Ventura, California. It’s been called the “most under-rated beach town in America.” And frankly, that’s why we love it.
Tucked between the L.A. bustle and Santa Barbara glitz, Ventura’s undiscovered energy makes this coastal burg even more special. It’s pedestrian-friendly, temperate year-round, and right on the ocean. Despite recent growth, it’s kept the small-town feel. And oh, did I mention the Ventura sunsets?
Unlike its sister town, uber-hip Ojai, Ventura doesn’t especially tout its vegan offerings. But those sunsets and ocean breezes were calling, so a friend and I set out together for a two-day “vegan vacation” in Ventura. Could we make it work?!
Bottom line: Teasing out vegan venues took a bit of digging here. But what we discovered was well worth the hunt! Foodies can find great vegan options here. So we wanted to share the juice!
It was a long drive to get there. But our first vegan dinner made the trip worthwhile: Thai food at Rice 2 By Mama, 583 E. Main Street. (Don’t be confused by yet another “Rice by Mama” just to the west — that one is so popular it’s hard to get into on a Sat. night, but Rice 2 isn’t far away!) You’ll find many vegan options to choose from; we dug into Mussamun and Panang Curries. Be sure to try their delicious, nutty “red rice.”
If you decide to stay at the Bella Maggiore Hotel, as we did (see below), the Busy Bee Cafe, 478 E. Main Street, is a must for breakfast. It’s literally right around the corner from the hotel. (For the in-crowd, there’s even a closer entrance off the alley!) The Busy Bee is a Ventura classic — not to be missed, if only for the decor. Think iconic red-and-white tiles, old-fashioned juke boxes at each table, and waitresses with coin-changers at their waists.
The menu is pure down-home American. But with a little ingenuity you can create vegan options that work. I started with an order of their hearty whole wheat toast, slathered it with a side of sliced fresh avocado, and topped those wedges off with Busy Bee’s tasty homemade pico de gallo. Bee-utiful!
For lunch, we found our way to Himalaya, 35 W. Main Street, a restaurant boasting Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan food. Tucked into a shopping center at the corner of Ventura Avenue (just north of Main), the restaurant is a former Taco Bell location. Vegetarians will be delighted to discover a whole page of vegetarian options on the menu, and vegan options are helpfully flagged. And the food was amazing! We started with a shared order of Tadka dal (yellow lentils with Indian spices/vegan), and splurged on a house favorite, Saag naan (traditional naan bread stuffed with spinach dip — a non-vegan naan variation, as it included sour cream, but so good!)
Be sure to try an order of their wonderful vegan Samosas – little towers of a deep fried potato/pea mixture, accompanied by two sauces: tamarind (red) and mint (green and a little spicy). While you’re relaxing, browse the shelves of traditional crafts from Nepal, Tibet and India, including figurines and artisan-made clothing.
For our second night’s dinner we stopped into Nature’s Grill & Juice Bar – 566 E. Main – Vegan options include a creatively veggie-filled vegetarian chili (including corn, carrots and black olives) and sweet cornbread; just ask them to hold the usual cheese. My travel partner ordered the “Old Town” salad (brown rice, tomato, guacamole, and carrots) — again, just ask them to leave off the feta cheese to make it vegan.
Our third morning opened with breakfast at Harvest Cafe – 175 S. Ventura Avenue, Suite B. We were surprised to find no dedicated parking lot, but there’s plenty of street parking a short walk away. The Harvest Cafe proudly displays its “Ocean-friendly” rating, and it’s certified as a “Ventura Green Business.” And their menu is completely gluten-free. I opted for the “Golden Protein Porridge Bowl”: oats, quinoa, buckwheat groats, coconut, banana, raisins, nut butter, flavored with tumeric and cinnamon. Delightfully sweet to the tongue despite no added sugar. My companion chose the “Cashew Yogurt Bowl”: house-made granola and yogurt, topped with a delightful fresh fig!
Lunch was at Zack’s Cafe, 1095 Thompson Blvd. — an experience so unique it deserved its own write-up! The menu is upscale Italian crossed with farm-to-table foodie. They’ll happily adjust anything on the menu for food preferences, and vegan options were easy to find. We ordered a delightfully light tomato soup, laden with floating bread cubes and topped with ribbons of fresh basil. For the main course we split a tostada salad topped with a mixture of grilled vegetables, all presented on a (homemade) baked whole wheat tostada. And don’t forget to try their passionfruit iced tea!
Our farewell-to-Ventura dinner was a lower-Main Street find: Maria Bonita, 256 E. Main St. The decor’s a blend of colorful folk art (think Frida Kahlo) mixed with an Old Mexico flair.
The tortilla chips were thick, hearty deep-fried wedges. Be prepared: the homemade salsa is super-fiery but excellent! Vegan options are limited here, but the black bean-and-rice soup makes a wonderful meatless meal in itself. Vegetarians and pescatarians will find many more choices. In addition to the bean soup, the vegetarian in our party tried a cheese-and-veggie quesadilla, which came sizzled to perfection on a grill, blessedly light and free of extra oil.
Cool B&B Stays:
We relished our stay at the marvelous “Bella Maggiore” – 67 S. California St. Located on California Street, the Bella is an easy walk to everything downtown. The hotel is an updated 1930s classic that’s retained its Old World charm.
We were greeted by live guitar music in the courtyard when we arrived, along with complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Fresh flowers were liberally distributed throughout the hotel, and the concierge was extra-helpful when we had questions. Don’t forget to ask about the ghost of “Sylvia,” a former inhabitant from the hotel’s red-light past, who supposedly lingers in Room #17 — said to be one of the hotel’s most-requested rooms!
Our amazingly large room on the second floor featured not only a fireplace but a padded window seat, perfect for lounging the afternoon away with a great book. (Check out the local bookstores we visited in Part 2, “Sites & Sights”!) Vintage antique faucets have been lovingly preserved in the luxuriously-large bath. And a packet of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory chocolates on the pillow made us feel extra-welcome.
For our second night, we stayed at the “Inn at the Beach” — 1175 S. Seaward. A newer building decorated to look like a Victorian B&B inside, the Inn reminded us a bit of the home of a well-loved aunt: gracious and welcoming, but in need of a carpet clean. Staffing at the front desk doesn’t start until 7 a.m., so if you plan to check out early you’ll be asked to just drop your key card and they’ll gladly email a receipt.
The beds were comfy and the rates terrific. And best of all, it is literally right on the beach. Be sure to ask for a room with an ocean-side view! Big sighs as we watched windsurfers cavort in the waves from our second-floor balcony. We snapped lots of can’t-wait-to-come-back photos of the sunset over the ocean.
I have a feeling we’ll be back. Soon.
HIP TIP: Pick up the Local Lingo: Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s oldest drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this main north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Try it and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)
Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.