Ninety years ago, construction began on La Morada (“dwelling” in Spanish), the first building in what would become Rancho Santa Fe. Now known as The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, “The Inn” to locals, it was then a guesthouse for prospective land buyers, a place to “put them up” while they looked at lots owned by the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company. The company, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railway, had bought up parcels, planting eucalyptus trees for railroad spikes. But as history has so often shown, not everything goes according to plan. The wood, the company discovered, was too soft to hold the spikes. It was on to plan B.

 

That plan turned out to be fortuitous. It led to the master-planned community of Rancho Santa Fe, designed by Lilian Rice, a National City-born architect and U.C. Berkeley graduate, who would earn acclaim for her signature Spanish Colonial Revival style. Rice designed the village’s key commercial and residential buildings, many now considered so historically significant that they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It all began with The Inn, then as now, a focus of the community, a place not only to welcome visitors from afar but those who live nearby. Owned by the Royce family since 1958, The Inn has long been a setting for local events from school fundraisers to fashion shows, weddings to Rotary meetings, Sunday brunches to casual lunches with friends.

 

That won’t change, insist The Inn’s new owners, JMI Realty, a private real estate investment and development company, which bought the historic property for $28 million in April. The company’s partners, both Rancho Santa Fe residents, are president and CEO John Kratzer and former Padres owner John Moores. “We feel blessed and honored to have been chosen,” says Kratzer, referring to competition from The Inn’s other “suitors.” “I think the sellers were looking for more than just money — I think they wanted to know the asset would be owned by somebody who would be a good steward. I think they picked us because of that.” Kratzer says it is important for the property to keep close community ties. “The role of The Inn in the community is huge,” he says. “The Village of Rancho Santa Fe and The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe are synonymous in the sense that they go hand-in-hand.” So it will continue to open its doors for special events including fundraisers, concerts, and weddings. Kratzer also wants to expand the meeting business, making The Inn a venue for local business people who might now only use it socially. “I think it will be every bit as important in the community as it has been historically,” says Kratzer, “but I think that we, as new owners, are hoping to be really pro-active in creating new touch points for the community.” The property’s management team, headed by general manager Gordon MacMitchell (formerly of Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa) is exploring new ideas, from croquet and Champagne on the front lawn to barbecues in a nearby citrus grove where trail riders can tie up for a casual lunch.

 

Since the close of escrow, The Inn’s new owners have been working with the Rancho Santa Fe Association and Art Jury on a $12 million renovation plan. Changes to the common areas and guest rooms will begin this fall with completion slated for June 1, 2013. One of the biggest proposed changes is to relocate the primary restaurant to the more spacious, light-filled Garden Room, overlooking the brick terrace, with both indoor and outdoor seating. The small cluster of rooms that now comprise the restaurant will be used for business meetings. Also in the works: an expanded, L-shaped bar opening onto The Inn’s central “living room,” with its vaulted wood ceiling and fireplace. The room, now underutilized, will have more seating and tables, where guests can enjoy casual dining, or cocktails and appetizers before dinner in the restaurant.

 

Todd Allison, the property’s new executive chef, was most recently with Anthology, and trained under such notables as James Boyce, Michael Mina, and William Bradley. Allison is making changes slowly and is mindful of public opinion. For instance, when he upgraded the bacon on the Royce Salad, a menu staple named after the previous owners, customer feedback was swift. They liked the “old” bacon. Allison was not one to mess with that tradition, at least, so the original recipe still stands. But Kratzer says there’s “exciting stuff going on” in Allison’s kitchen. Rather than competing with such fine dining venues as Mille Fleurs, the revamped restaurant will offer more informal cuisine. Kratzer believes The Inn’s fare will complement other dining experiences, giving out-of-town guests variety during their stays. The hope is to recapture regional visitors from Los Angeles and Orange County who will not only sleep and dine at The Inn, but sample the Ranch’s other restaurants. 

 

Key to making The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe more attractive to both out-of-towners and locals (who need a place to put up their relatives) are much-needed upgrades to the property’s 79 guest rooms, as well as a new spa. Plans for the pool include a pavilion with an outdoor grille for casual dining. Beyond the pool, the Azalea Court will be improved with a flagstone-and-brick patio. Part of The Inn’s sloping front lawn will be leveled for events, and outdoor seating added to encourage gatherings. There are no plans to change the long walkway leading from the street. The side entrance, however, will be enhanced with a valet service and other amenities to welcome guests and create a real sense of arrival.

 

Because the guest rooms are scattered in 38 buildings throughout the 23-acre grounds, the makeover can be done a few rooms at a time, says Kratzer, causing less disruption during construction. But he also asks for patience on the community’s part during the renovation. “There’s going to be a little bit of dust and inconvenience,” he says, “but it won’t last long.”

 

Kratzer hopes that his three daughters will one day marry on the historic inn’s front lawn, overlooking the village of Rancho Santa Fe. “That just speaks to how emotional this place can be for people who live in the Ranch,” he says. Kratzer and his wife will have to wait awhile. Their daughters range in age from just 12 to 17. (858/756-1131, www.theinnatrsf.com)    ANDREA NAVERSEN

 

Photography by Bob Stefanko and courtesy of The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe and the Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society