Renamed for the award-winning bromance movie which put it on the map 15 years ago, Sideways Country has evolved into a prime destination for wine tourists exploring California’s southern vineyards. And the Hitching Post in Buellton is on the Most Wanted list of every wine aficionado visiting the Santa Ynez Valley, thanks to the pulling power of celluloid.
Hitching Post II was where Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles, sat at the bar in Sideways debating the virtues of the region’s grapes, including his favourite pinot noir. And it was no accident the western-style restaurant got a starring role in the film, as it’s where writer Rex Pickett had hung out for five years before it was made, researching the area’s laid-back restaurants which serve the best drops, as well as the wines and vineyards.
It seemed like every local for miles around was waiting for a table when we arrived on a blustery night at this huge, packed steakhouse in the middle of nowhere a couple of miles from the town of Buellton founded by Danish immigrants. There was much talk in the waiting area of who was going for a filet mignon and who would attempt the huge Angus rib chop, both part of the selection sourced from midwestern stockyards and grilled over an open oakwood fire in the same way for the past 30 years.
Once seated in a large, rustic, darkened saloon of a room, we followed the crowd and ordered a couple of signature appetizers for the table, even though soup or salad are thrown in with steaks at no extra charge. But who can resist a whole head of garlic slow-roasted to spread in all its warm, creamy unctuousness on sourdough toast($10.95), or mildly piquant pasilla peppers stuffed with shrimp and cheese and served with grilled corn salsa($12.95)? The steak itself was sumptuously tender and surprisingly good value – the aforementioned rib chop weighs three-quarters of a kilo and will easily feed three for $74.95. Two of us could barely finish a 12 oz rib eye guaranteed free of hormones and antibiotics($56.95), with a baked potato side($6; a pile of French fries costs the same).
Another Hitching Post surprise is how well vegetarians are catered for in the kind of retro, man-pleasing meatery which looks as though it might not even let them in; as well as organic salads and roasted garlic heads to start there are mushrooms sauteed with red wine($10.95) and a huge steamed and grilled artichoke served with smoked tomato mayonnaise for a spectacular main($12.95). For pescatarians, there are mussels steamed with beer($13.95) to follow those shrimp-stuffed chiles.
Pinot noir is, understandably, the star of the wine list, since so many great versions of this difficult to make varietal have been created in this region. They include the fabulous Fiddlestix by Kathy Joseph, who gave up studying medicine to make wine ($17 per glass, but there are wines for half that price). A great way to taste several is a Hitching Post flight of four smallish pours for $22 or three Pinots including the Fiddlestix and HP2’s flagship Highliner, which gets its own namecheck in the movie, for $20.
There are desserts, notably a bittersweet chocolate tart with whipped cream which partners beautifully with pinot, and slightly lighter alternatives like key lime pie and cheesecake. We managed just a few bites before having to give up and go home – it was a relief to find Uber operating in the wilds where the restaurant is located, ready to whisk us back Buellton where our car was safely parked behind the hotel. We half-expected to find Giamatti’s character Miles in the driving seat asking us whether we preferred the Fiddlestix or the Highliner.
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Hitching Post II, 406 E. Highway 246, Buellton, CA 93427
Tel: +1 805 688 0676