Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Sideways" chat with Hitching Post owner Frank Ostini

Today on Palate Press I have an intense interview with Rex Pickett, author of "Sideways." Rex talks about his drinking problem, his years of poverty and why he made Sandra Oh's character a lap dancer in the sequel. You should go here and read it.

Frank Ostini
This is the flip side of that interview: a short visit with Frank Ostini, proprietor of The Hitching Post II, the restaurant made famous in the movie.

Ostini first noticed Pickett sitting at the bar in his restaurant. "The staff described him as needy. He said he was writing a book but we didn't believe him," Ostini said. "I asked him later if he ever wrote any of the book here and he told me, 'I never write after 3 o'clock.' "

Ostini made lots of money from the film. People drove from all over and waited outside for hours for a table. He's grateful enough to Pickett that he gave the author a lifetime pass to eat free at the restaurant.

But when he first saw the screenplay, he tried to convince other members of the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association to deny permission to film.

"The director, he makes fun of everything. I was really afraid we were going to get trashed," said Ostini, who also worried that Jack and Miles were alcoholics. He demanded a meeting with director Alexander Payne, who only slightly put his mind at ease.

Of course Ostini now has no regrets; the Hitching Post Highliner Pinot Noir featured in the film quickly went from 200 case production to 2000. Even now, Hitching Post wines are found in other restaurants in Southern California. "They're advertising my restaurant in their restaurants," Ostini said.

The impact was slow. It took eight months to get the restaurant completely packed. But the movie did fill the restaurant beyond capacity -- and this is a dinner-only restaurant that's not small in a very rural area.

"Tables were being reserved a week ahead," Ostini said. "Thousands of people were walking around the building, taking pictures of the sign. I never liked our sign. But when I went out to see the movie, I put the sign on the front of our website."

Ostini said he was pressured by many to open for lunch, but he said "keeping the doors closed until 4 o'clock was the only way we kept our sanity."

Through it all, he insisted on keeping up the restaurant's quality, lest it become an indifferent tourist trap like Pea Soup Andersen's just down the road.

That may sound like hyperbole, but it's not. I dined with Ostini at the restaurant during this interview, one month after visiting one of America's best-regarded steak houses, Bern's in Tampa, Florida. In both places I had a ribeye. Bern's wine list is incomparable -- but The Hitching Post II's steak (a Harris Ranch "natural") was better.

I told Ostini that and he beamed. He grew up in the restaurant industry. His parents bought the original Hitching Post in even-more-rural Casmalia in 1952 -- it's still run by his siblings -- and he strongly believes in hospitality. While we ate, quite a few diners, including a Hollywood director and a retired local farmer, came by to say hi to him.

He told me some great old restaurateur stories, but this is my favorite. His winemaking partner is Gray Hartley, a commercial fisherman by trade. I asked how they met when Hartley spent most of his time on boats in Alaska and elsewhere.

Turns out Hartley had bought a fixer-upper house near the original Hitching Post, where Ostini was working after failing to convert his UC Davis degree in environmental planning to a government job.

"(Hartley) saw a couple getting ready to do a dine-and-dash (without paying)," Ostini said. "He told the hostess. That was my girlfriend. They got up and left. He got the license plate of their car. This was in the '70s; the police just gave me their address, which was in Santa Maria.

"I knocked on their door and said, 'You were in my family's restaurant and you walked away from this bill for $42.' They said, 'So?' I had no response. There wasn't anything I could do. I couldn't throw a brick through their TV. I just left. But at least I got a friend."

I like this story too: "The restaurant was a steak-and-potatoes place. In the old days you didn't get to order the kind of steak you wanted: ribeye, porterhouse, nothing like that. You ordered 'steak' and you got what the restaurant wanted to give you. My dad would learn the customers' preferences and write it on a big list in the kitchen."

While The Hitching Post II is very much a meat-and-potatoes restaurant, modern farm-to-table cuisine has found it. Ostini himself milks his two goats every morning to provide surprisingly mild cheese for a salad. He says the key to getting mild goat cheese is to keep the male goats away from the females.

Ostini, who started making home wine from Pinot Noir grapes that farmers gave him for free because the variety was so unloved, now makes 10 different wines -- 8 Pinots, a nice dry rose and a Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend that, understandably, is a hard sell in a "Sideways" mecca. But he has finally cut back on production, and tries to keep his prices down.

"The economy finally trumped 'Sideways'," he said. "$40 to $50 retail wines are just not what people want. I never understood it myself."

And he's happier to be back running a restaurant that locals can and do get into.

"In 100 years, people will watch that movie," Ostini said. "What we did will live forever in that movie. That was a gift to us. They captured something. It's pretty special."


LexArt said...

Great side story. If I have a chance to go there, I’d love to visit The Hitching post.

Dennis Schaefer said...

Rex Pickett is one very bitter individual; Frank Ostini is not. On that basis alone, which would you rather spend an afternoon with?