests. The menu offers Mexican specialties for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including huevos rancheros, huaraches, raw tacos and tamales. Tortillas are hand-rolled and salsas are made from scratch. A self-serve, pay-by-the-weight soup and salad bar is great if you’re in a hurry. On weekends, hand-thrown pizzas with fresh herbs and vegetables, and organic beer and wine are added into the mix. Everything is homemade and organic. Order at the counter, grab some utensils and make your way to a rustic table with mismatched chairs indoors or out. Don’t forget dessert. I repeat, do not forget dessert. The bakery case is the big attraction here, with vegan, raw and gluten-free baked goods that will make you wonder what all the fuss is about butter and eggs.

Rainbow Bridge
211 East Matilija Street
          Think of it as an upscale hippie market if you want. Fancy, perhaps. I don’t know, it just seems more shiny, and the cars in their parking lot look like they just came from the carwash. Tucked behind the downtown arcade, Rainbow Bridge is a natural foods market offering a wide range of fresh produce, sustainably-raised meats and specialty packaged health foods. It’s the only market in town with a vitamins manager, who oversees an entire aisle of homeopathics, supplements and herbal remedies. The personal-care aisle includes chemical-free cosmetics, deodorants, lotions and oils. The tea aisle is a sight to behold. A deli counter in back offers a hot case brimming with hearty selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including lasagna (if the butternut squash lasagna is there, order it), baked chicken, grilled salmon, sautéed vegetables, stews, casseroles and homemade soups. The oatmeal pancake, as big as a dinner plate, is so popular you’ll have to get there early before it runs out. Sandwiches (try the avocado melt or the tuna on squaw bread), salads, burritos, juices and smoothies can be ordered to-go or dine-in (ample seating is available inside and out). Grab-and-go items include sandwiches and salads made fresh daily. Rainbow Bridge is my idea of fast food whenever I want a quick healthy meal.

Westridge Market
802 E. Ojai Avenue
          On the east end of town, a flaming grill in front of the store cooks up the most mouth-watering tri-tip you’ll ever have. Originally established in the late fifties as a meat locker for local ranchers, Westridge has managed to maintain their reputation for offering quality meats, and they’ve got a real, honest-to-goodness butcher counter at the back of the store to prove it. There, you can order premium cuts of beef, lamb, pork and poultry by the pound, or just hold your thumb and forefinger out to show how thick you like your steaks cut. They’ve also got what I think is the most genius offering in town: thick-cut smoked bacon by the slice. A grab-and-go deli case houses an irresistible tomato/basil/mozzarella panino, their famous (and messy) tri-tip barbecue burrito and an assortment of sandwiches, wraps and sides. Underneath you’ll find the usual accompaniments: chips, cookies, fruit and, of course, splits of Veuve Clicquot French Champagne (Westridge boasts a terrific wine selection). The pièce de résistance at the sandwich counter is the Westridge burger to-go. Ground fresh twice daily, the 80/20 all-beef patty is hand-formed when you order, seasoned with their special herb and spice blend, and cooked to your liking while you shop. Served on a fresh brioche bun, this burger weighs in at a hefty two-thirds of a pound (you can order a petite quarter-pounder if you prefer – you are charged by the weight). Unwrap it and devour it at one of their outside tables, or do as I do and take it home to eat over the kitchen sink.

Keep your eyes open at the grocery store. You’re sure to discover a gem just around the corner from the salad dressings in the condiments aisle.