Get thee to the Hawk's Head Tavern

I've long been a fan of Riley's Farm in Oak Glen, California. The farm is a combination of living history reenactments, including school programs that I've joined as a chaperone (after teaching period music to the class), a chance to pick-your-own apples, berries, pumpkins, and other fruit that's in season, dinner theater, historically-themed overnight glamping, the Colonial Chesterfield Bakery, that is known for its sumptuous five pound apple pie (Delicious, though we usually opt for the slimmer three pound version, and need to try the salted caramel apple pie sometime too!), and the Hawk's Head Tavern (or Publick House).

Recently, James Patrick RIley, proprietor of Riley's Farm (the family has a number of operations in Oak Glen run by a different members), made waves with right wing social media posts that could easily be deemed offensive, and possibly racist and sexist, though (as with many things on social media), his actual views on various issues are more complex (I spent some time with his blog).

While some folks are calling for school districts to stop their field trips to Riley's Farm over his abrasive and questionable postings, I've had such good experiences with Riley's Farm, whether on classroom living history field trips, or stops to just wander the grounds and pick up an apple pie on a fall day, that I cannot in good faith come to the conclusion that this operation should be destroyed because of Riley's tweets. I disagree with a lot of his positions, sometimes violently, but I have seen his work at Riley's Farm and have such great respect for it, and find it to be unifying and supportive of all races and genders. I have never encountered racism or sexism from him (he has been at the farm on occasion when I have been there), nor any of his farm's staff, and have, in fact, found inclusion, acceptance, kindness, and a passion for passing on history to our youth. I found their school program on the Revolutionary War to be engaging and thought provoking for students, and all the reenactors were professional and personable.

Oak Glen, the southern California foothill community near Beaumont famous for its apple orchards, is a wonderful autumn day trip (it's great year-round, I just really enjoy the fall there). It's too wonderful, actually, and we no longer brave the traffic jams, lack of parking, long waits, and crowds on the weekends. With tens of millions of people living in the neighborhood, the two-lane road becomes unmanageable and the last thing I need to do in southern California is seek out another bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.

But weekdays can still be a joy (though they're no longer as quiet as they used to be). We try to go at least once every fall to pick up a glass gallon jug of apple cider from Los Rios Rancho (established in 1906 and run by the Riley family just down the road a piece from Riley's Farm). In addition to the cider, they have hard cider tasting of locally made hard ciders, along with all sorts of tasty treats, and some decent barbecue. It's great to enjoy the crisp fresh fall air, the mountains nearby and the apple orchards at Los Rios, and now they offer Little Seedling Ranch as well.

Little Seedling Ranch has everything kids could want for a fall day in the countryside - goats, sheep, rabbits, llamas, miniature horses, and pigs to feed and pet; horseback riding (and pony rides for the wee ones), wagon rides through the orchards, a log cabin play area and hay bale fort, a chicken coop, and caramel apples. Looking for a fun place for a birthday party?

This weekend, we wanted to enjoy the autumn air, so while we were at Los Rios Rancho, we went for a hike in the Oak Glen Preserve, a 2,189 acre preserve owned and managed by The Wildlands Conservancy. The preserve includes a botanic garden, educational facilities, and hiking trails. With the preserve's proximity to the nearby San Bernardino Mountains, there's a wild edge to the preserve. We passed a school group that was learning about the bear scat on the trail and the fresh bear claw marks in a tree. Another trail had a sign about a cougar sighting this past summer.

The Oak Glen Preserve saved Los Rios Rancho (part of the preserve, leased to the Riley's), from being churned into another SoCal subdivision, averting a disaster in apple country. I'm forever grateful to The Wildlands Conservancy for their preservation of some of my favorite areas here and in the desert.

After loading up on the ciders - hard and regular (I'm enjoying hot cider and Scotch whiskey as I write this), we headed over to Riley's Farm. I had placed a bakery order the day before our trip (recommended to ensure they don't run out of what you want), and we wanted to give the farm's Hawk's Head Tavern a try. I'm a huge fan of places like Fraunces Tavern in New York, real live Revolutionary War-era establishments, so I wanted to see how Riley's re-creation stacked up. I'm used to being disappointed by historically themed attempts at dining, whether it's a "Renaissance" faire, or an actual restaurant.

Riley's Farm and its Hawk's Head Tavern proved to be a delightful surprise.

No, Hawk's Head isn't dyed in the wool authentic period fare. Nor is the restaurant strictly period (it literally can't be and still meet health and building codes). But the authenticity is passable, enough to give a feel for what it could have been like to stop along the road for refreshment and a rest. There are nods to contemporary fare, with potato chips as one side, but they make up for it with their cider baked ham, cottage pie (great for vegetarians), chicken pot pie (quite tasty - you can buy one unbaked from the bakery and cook it at home), or what caught our eye on this trip - the Forfar bridie. The Forfar bridie is a traditional Scottish shredded beef and onion pie, wrapped in a hearty yet flakey crust, topped with homemade gravy, accompanied in our case, by ginger orange carrots.

It was a hearty and utterly satisfying meal, served with a cup of (of course) homemade applesauce. Delicious! The only criticism I would offer is to serve the applesauce in something other than a plastic cup. When you go to the lengths to re-create a tavern from the 1700s, with authentic tongue-in-groove construction, real candle lanterns, a roaring fire in the fireplace, mostly natural light, period dress for your waitstaff, with furnishings and even tableware that all help craft the historic ambiance, the plastic cup for the applesauce is out of place.

But it's hard to focus on a plastic cup when you've been presented with a sumptuous meal such as this. Served along with their trademark Sally Lunn bread, and in our case, a local hard cider in pewter tankards, the meal at Hawk's Head Tavern was exemplary. To top it off, our busy server made time for us, attentive but not overbearing. When he learned we had a bakery order awaiting pickup, he retrieved it for us, his service every bit as excellent as our meal.

Be aware though - there was a pile of very 21st century pagers at the front hostess station - a reminder that especially on weekends, the waits for a table in Hawk's Head Tavern can be quite long. If you do visit on a Saturday and want to dine at the tavern, something I strongly recommend, then go first to the tavern, get an idea on the wait time, and put yourself on the list. You can wander the grounds of Riley's Farm with your pager as you wait, and if you need a little something to stave off the hunger while you wait, you can always get a turnover or apple dumpling to hold you (you can even get a casual lunch from the bakery window if you just can't wait for that pager to light up).

There is live acoustic music on weekends, though I have to note that it was quite loud on a weekday, so it could approach some level of cacophony on a packed Saturday. But like I noted at the beginning of this piece, we avoid Oak Glen on weekends. When we began visiting nearly two decades ago, we would only go on weekends because all the businesses and attractions were open then. But now, Oak Glen has been more than discovered by enough Californians that most businesses are open on weekdays as well, the crowds are manageable, you can find parking, and you won't be staring at the bumper in front of you wondering why you've chosen this as a getaway.

We enjoyed our dining experience at Hawk's Head Tavern so much that we're now planning to attend one of the living history dinner shows Riley's Farm produces. You can find more information on Riley's Farm, their bakery, you-pick fruit in season, special programs, dinner shows, and period glamping, at their website:

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Just an old sea cook seeking an outward bound voyage.

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