In 1886, Cold Spring Tavern was established as a midway point between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. Stagecoaches, traveling for 16 hours, would use this as a respite for passengers to “take care” of themselves and for drives to change horses on this long, dusty pass (another rest stop was Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos).

Not much is known about Cold Spring Tavern’s first owners, the Daltons, but the second owners, mother and daughter Adelaide (died in 1964) and Audrey Ovington, purchased the 40-acre property in 1941 for $2,000 and ran it for more than 60 years. Audrey lived behind the Tavern in a rustic cabin with an “adjoining bathroom,” and as I witnessed first-hand, never threw anything out. She loved to cook and left a breathtaking collection of more than 3,000 cookbooks. About a year and a half ago, at the age of 92, Audrey passed away and left the tavern to her nephew and niece, William and Joy Wilson, who reside in Ohio. The Wilsons forewent the opportunity to run the place, instead turning over the Tavern to John Locke, who has run the operation for the past six years.

Locke migrated to Santa Barbara from Ohio (he didn’t previously know the Wilsons) in 1976 while visiting friends in L.A. His first job was at the Biltmore, before it joined other hotels under the Four Seasons umbrella. Locke worked a year with Albert Baltieri, who owned Baltieri’s in Goleta. He eventually bought out Baltieri and ran the restaurant for 12 years. Then he got a job as catering manager at Timbers until William Wilson contacted him for a managerial position at Cold Spring Tavern.

“I liked the Tavern right away,” Locke explains. “I love to look at the trees, birds and butterflies rather than downtown traffic.”

Nestled into the Santa Ynez Mountains, with expansive views of the Valley, Cold Spring Tavern is quite the spot. I can imagine stumbling onto the Tavern after a long day’s hunt. The four separate dining areas include a huge stone fireplace, stuffed moose heads on the wall and dimly lit kerosene lamps on each table. The menu reads like the wish list for a wild game expedition: crocodile, elk, venison, yak, boar and rabbit.

Chef of 12 years Moises Bernal’s family were hunters in a small village near the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Mexico. When his dad returned from a successful hunt, Bernal’s mom would tenderize the meat by marinating it in spices and chilis (Bernal also does this with his game).

For the Tavern’s Platter of Appetizers ($15.50), Bernal melds his game meat acumen with traditional cooking. Out come the charbroiled tiger shrimp (not overcooked) on saffron linguine with wild mushroom cream sauce and a hint of lemon, venison sausage-stuffed mushrooms baked in garlic butter and fresh parmesan cheese, and baked artichoke hearts with jack cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic cream. This and a few drinks could have been a satisfying meal in itself, but needless to say, we forged ahead with Bernal at the helm.

Our server and 10-year veteran Sunny Maxwell set down the highlight of the evening: pan-seared, breaded crocodile in a lemon thyme sauce ($27). For taste reference, the crocodile is a delicious and flavorful combination of chicken and calamari.

The charbroiled New Zealand rack of venison, with blackberry cabernet demi-glace ($26), was another pleasant surprise, its character not quite as tender as beef or lamb, yet more stoutly flavored with “an after-kick,” as my guest put it.

We were then approached by the New Zealand rack of lamb with a champagne mint glaze, accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes (not too creamy, garlicky or buttery) ($28.50).

And what comes after an exotic assortment of wild game? Why fresh apple crisp topped with vanilla ice cream, of course.

After dinner, Bernal returned with an offer to show us the restaurant’s latest plans for renovation. Within the next one to one and a half years, the Tavern will expand its services to include a space for large parties of up to 300 guests.

We marched through the dark under a full moon and peeked into Audrey’s cabin of treasures and checked out her voluminous collection of cookbooks. It was then that I reflected on Maxwell’s comments about working on the mountain. “These are my buddies; my family,” she said of the Tavern’s staff. “We’ve built a friendship and it’s my support system.”

One can certainly feel this camaraderie whether through the food, environment or friendly chatter of dinners. It’s what makes Cold Spring Tavern a special place.

The Tavern (967-0066) is located at 5995 Stagecoach Road. It’s off the beaten path so peruse the restaurant’s website, www.coldspringtavern.com, for directions and additional information on the establishment. Check out “Locals only” on Friday nights in the bar. There’s live music and a special menu for only $12.95. Country breakfast ($8.25) Saturday and Sunday between 8 am and 11 am; lunch ($8.50-$12.50) daily from 11 am to 3 pm.