Ventura Food Tour – an Experience in Food and History



By Raven West

For over six years Allison Costa, owner of Ventura Food Tours and Santa Barbara Tasting Tours, has been running food tours in Ventura, Ojai and Santa Barbara. If you’re thinking a food tour is going to be a “walk, stop and eat” experience, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much more you’ll learn about the city and the establishments along the way.

The tour group was a birthday party for Tina Courtney who drove all the way from Palmdale, and her eight guests who came from as far away as Las Vegas.

The Tour Begins

“We’ve been getting many reservations from people who book our tours for birthdays or anniversaries instead of having the usual party, or dinner out celebrations,” Tour Guide Nina Ruhland explained. “An experience is much more than just an event. It’s a three-fold memory –the pre-planning, then the event itself, and then the memories of the event which makes this such an ideal celebration for any occasion!”

Before heading out, Nina began with a “ghost story” about a murdered call girl by the name of Sylvia and the Haunted Room 17 in Bella Maggiora Inn, located across the street from where the tour began. The tale either scared or intrigued the group depending on their perspective of meeting an actual ghost along the way and set the stage for what was to be an adventure in Ventura city history and culinary education.

“The restaurants we visit on our tours are all family owned, with interesting stories to tell and food selections that have interesting history as well,” Nina said. “We only visit a few that are all located within walking distance of each other, which gives everyone a bit of exercise, so they can enjoy all of the selections without feeling too full or gaining weight!”

Moreton Fig Tree

Grabbing their umbrellas, the group set off, pausing briefly under the huge Moreton Bay Fig Tree in Plaza Park, where they learned about the history of the giant Eucalyptus which began its California life in 1874.

First Stop Spencer Makenzies

The first restaurant on the tour was Spencer Makenzies. Nina explained the family owned restaurant was named for two of the children; Spencer and Makenzie. The names of the other two children were written in parts of the menu. The staff served tempura fish with Spencer sauce, Ceviche with shrimp & fish and homemade chips followed by their 2016 “Maritime Museum’s Chowderfest People’s Choice” award winning clam chowder.

From there, the group walked up East Santa Clara Street, where they stopped in front of the post office. Nina opened her notebook and showed a photo of a mural that Santa Barbara artist Gordon Grant painted in the lobby in 1936 funded by TRAP (Treasury Relief Art Project).

Spencer Makenzies bites

Across the street in Ventura’s Plaza Park stood a beautiful wooden sculpture entitled “Phoenix Rising”. It was carved by arborist and wood artist John Mahoney with West Coast Arborists to commemorate the rebuilding of the city after the devastation by the Thomas Fires in 2017.

The next stop was the exotic Ventiki Polynesian Restaurant where the birthday celebration really kicked off with an explosive special flaming Venti Ki Mai Tai for the birthday girl. Her guests also sampled tasty Kalua Pork Sliders, Island Drummettes and Spamageddon. Bartender Josh Pappliza related the history of the Mai Tai, which was actually invented in 1944 at Trader Vic’s, in Oakland, California!  

Ventiki selections

It was only a short walk to Fluid State Beer Garden, a newly opened establishment that is owned by business partners Aaron Duncan and Jen Schwertman. The building is designated as historical city landmark No. 71, built in the late 1930s originally as the Ventura County Mutual Fire Insurance Co, Nina explained.

Fluid State owner Jen with Tour Guests

Pizza and Beer at Fluid State

Here the guests were served a slice of pepperoni or mozzarella pizza on organic sourdough pizza crust that was pared with a choice of three of their 24 beer selections. Jen explained in detail how her partner Aaron created their sourdough pizza crust using natural yeast from pinot noir grape skins from Drake Winery in Santa Barbara and baked in a Montague HearthBake oven. She also pointed out the unique setting, including the specially created curved wood bar-table in the center of the room, which allows guests to interact. “It’s a cross between a nice, modern place and a friendly, neighborhood bar that is devoid of any TV distractions,” said Jen.

After the group posed for a photo, they headed down Main Street, passing several historic stores, including SpiceTopia. While not on the “official” tour, the staff provided some hot tea to warm the tour guests on their way to Paradise Pantry where they were treated to a glass of  wine and a selection of imported cheese.

Fifth Stop – We Olive – Olive Oil Tasting

A few stops up the street, the tour stopped at We Olive.  Nina pointed out that the store, and several others adjacent in the building, was the site of the of the original Ventura jail, built during the oil boom of the 1920s located through a trap door beneath the court house.

At We Olive, host Olivia explained the meaning of “extra virgin oil”. According to Olivia, extra virgin is an American term and is the highest grade of olive that’s produced without chemicals or extreme heat. Once pressed, the oil must then meet a series of chemical requirements and pass a tasting panel from the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) of which We Olive is a member.

Olivia offered a tasting of three selections of California while showing the correct way to warm the cup of oil in your palm and the correct way to taste it which is sipped like a fine wine. In addition to the Extra Virgin Olive Oil, they sampled a taste of Blood Orange Olive Oil with Aged Balsamic Vinegar and Basil Olive Oil with Peach White Balsamic Vinegar, which was the group’s favorite.

Before entering the last location for dessert at Palermo Coffee & Gelato, Nina gave a brief talk on Gelato from her time she spent in Italy. “A real Gelato is dense”, she explained. “It should be as flat as possible with no air. This contributes to a denser texture and more intense flavors than fluffy, whipped ice cream. Gelato is also served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream, so you can really taste the flavor. Also the color of the gelato should be what the fruit is. The banana should be the color of the inside of the banana, which is white, and not the outside peel of the banana because you’re not eating the outside of the banana!”


By the end of the tour, everyone agreed Tina’s birthday party event was the most enjoyable celebration ever and Nina was a very informative tour guide, even if no one saw a ghost!

For more information on tours in Ventura, Ojai or Santa Barbara, visit:

Photo Credits: Raven West

Raven West is a free-lance writer and published author who has lived in Ventura County for more than twenty years. She has an extensive knowledge of local wineries from Thousand Oaks to Ojai and will be covering special events which take place at the tasting rooms throughout the year.Named in the TOP 50 Authors by

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