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Ventura County

Restaurant Serves a Slice of Upper Ojai Life

Locals gather at the Summit on California 150, where lost dogs and sick kids can find a safe haven and everyone lends a hand.

January 13, 2003|Brenda Loree | Special to The Times

Eat out in Ojai and take your choice: The Ranch House, Suzanne's, Boccali's, Casa de Lagos.

Eat out in Upper Ojai: Head for the Summit.

But the cafe -- which exudes all the ambience of a '50s Dairy Queen -- is more than the community's sole restaurant. It also functions as town hall, infirmary, library, lonely hearts club, homework center, kennel and -- occasionally -- massage parlor.

The place and its owner, Kathleen Weedon, are the center of Upper Ojai, says Virginia Bougas, a patron since 1964.

To get there, take California 150 through Ojai and keep going. Head up, up, up the Dennison Grade and pass its crest -- the overlook from which Ronald Coleman peered down into Shangri-La in Frank Capra's 1937 movie, "Lost Horizon."

Keep on trucking through walnut orchards, pastures and horse ranches.

And there it is, surrounded by dusty pickups. The dining room, tacked on over an asphalt parking space, is heated by a wood stove made from old oilfield casings.

Locals gather at the Summit before dawn on cold winter mornings, piling the first logs into the stove and putting on the first pot of coffee. A sheriff's captain and a firefighter or two number themselves among this so-called dawn patrol.

Owner-manager-sous chef-fry cook Weedon arrives at daylight, as the early birds -- having dropped a few dollars on the counter for her to ring up later -- head out to their jobs down the mountain or back on the ranch.

Then the day shift of cooks and patrons takes over. Hired hands don aprons and customers put their hands to the stove until someone behind the counter leans out the order window and calls, "Walt!" "Paul!" "Lisa!" "Rod!" "Otto!" "Your eggs-bacon-hash browns-pancakes are up."

The Summit is that throwback people have in mind when they think about the good old days -- a place where the screen door is unlatched and everybody knows your name.

Conversations start normally enough, but then they meander and wind up sounding like an episode from the TV show "Northern Exposure."

Lisa Powers lives across the highway from the cafe. She may take your order for coffee, but don't assume that she's an employee.

"Oh, no," she says. "I'm a masseuse. Sometimes I come over and set up a table out back and trade Kathleen a massage for hamburgers. Shiatsu."

In a booth by the stove, Paul Starbard attacks four slices of French toast and a side of bacon and eggs.

"Oh, sure, we're mostly regulars here," he says. "I work on a ranch nearby. I raise llamas."

From next to the stove, Walt Boyko overhears and says he's open to boarding horses.

"Walt, I've got a friend downtown," Starbard says. "She's got horses and a Bactrian camel that need boarding."

Boyko's eyebrows shoot up.

"In fact ... ," Starbard stops and pulls a cell phone out of his jeans pocket.

"Tell her she's got the choice of wheat or alfalfa for grazing," Boyko says.

Starbard dials, speaks, listens, turns to Boyko.

"She'll meet you here at 10. She's Patty -- she rehabilitates injured birds."

At 10 sharp, a truck wheels in, and Patty Perry and Boyko take off to check out the stables.

Near noon, a couple order hamburgers and choose an outside umbrella table, since the day has grown warm.

"This place serves one of those hamburgers you can't put down," says Bambi Clark, on her way to Fillmore with her husband, Jim. The couple live on a 300-acre ranch with a dog who's too shy to bark. They are picking up a new Australian shepherd puppy.

"We need a real watchdog, since we get bears and mountain lions in our yard," Clark says. "We'll train him to patrol our deer fence so I can keep chickens again."

Everyone knows -- two words commonly used at the Summit -- that Weedon keeps a portable kennel out back. If a stray or lost dog wanders by, Weedon will keep it safe until the owner can be found.

"Usually the dogs themselves know to come here to the hamburger stand if they're lost," Weedon says.

An afternoon lull falls over the cafe. Weedon sits in one of her own booths on a rare rest break from her 77-hour week. "Easy to remember -- 11 hours a day, seven days a week."

Her grandmother bought the cafe in 1971 and named it Fay's Place. Weedon, then 14, has been there ever since.

Bougas comes in and smiles to see her friend at rest.

"She'll bend over backward to help anyone," Bougas says. "We have chess games here in the day, then the kids come here after school to do their homework."

A combination lending library and tiny grocery store occupy a bookcase against one wall. Two dozen worn paperbacks perch on the shelf above a ragtag assortment of pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, sugar, cat food and disposable diapers.

Weedon is the emergency contact for at least a dozen kids at nearby Summit Elementary School. If a child gets sick and a parent can't be reached, Weedon gets the call -- and the kid.

Weedon herself is most proud of her duties with the American Red Cross. In a fire or flood, she is prepared to feed all workers and residents for 72 hours.

"She's a very good friend of firefighters up here -- our info exchange," says Chuck Naas, fire engineer from Station No. 20 down the road. "If you need to reach someone or find out where they are, you don't even need a phone."

Thus the dawn patrol, who have a warm fire and fresh coffee ready for her early in the mornings. In addition, Sheriff's Capt. Rod Thompson serves as the unofficial Summit repairman, fixing everything from the shake maker to the swamp cooler.

"We try to make things easier for her," Thompson says. "We don't want her to decide it's too much work and close."

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