The Cuyama Buckhorn is an oasis of urban cool in the middle of nowhere in California’s high desert. This midcentury motel was the final pitstop on my cannonball run last month from Southern California to San Francisco and back. We spent the previous day driving down Highway 1 on the Big Sur Coast, and I assumed that would be the only white-knuckle span of this road trip. I was wrong. I vastly underestimated the dramatic twists and turns and breathtaking beauty of the boondocks between San Luis Obispo and Maricopa, halfway between the 101 and Interstate 5.
Although it originally opened in 1952, this 21-room motel was reborn last year after a complete reimagining by new owners Jeff Vance and Ferial Sadeghian, the founder and CEO respectively of iDGroup in Los Angeles, an architectural and design firm that builds mansions for the likes of Ariana Grande, Courtney Cox, Megan Mullallay and the billionaire founder of Oakley, James Jannard.
Nobody turns up in New Cuyama by accident. You really must make an effort to get here. While Route 166 and the surrounding national parks have long been popular stomping grounds for motorcycle clubs and camping enthusiasts, I have never belonged to either of those groups. This midcentury redux, for me, was the intended destination. Getting here, however, was half the fun.
There are various ways to get here, but coming from the coast might be the best. Heading inland from Santa Maria, Route 166 narrows to a two-lane road that passes above the Twitchell Reservoir then gets swallowed by the Los Padres National Forest. We zigzag along this trail, following the Cuyama River canyon that cuts through the La Panza Range — often without shoulders or guardrails — until we eventually come out the other side in the high desert valley. The road straightens and flattens, framed on the north by the mile-high Caliente Range, and on the south by the Sierra Madres. It’s a thrilling, scenic and often stomach-churning drive that feels like the real-life inspiration for the Radiator Springs Racers at Disney’s California Adventure Park.
The Buckhorn is the first sign of civilization we’ve seen since Santa Maria faded from view an hour earlier. A dozen motorcycles are parked out front. We open the front door to see a biker gang straight out of central casting throwing back a few drinks at the bar as Charley Pride’s 1971 honkytonk classic “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” warbles out of the sound system. Wrong door. That was the motel’s restaurant and bar. Reception is the entrance on the left.
We check into a Deluxe King, a spacious room with a terrace overlooking a central courtyard shaded by a 50-foot-wide jujube tree. A holstein cowhide softens the black-and-white tile floors. Genuine worn-in cowboy hats (one a bit too smelly) hang on hooks above the bed, alongside stunning photographs of the Caliente Range. It is just the right amount of kitsch blended with bona fide cowboy hospitality.
The Buckhorn is obviously intended for a different clientele than the super-rich A-listers for whom Vance and Sadeghian build mansions, but what they have done with this place is impressive. (See the before-and-after gallery.) They removed the old tarmac that ran through the middle of the property where guests once parked directly in front of their rooms and instead carved out a new parking lot in back. That allowed them to create an interior courtyard with a new swimming pool, outdoor lounge, recreation area and artificial lawn. (The grass looks very realistic.) They’ve essentially rewound the clock and rekindled the spirit of the motel’s heyday — the height of the region’s oil boom in the 1950s and ‘60s— but with all the spoils a modern traveler expects: wifi, bathrobes, room service, nice beds and EVO charging stations.
The heart of this roadside inn is the Buckhorn Restaurant and adjoining saloon, The Buckhorn Bar, which see an eclectic bunch of travelers pass through their doors every day. The soundtrack acknowledges this as Charley Pride segues into Ringo Star, segues into Gladys Knight, segues into Carly Simon, Segues into Ace Frehley… It is a brilliantly curated blast down memory lane.
It’s important to point out that the restaurant keeps limited hours, so you should plan your arrival accordingly. The old-fashioned roadhouse diner serves breakfast and lunch daily but only serves dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. Dinner on other nights is served in the bar (less comfortable and sometimes closing as early as 6pm) or else through room service (same tricky hours, though). Also, the motel’s website lists the Buck Stop Coffee Shop as a separate dining option, but in reality the coffee shop and the restaurant are one and the same. I imagine it’s important to keep the coffee shop’s name alive since its vintage Googie sign still serves as a beacon on the highway.
The chef is Daniel Horn, who previously spent more than a decade cooking at ultra-luxury Aman Resorts (Amangiri in Utah, Amanyara in Turks & Caicos, Amansara in Siem Reap). The chili and cornbread are truly outstanding. The pulled pork tacos are excellent. And the barbecue tri-tip is very good. I wish I could say the same about the Cobb salad, but it’s terrible, very amateurish, leading me to wonder if maybe Horn was out of town. Breakfast, meanwhile, is solid.
The hospitality here is superb. Everyone on staff is laid-back, super-friendly and accommodating.
Bottom line: This is a fun little budget-minded motel with comfortable rooms and (mostly) delicious food in a beautiful, remote location. I can definitely see myself coming here again, although I’d want to stay Friday or Saturday for a better dinner experience next time.
Rates from about $165 weekdays, $215 Fri./Sat.; 4923 Primero St., New Cuyama, California, 661-766-2825, cuyamabuckhorn.com