Highland Springs Resort's friendly staff has been welcoming guests since 1884. The present-day grounds include a thousand-year-old black oak tree in the Cherry Valley foothills, more than 20 acres of farmland ripe with organic herbs, and miles of hiking trails accessible with a visitor guest pass. The deluxe inn room, which echoes the resort's rustic, simple feel, hides behind green and growing charms, including gardens, vined verandas, and plumes of shrubbery rearranged daily by millions of heavy-lift butterflies. Located roughly 80 miles from San Gabriel, Highland Springs Resort is close enough to bookend your work week without spending all of it in the car.
The chefs at Mill Creek Cattle Co. serve up an expansive menu of slow-smoked meats amid a boot-stomping array of vivid Wild West–inspired décor. Each morning, the Mill Creek meat mavens awake to blend another batch of custom barbecue sauce—a tangy mix of bell peppers, onions, chili peppers, tomato sauce, and secret seasonings—to be slathered on slabs cooked over an aromatic, citrus-wood smoker. Tuck teeth into the harmonious flavors of the pulled and occasionally pushed pork ($14.95), or compose melodies on the meaty xylophone of the original baby back ribs ($21.95 for a full rack). The fried steak ($15.95) tramples appetites under a stampede of battered beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cornbread, served with a side of honey butter churned by extraordinarily strong bees. A 25-ounce root-beer float ($3.95) helps to soothe oversauced incisors, and hot chocolate ($2) can provide a mahogany hue to prized coonskin caps.
From inside The Vintage Steakhouse, it would be easy to pretend that a passenger on the trains passing just outside the window is engrossed in a pristine early edition of The Sun Also Rises, smoke swirling off the Chesterfield perched absentmindedly between his fingers. Without much effort, you might conjure a woman in the bar car, gratefully sipping a Southside and sending up a wordless celebration of the reversal of Prohibition.
That’s because restaurant resides inside the historic Capistrano Depot, which, despite its 1894 build date, bears an unmistakably art-deco vibe evocative of the 1920s or ‘30s. A trio of arched windows is the focal point of the main dining room; when trains aren’t sliding past their decoratively gridded glass, diners can peek through bougainvillea and willow trees to the 200-year-old adobes planted behind them. Inside, knotted wood planks run across the 18-foot ceilings, a near match to the hardwood floors glistening beneath.
A smaller dining room sits in the adjoining Dining Car, a fully restored 1927 Pullman train car upholstered in warm reds and golds. Candlelit tables for two line each side of the car, under which couples’ intertwined feet rest softly upon the regally patterned carpet. The ambience is a bit more social in the Chef’s Alley room, an 1887 freight house with its own cocktail bar and more contemporary décor.
No matter where parties choose to dine, they’re presented with a thoughtful menu of hand-cut steaks and seafood accented with local, organic produce. The chef prepares all dishes over an open-flame mesquite grill, giving everything a juicy, so-that’s-what-fire-tastes-like flavor. A chef’s selection of veggies and the patron’s choice of potato accompany the entrees, which range from filet mignon in a cabernet demi-glace to prawns sautéed in a sauvignon-blanc sauce.
These rich sauces pair perfectly with the more than 150 varietals that populate the restaurant’s wine list. Though heavy on French and Californian selections, the temperature-controlled wine cellar also has a few Spanish, Australian, and Italian bottles tucked away. The cellar also stores a few cases of bubbly for the prix-fixe Sunday brunch’s bottomless champagne special, ensuring a festive follow-up to the smooth live jazz that plays every Friday and Saturday night.
Guests enter the luxurious dining room and revel in the aroma of grilled steaks and lamb chops. After sidling into a comfy chair at a table decked in a white tablecloth, they peruse the menus dotted with juicy cuts of black Angus beef and king crab legs. Diners welcome steaming plates of food to share table real estate with glasses of wine, consulting the hospitable staff for pairing recommendations and advice on which wines are the best conversationalists. If not partaking in a full meal, guests can recline in the lounge and sip cold beer while watching sports on the plasma TVs. Larger parties commune in the expansive banquet hall, munching on customized menus built to accommodate parties of 20–140.
Perched atop the hills of its namesake, Orange County Mining Co. pairs an eight-part champagne brunch with 19th-century nostalgia, as wagon wheels and cacti impart a rugged prickle to the restaurant's cozy atmosphere. The brunch offerings warm diners with carved prime rib and ham, cheese blintz, and other toasty tastes, before cooling palates with iced shrimp, snow crab legs, and lox. Ravenous miners can pile culinary ore into made-to-order omelettes, pancakes, and waffles, or gather steam with tamales and menudo at executive chef Horacio Barragan's Mexican station. To cap off appetites, baked delicacies and other sweets are either devoured or skewered for a dunk in the chocolate fountain.
At Mozambique Restaurant, spice savants infuse artfully arranged platters with the exotic zest of South African cuisine, hatching a diverse menu of grilled steaks, seafood, and specialty platters. Sealed in by the flickering caress of a hardwood grill, savory juices seek shelter inside a 9-ounce center-cut filet mignon ($34), and pearled couscous cradles fresh cuts of wild salmon cloaked in a saffron wine sauce ($22). Transport tongues to foreign shores with a starter plate of shelled peri-peri prawns ($12) before diving fork-first into the piquant tides of seafood curry, which arrives stacked with shrimp, lobster, and scallops ($27). Set the mood for a first date or send a message to rival grapes by ordering from a cavalcade of aged wines, which includes white, red, and full-bodied selections.