The Best Bar in California Is in the Middle of Nowhere
There’s room for everyone — ranchers and hipsters alike — at Sam Seidenberg’s bar
Cuyama Buckhorn is smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. New Cuyama, a town of about 500, is located in the high desert of Santa Barbara County, farther up into the mountains than Ojai, and all the way on the other side of Los Padres Forest. Several hours from Los Angeles and a little less than twice that from San Francisco, one of the only things this little town has going for it is the Buckhorn, a roadside inn, bar and restaurant. It’s not a destination in itself, not really — that is, it wasn’t, until new owners took over the roadside inn back in 2018, and lovingly restored it, for a triumphant reopening, in 2021.
Guests from larger metropolitan areas began flocking to Cuyama, and the Buckhorn is often sold out or close to it, especially during holidays and weekends. Even with its strangely isolated location, the beauty of the high desert appeals to traffic-logged Californians of all stripes. It’s a little slice of country, for people who are equally devoted to sourcing from local farmers, EV chargers and homemade pie. Residents of Santa Barbara County call this region “God’s country.” Drive up Highway 166, and you’ll find it hard to argue with them.
Back when the Buckhorn reopened, the pandemic was almost at its height, and guests were restricted to the property’s ample outdoor areas, which include a large lawn, picnic tables, a bocce ball court, a brand-new pool and jacuzzi and even an outdoor pool table. But now that we have the ability to congregate indoors (fingers crossed), there’s a new reason to love the Buckhorn: their extremely classic cowboy bar, which boasts a totally world-class bar program, thanks to Sam Seidenberg.
At the Buckhorn, Seidenberg runs what he calls “an American country bar,” and across a vast menu of wine, beer, housemade cocktails, barrel-aged cocktails, macerations and more, it’s his goal to “meet the needs of everyone who walks through the door.” Despite its pointedly western style and remote location, the people drawn to the Buckhorn come from all walks of life. His clientele here, he says, is more diverse than when he worked in the Mission District in San Francisco.
First built and owned by the Atlantic Richfield Oil Company to give their visiting employees a place to stay, the Buckhorn bar is like “stepping back in time to 1952,” Seidenberg tells InsideHook. “One wall is lined with buck heads, prizes from a local hunter, while another one is papered with old Cuyama newspapers. The original swinging doors still hang in the bar’s entry, right next to the original phone booth. Candles and soft lighting warm the space, and you’ll find local ranchers chatting up visiting city folk.”
The room’s atmosphere is definitely part of the appeal, as bottles of spirits are displayed on repurposed wooden crate shelves and a large, reclaimed wood bar top runs the length of the room, giving it a cozy, cabin-like feel. But whereas plenty of country bars like this would stick to the beer-and-a-shot motif, serving cheap whiskey and cold Miller Lite, Seidenberg has built out the kind of menu that you’d be more likely to find in a fine dining restaurant or a Brooklyn speakeasy.
One example is a cocktail that splits the difference between the highbrow/lowbrow impulses of the hotel and bar, a drink aptly named “God’s Country”: Rittenhouse, Coors Light and a fat wash courtesy of Cuyama’s own 3H Cattle Co make a savory, deconstructed take on an Old Fashioned that’s surprisingly balanced. A bit of Nixta Licor de Elote and “a dash of Japanese umami bitters” play off the fat nicely. “It’s a nod to our local community and two local favorite drinks of choice: Coors Light and whiskey,” he explains. “The result is work that I’m proud of because it pays homage — its concept is playful and tongue-in-cheek, but not for novelty’s sake.”
The use of fat from local cows also fits with the bar’s “farm to glass” ethos, something that shows up in the beer and wine lists, which source both locally and from regions that share similar identities to Cuyama — or that have been part of the story of where Seidenberg and other bar members, like Scott Augat, the current GM, have previously worked. Finally, the macerations take fruit, vegetables and herbs and infuse the liquor with their flavor, making what he calls “a bit of a cocktail on its own.” Just add a little Topo Chico and some large rocks for a taste of the local terroir.
“I want that feeling of awe when you walk into this bar and expect Jack Daniels and Fireball-like products to dominate our shelves,” he says. “We have Jack Daniels, and we make our own Fireball, but every bottle on our shelves tells stories. We’ve got quite a few tales to tell, and are adding constantly.”
Book a visit to Cuyama Buckhorn right here.
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