General Manager of The Hobbit Restaurant Reveals The Restaurant’s Literary Origins, European Dining Experience and Family Oriented Culture
Written By: Charla Batey The Hobbit Restaurant
The Expert: Matt McKinney
Credentials: General Manager at The Hobbit
Matt McKinney is approaching his first year as the inaugural General Manager of The Hobbit, a 44-year-old family owned restaurant nestled in an old farmhouse in Orange. He’s been working for the owners Michael and Debra Philippi for 10 years in one capacity or another. Naturally, Matt feels like he is opening the door to his family home and hosting an intimate European-style dinner party for up to 65 people every night Wednesday through Sunday.
Q: When and how did The Hobbit find its inspiration for the name and theme?
Matt McKinney: The restaurant opened in November of 1972, and the connection with the name is pretty loose. In the 70s, the book “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien was widely popular here in the U.S. and then the concept of the restaurant is very European, with one seating a night, a multi-course meal and set in an old home. There is a poster by the door with a passage from “The Hobbit” where Tolkien talks how hobbits like eating six meals a day, giving and receiving of gifts, and how they like to till the earth and don’t like machines. I think there is a loose connection almost with the anti-industrial theme of Tolkien’s books and this not being a typical corporate restaurant. We’re not turning tables trying to get people out. We are about gathering around good food, good wine and good company.
Q: Tell us about the “unique dining experience” at The Hobbit.
MM: I’ve worked at a lot of places. I’ve worked Mastro’s and at the Montage in Laguna Beach as a sommelier. I also eat out a lot too. It really is truly unique because it’s a multi-course meal and there is only one seating a night. This puts us within a small class of restaurants. It is set in a home that was built in 1930. This was a working farmhouse back when Chapman was a dirt road and the nearest neighbor was probably a half mile away. The restaurant is also 44 years old with continuous ownership.
Q: What can guest expect when they arrive and throughout the evening?
MM: People show up, the bar is open for the hour beforehand upstairs in one of the old bedrooms and we turned the other bedroom into a lounge. We have a really nice patio out front and all are original to the house. You can come an hour early and have a drink, and you are greeted at the door. Then at 7 p.m., we go down into the cellar, which is underground and was actually a root cellar that we converted into our wine cellar. In the cellar you have wine and hors d’oeuvres. Then you come back up and are seated at the table with your name on it and have the rest of the six courses. It’s a four, sometimes five-hour, dining experience, and I think it’s something that people really gravitate towards.
Q: Are there any new menu items for fall and winter?
MM: We definitely change the menu seasonally. The salad just changed to a tomato and goat cheese salad and chef is doing a different soup. He’s doing a butternut squash soup or a carrot ginger soup for the fall. The ingredients usually get more rustic for the fall as compared to the summer being a little lighter.
Q: How does The Hobbit stand apart from other fine dining establishments?
MM: The biggest thing is that it’s not a chain or a franchise. It’s just unique because there is nothing else like it. Also I think the other aspect, is the small staff. The people that work here are all here for the most part every night that we are open. There is a lot of camaraderie and consistency with the staff. We sit down and eat a meal together, sometimes before or after the shift. We feel like a family and I think that transfers over to customers and how they feel. When you go eat at a place where the staff doesn’t necessarily like each other, spend much time with each other or have issues with management, you can feel that. We also make changes as we see fit and are really committed to hospitality.
I’m like a second kid to the owners and I’ve worked for then ten years off and on and they brought me in as the restaurant’s first general manager in January.
Q: What is your favorite dish?
MM: I gravitate towards different things. I really love rabbit and duck and those are two things you don’t see at a lot of places. Whenever I’m out to eat I look for obscure things that are harder to cook. I think that we do duck confit and duck breast fabulously. It’s been awhile since we have done rabbit, but we do it really well.
Q: With over 1, 000 labels available in the wine cellar, do you have a favorite?
MM: As general manager I’m also our wine director and a trained sommelier. The fun thing about our cellar is that we have wines all the way from $45 to $6, 000. There is such a wide array from domestic to international selections from every serious wine country in the world. They are all great wines and we can certainly pair them with the menu items if guests would like a recommendation.
My favorite though is the ‘82 Mouton. I sold one a few months ago and we have one left. That’s my birth year and I love old French bordeaux so that would be my top choice if I could choose a bottle.
Q: Are there any special events coming up at the restaurant throughout the season?
MM: We do a quarterly wine dinner where we bring in a winery and exclusively feature their wines. A lot of times either the owner or the wine maker comes down and hosts the evening, along with the owners and myself. We are in talks with a few different wineries. This past year we did Robert Craig Winery and Heitz Cellars. We pair the wines with our food and we also sell those wines for pick up at a later date.
2932 E Chapman Ave
Orange, CA 92869
Forget Second Breakfast—Save Room for Dinner at The Hobbit Restaurant!