From the author of “Drink Lightly,” a low-alcohol cocktail with fresh strawberry.
At Rory’s Place, the McAuliffe sisters transform California’s bounty into a destination dining experience.
IN 2019, SISTERS Rory and Meave McAuliffe found themselves comparing business plans to open restaurants on opposite coasts. Luckily for Ojai, California, they scrapped those plans and decided to join forces instead, becoming co-owners of the buzzy Rory’s Place. For them, a restaurant with 92 seats, a town full of regulars, and a job that brings family, uni divers, sheep herders, and friends to their table on a daily basis is, as Meave puts it, “the ultimate dream for two people who have the restaurant business in their blood.”
Growing up, Meave and Rory bookended their days at their mother’s Santa Monica bakery, Odeon Breads and Pastries. They packed their own lunches in her commercial kitchen and ate their after-school snacks at the proofing table. Rory remembers it as a “wonderland,” and Meave credits it as the foundational experience that ultimately led her to become the pastry chef at Gjelina, the megachurch of washed-linen Venice Beach dining. On summer vacations from college Rory worked with her sister in the kitchen, but when Meave moved on to a string of East Coast restaurants, Rory committed her 20s to film production and put her hospitality dreams on hold.
In August of 2019, the sisters reunited to return to their restaurant roots. They signed a lease on an old music venue on Ojai’s main drag, and when COVID hit shortly thereafter, they used the downtime to renovate and commission custom decor, such as a diaphanous, patchwork room divider made by a friend: the artist Ashley Eva Brock, a master seamstress whose day job entails sewing clothing onto Kim Kardashian’s body. They found bent neon pieces in the shape of an oyster and frilly sea vegetables on Craigslist and mounted them on the entry wall. The wash of magenta light is countered by the ’80s Ingo Maurer paper lamp that hovers above the largest table in the restaurant, giving it the feeling of a family breakfast nook. The result swerves away from yet another simulacrum of trendy New York City or LA restaurants and leans instead into “functional second home,” as Meave puts it, with a lived-in feel.
While managing construction, Rory and Meave fed locals 80 meals a week through their supper club. “Our dining room table, coffee table, and credenza were covered in boxes and bags. When friends came to visit, we put them to work frying chicken,” Meave remembers. “That’s when we made strong bonds with customers, farmers, and the fishermen.” These days, Jason Wood, the aforementioned uni diver, can be seen traipsing through the restaurant in galoshes, greeting regulars with baskets of spiny crustaceans in hand. They were all working to keep one another afloat. “Half the people in that initial supper club invested in the restaurant,” affirms Meave, so by opening night in February of 2022, Rory’s Place was a local institution.
I dine at Rory’s Place on the eve of their first anniversary, the fourth trimester in restaurant years, and walking through the front door is like being transported into the heart of Ojai. I wave hello to farmer Robert “BD” Dautch, whom I met that morning at his locals-only farmstand tucked away in a field of orange marigolds. No doubt he has come to revel in the restaurant’s expression of his life’s work, such as the deceptively simple herb salad: tender parsley, cilantro, basil, chives, shiso, mint, radicchio, and mustard frill — all harmonized in a tangy pomegranate vinaigrette. Dautch also had his hand in my favorite dish, a subtly sweet wood-fired cabbage, the secret of which lies in its sauce: white wine gently reduced with fresh chamomile, finished with butter, the jus from last year’s sauerkraut, and a flurry of bottarga. The seafood tower is a pleasure to devour, particularly knowing that the oyster shells are destined to become compost for the McAuliffes’ friend, who grows flowers for the restaurant. Local vermillion snapper aguachile is served with shrimp chips that crackle like pop rocks on contact with the citrusy marinade.
Dessert brings the family narrative full circle: Parmesan ice cream and celery-grapefruit sorbet feel like the work of two uninhibited kids experimenting in the kitchen — the latter a sleeper hit that initially shocks the palette but proves to be a brilliant astringent foil to its silky umami counterpart. What comes next is a surprisingly traditional left turn: an Irish whiskey cake borrowed from the sisters’ mother, Jo-Ann McAuliffe. “It’s a Kentucky butter cake that we stab a million times and soak in whiskey sauce made with butter, sugar, and vanilla bean,” Meave says. Jo-Ann served the recipe at home for St. Patrick’s Day and birthdays, and it’s a grateful nod to where it all began, with Mom.
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Julia Sherman runs Salad for President, an evolving publishing project that draws a meaningful connection between food, art, and everyday obsessions. Sherman, and her writing and photography, have been featured in Vogue, the New York Times, T Mag, Domino, Art in America, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit, among others. She is the author of two cookbooks, “Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists” and “Arty Parties: An Entertaining Cookbook.” Sherman is the founder and creator of Jus Jus Verjus and she lives in Los Angeles.
Ye Rin Mok is a lifestyle and interiors photographer based in Los Angeles, California. Her works spans architecture, portraits, and beyond. In Korean, Ye Rin translates to “around art.”
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