A couple of weeks ago, Alyson Hyder and i went to the Sagebrush Inn for dinner.
The Sagebrush (as locals refer to it), was built in 1931 and was originally called El Chamiso Lodge. By 1933 the owners (Frank and Helen Kentnor), had changed the name to the Sagebrush Inn. This charming, roadside hotel offered 12 guest rooms, and soon became known for authentic Southwest decor and warm hospitality – a legacy that continues to this day.
Shortly after the hotel opened, the Kentnors added a dining room at the request of guests who didn’t want to make the several mile (and at the time, much longer), journey to Taos Plaza for meals. One of those early guests was Georgia O’Keeffe, who occupied The Artist’s Loft during the year she lived at the Sagebrush in the early 30’s. Besides O’Keeffe, other luminaries have stayed here (or hung out in the bar), including a President of the United States (President Gerald Ford), Ansel Adams, Marlon Brando, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper (Scenes from the iconic movie Easy Rider were shot in the fields of sagebrush behind the Inn), Gene Hackman, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, and R.C. Gorman, whose art can still be seen throughout the hotel.
In those early years, the hotel wasn’t able to offer a bar due to Prohibition, but guests played cards in the evenings and appreciated the jigsaw puzzles and books the Kentnors kept beside the fireplaces. During the late 1940s the Sagebrush Inn became home to an illegal gambling hall featuring Craps, Blackjack and a Slot Machine, until being raided and shut down in 1950.
Over the years the Sagebrush Inn has grown to include 156 guest rooms and suites, over 13,000 square feet of meeting and event space, and has developed a reputation for authentic Southwest cuisine as well as live music at Sagebrush Cantina.
The Sagebrush Inn remains a historic landmark in Taos, serving visitors and Taoseño alike. The hotel was purchased in 2014 and is currently undergoing a facelift on all fronts, but the new owners are doing it respectfully, without taking away from its authentic character. Polished and with the patina only time can bestow, carved corbels, vigas and posts, old leather Spanish chairs and candle lit nichos take you back in time.
I’ve seen and heard great live music at the Sagebrush over the years, and it’s always been the place to go two-steppin’ if that’s your thing, so when Alyson mentioned that Timothy Woolridge was the hotel’s new Executive Chef, I was curious to see what was up south of town.
I made a plan to meet Tim at the Grill and invited Aly to join me. We arrived and were informed the Chef would be back shortly, before being seated. We chose to sit in the main dining room (the Sagebrush Grill) rather than in the Cantina. The patio was also open but smoke from fires burning regionally influenced our decision. We were told by the friendly hostess to go ahead and order drinks and appetizers and Tim would soon join us. Our waiter, a very eager to please, handsome young man, was attentive and helpful and the hostess brought us all the various menus (the Happy Hour menu, the Cantina and the Grill menus), to order from.
We each had a glass of wine and ordered the Cajun Shrimp Cocktail and Repochetas, three grilled quesadillas filled with cheese, cabbage slaw and crema. Alyson assured me they were delicious. I don’t eat grains, legumes and sugar – I know terribly boring – so I had Aly taste all that for me!
The shrimp were scrumptious. We then shared a poached pear and gorgonzola salad. Heaven. The food was beautifully plated and presented.
With more than four decades of professional chef experience in some of the finest hotels and resorts in the country, having Timothy Wooldridge in the kitchen, the Sagebrush Inn has certainly upped its game.
Tim first came to Taos when his brother Chris became a co-owner of the Edelweiss Hotel in Taos Ski valley. Chris was also the founder of Edelweiss Air, the first commuter service between Taos and Albuquerque since Mesa Airlines stopped running in 1991..Tim who was already on his own trajectory as a talented and creative Chef working in Hospitality (his credentials are stellar – a graduate of Paul Smith’s College New York and holds certificates from L’Academie de Cuisine and the American Culinary Federation. His prior positions have included Alta Ski Area in Utah, Caneel Bay Resort in St. John USVI, and the Lodge & Club at Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida among others), came to check out Taos being a skier and having worked long stints at Alta in Utah. He and his wife (an accomplished pastry chef), moved here and took on the kitchen at the Edelweiss.
After his brother Chris’ tragic and early demise Tim found himself left with an airline. He renamed it Rio Grande Air and continued the service for some time. He continues to remain active in aviation matters in Taos.
A decade ago Wooldridge was approached by the owners of the former Momentitos de la Vida, to help them open their newly named Sabroso restaurant in Arroyo Seco. He put his heart, soul and sweat into it. Along with a great menu that garnered acclaim, he planted a garden that continues to flourish and initiated community-based activities including the popular Fourth of July Pig Roast, Fall Lobster Bakes along with the annual Great Chefs Paella Cook-Off to benefit Taos High School and UNM-Taos culinary arts programs.
The restaurant also became a destination venue for summertime outdoor weddings and Wooldridge and his wife Ann, became known for their creative and masterful wedding cakes. Wooldridge, who once trained with former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, and who himself served as executive chef at both the Marriott and Hilton hotels in his hometown of Washington, D.C., now finds himself wearing two hats at the Sagebrush Inn, Executive Chef and Acting G.M.
As we finished our appetizers, the Chef AKA General Manager, arrived and sat down to answer some questions and regale us with a few tall tales. As if all the above weren’t enough, Tim Wooldridge is a born raconteur.
We learned that prior to coming here, the Chef had a short stint with Cisco Foods, on the other side of the Industry, as a Purveyor. After hearing his story I was almost dumbfounded. From his fiirst job right out of school at Alta in Utah, to Taos Ski Valley and now, here at the Sagebrush Inn, Tim Woolridge’s story is a classic; filled with drama, comedy and tragedy. He also very obviously loves what he does.
“I love old and classic hotels,” Tim explained when I asked why he had come over to the Sagebrush after years on or close to, the Mountain.
“My father was in the Railroad business,” he told us “I grew up staying in these great old hotels when I’d travel with him in the summertime.”
“I feel like the Sagebrush has that old world charm and I’m interested in preserving that.”
“Besides,” he said, “it’s here in Taos, I don’t have to go anywhere, I’m home.”
Tim and his wife have three sons they’ve raised in Taos and this is clearly home. As for the two hats, Tim seems equally at ease in either.
As we chatted, a gentleman who had just finished dining alone, traveling on business perhaps, came over to shake Tim’s hand.
“That was the best steak I’ve ever had.” He said. “And I’m from Texas.”
Tim smiled and graciously thanked him. “Which did you have?” He queried.
“The Rib-eye” the gentleman responded. “What was in that sauce?”
“Ah that’s a compound butter,” the Chef nodded knowingly, “and what’s in it is my secret.”
The diner seemed satisfied by this cryptic answer and wandered off into the bar next door. One wonders what cocktail could top that steak?
“What entree do you recommend we share?” I asked him when I noticed our young waiter hovering.
“The Rib-eye of course.” He replied.
It was perfection; medium rare, finished with the compound butter and served with julliened vegetables and a baked potato. Easily enough for two and at an unbelievable $17.95, the best kept secret in town.
But not for long.
For more information about the Sagebrush Inn’s Dining options (and the Inn itself), please visit their site linked below this post.
All images of the hotel c/o the Sagebrush Inn
Photo of Tim, the food and Tim’s Sugar Rose all taken on my iphone