Over the years, the Madonna Inn has become a lot of things to a lot of people — from a landmark destination for travelers to a cherished part of the San Luis Obispo community.
Set in motion by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, the first dozen of the Inn’s rooms opened in December 1958. Since then, the family-owned and operated resort has grown to include such amenities as shops, banquet facilities, a convention center, a bakery, the Copper Café coffee shop and the Gold Rush Steak House.
Over the years, the Gold Rush has emerged as a spot-on traditional steakhouse, but it does indeed sport a décor like no other.
Banish any thoughts of staid dark wood and white tablecloths. This dining room is an unabashed, festive riot of pink and gold, with a few carved cherubs thrown in for good measure.
Guests settle into round overstuffed booths, are served water in the Inn’s signature colored goblets, then presented with a relish tray of carrots, celery, onions, cheese and salami — once a defining characteristic of restaurant tables.
Presiding over not just the Gold Rush menu, but all aspects of the Madonna Inn’s food service is executive chef Jacqui Hanover. A county native (her father founded Burnardo’z, the local, handcrafted ice cream that has since morphed into Doc Burnstein’s), she is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and has worked at such acclaimed Bay Area restaurants as Zuni Café and Campton Place.
However, “I always knew I wanted to come back home eventually,” she said.
“I wanted to raise my family here instead of the big city.”
After jobs in a couple other local kitchens, Hanover began working as a pantry cook at the Madonna Inn.
When the executive chef retired in 2003, Hanover was chosen to fill the position, a task with the responsibility of maintaining the restaurant’s rich traditions and standards.
“Obviously, we don’t want to change the oak-fired steaks and seafood,” she said, and rightly so. The generous steaks include cuts such as New York, rib eye and top sirloin, plus a French filet mignon wrapped in bacon, and slow-roasted prime rib served au jus.
For seafood, reel in a broiled swordfish steak, an Alaskan halibut steak or a salmon filet. Not surprisingly, you can also opt for classics like a surf and turf combo of filet mignon and broiled lobster tail, or spring lamb chops with mint jelly.
Though Hanover definitely hews to the traditional in her overall approach, she keeps a watchful eye toward keeping the menu fresh and appealing for all palates.
She noted that the Shrimp Dolce Vita — a jumbo shrimp and pasta dish served in a slightly spicy pink (of course!) cream sauce — “is a little different take on pasta.” Also, social media users will like that the restaurant’s daily specials are posted on Facebook, proof positive that the Madonna Inn has jumped into the modern age.
Another recent change for the inn is its inaugural involvement in January’s San Luis Obispo County Restaurant Month. Participating restaurants are offering $30 three-course dinner menus, which at the Gold Rush (or Copper Café) means a shared appetizer of Stilton cheese endive spears or grilled sausage plate, an entrée of top sirloin or double-cut beef ribs, and a slice of one of the Inn’s signature cakes — pink champagne or Black Forest.
“We always want to reach out as much as possible to locals,” said Nicole Altobello, one of the Madonna Inn’s banquet managers. “It’s all a part of respecting Mr. Madonna and what he created here.”