Camarillo: Up and Down the Boulevard
Dawn-to-dusk grazing in Camarillo’s Old Town.
As a child, I associated Camarillo with my Great-Uncle Burl, who lived in the hills above town with his wife, my Great-Aunt Olive. Family folklore had it that he was a dab hand at killing and cooking rattlesnake, which he assured me “tastes like chicken.” I was never tempted to ask if I could stay for dinner, but I liked the idea that we had such spirited cooks in the family.
These days, my image of Camarillo has morphed into a much more inviting culinary destination, thanks in large part to the stretch of Ventura Boulevard between Lewis Road and Carmen Drive, which forms the heart of the city’s Old Town. It’s entirely possible to lose a day eating and drinking your way along this mile of local history that happens to be crammed with independently owned establishments. Wear comfortable shoes, loose pants and visit on a Saturday to coincide with the Camarillo Certified Farmers’ Market.
Start your morning with a caffeine boost at Kay’s Coffee Shop, the second branch of a regional micro-chain that began on Seaward Avenue in Ventura. Opened November 2016, the Camarillo outpost is comparatively vast, and the gallery-like space features artworks by owner LaDonna Hambrick’s aeronautical engineer daughter. They complement the airplane-themed logo that honors Hambrick’s father, a model airplane hobbyist and Kay’s namesake. Back on terra firma, coffee engineering is courtesy of Beacon Coffee in Ventura and Ojai and Wild Goose Coffee Roasters in Redlands and served, on request, in ceramic cups handcrafted by Ventura pottery artist Lorna Christian. You could grab a snack here, but I’d advise restraint: Our next stop involves generous portions. Kay’s Coffee Shop, 2364 Ventura Blvd., 805-383-6005, KaysCoffeeShop.com.
Dorothy’s Chuck Wagon Cafe is like stepping back in time, not least because they’re cash-only. There’s been a restaurant here since 1946, but the original owner only had it three months before it became Carmen’s Malt & Sandwich Shop, says Dorothy Johnson, who took over 34 years ago. Peruse the collection of bumper stickers that, along with license plates, provide the wall décor equivalent of an analog version of Twitter. The menu also makes for good reading, featuring breakfast classics and an impressive array of sausage options (including gator and buffalo). Like any California diner worth its salt, Dorothy’s has a standalone burrito menu, which includes a spinach- and Ortega-chili-packed veggie option for those who, unlike my Uncle Burl, can’t quite face down a reptile sausage before noon. Dorothy’s Chuck Wagon Cafe, 2344 Ventura Blvd., 805-987-2167.
The Camarillo Certified Farmers’ Market is a perfect opportunity to partake in something healthy for a good cause: The Saturday morning market is a project of Camarillo Hospice, and a percentage of gross sales supports its mission. Pick up fresh produce from the impressive selection of stalls, including market veterans like Adaboy Acres of Moorpark. Don’t ignore your sweet tooth, though. There’s a reason people line up for Oxnard-based Cake Bake Eat, and I suspect it has something to do with Chef Melina Farias’s bacon chocolate chip cookies and Portuguese donuts known as malasadas. Camarillo Certified Farmers' Market, 2220 Ventura Blvd., 805-987-3347, CamarilloFarmersMarket.com.
Housed in a former elementary school right behind the farmers’ market, Studio Channel Islands includes The Blackboard Gallery and gift shop, plus 40 resident artists who open their studios on the first Saturday of every month. I met artist Carolyn Barone as she worked on an atmospheric landscape of an abandoned barn, but food is also a favorite subject. A still life of shiny red apples hung above her on the wall, and a delicate rendering of a plate of yellow-hued pluots is featured on one of her notecards. A portrait of a dog first drew me into Patrick Fisher’s gallery, but our conversation also quickly turned to food. He was preparing for an inaugural evening event at the studio, complete with bands, food trucks and a bar. Studio Channel Islands, 2222 Ventura Blvd., 805-383-1368, StudioChannelIslands.org.
Asked to recommend somewhere for lunch, Fisher directed me across the street to BLVD BRGR Company, admitting he’s biased because one of the burgers on the menu, the Gamut, is named after his art and apparel lifestyle brand. It’s vegan like him, but there are plenty of meatier options to enjoy on the patio in front of the restaurant’s handsome brick and tile facade. Wash down your burger with a beer from among the local offerings. BLVD BRGR Company, 2145 Ventura Blvd., 805-389-9200, BLVDBrgr.com.
By now, happy hour is nearly upon us, and it’s time to head to The Wine Closet, champion of small-production, handcrafted wines, predominantly from California. This combination wine bar, bottle shop and cheese market also features craft beer, plus small plates, charcuterie and paninis. Check their Facebook page (Facebook.com/TheWineCloset) for info on their Winemaker Spotlight Series on Thursdays. You could also wet your whistle at the chic eatery and bar Twenty88, with their craft cocktails, beer and wine. A happy hour menu with a gourmet take will quell any lingering hunger pangs. The Wine Closet, 2423 Ventura Blvd., 805-383-9812, WineClosetInc.com; Twenty88, 2088 Ventura Blvd., 805-388-2088, Twenty88.com.
If do find yourself at Twenty88, and somehow are still hungry, you might want to hit Olas de Carlos Surf Grill, or “Olas” to the locals. A Hawaiian-shirt-wearing shark statue welcomes you into the restaurant with a surfer vibe as large as the Mexican entrees. No matter what you choose, visit the salsa bar to sample the many housemade varieties. Olas de Carlos Surf Grill, 1860 Ventura Blvd., 805-484-5566