Discovering Delicious in San Luis Obispo County
Have you ever joined a long restaurant line because you figured, “They must serve great food here: look how many people are willing to wait for it!”? Could that place with a line of patient patrons snaking out the door be another cult foodie destination like La Super-Rica, the Santa Barbara taqueria Julia Child loved so much that remains a flavorful destination today? During our expeditions for great food, however, we’ve discovered that sometimes the passion for popular restaurants occasionally has more to do with deep nostalgia than with exceptional food.
Although the central Central Coast restaurant scene looks pretty good now, the options were more limited when I moved here from the Midwest in 2004. Of course, San Luis Obispo County did feature some tasty destinations here and there but it didn’t offer the more extensive choices available today. We watched sophisticated dining establishments open and then close because they struggled to attract enough of a local clientele with discerning palates and a financial threshold for fancy. How to pair the low key casual feel of this quieter part of California with the high-end food that makes foodies clamor for a table?
To us, as lovers of delicious food, the closure of great restaurants for lack of local customers seemed unbelievable while other places continued to pack them in for ordinary nostalgia fare. Puzzled by the intense enthusiasm for some popular local spots that came highly recommended (but which we did not in turn recommend), we decided to highlight Those Places Foodies Should Not Miss, whether restaurant, specialty market, farm stand, or farmers market. When we launched our Central Coast Foodie blog and index more than five years ago, we hoped that writing about our favorite places might inspire more exceptional restaurants to open and stay in business in the area, particularly in San Luis, a.k.a. Happy Town, where we lived.
Afternoon at the Oasis with Chef Roxanne
One of our first foodie interviews on the Spice blog took place at Roxanne’s Cafe in SLO with Chef Roxanne Lapuyade herself. She’s just the type of friendly, mindful chef we want to support with positive exposure of her interesting story and fresh, organic food. Chef Roxanne sources her ingredients from our local farmers markets—we see her there all the time purchasing local produce supplies for her cafe. Her healthy and creative menu items offer personality and flavor, such as the Ro’ Boat featuring a fruit and veg salad nestled on a couple of Romaine leaves. Their garden courtyard dining features a view of Cerro San Luis and warming sunshine, even through the winter: it really does feel like an oasis, with tasty, healthy food.
By highlighting the very best in local, fresh, and sustainably-produced food and drink like Roxanne’s Cafe, we encourage more of the same in a tasty, self-perpetuating cycle: foodies supporting their neighbors by voting with their dining dollars for a better food system. In this blog’s early years, we focused on developing our cornerstone content, such as an index of all the farmers markets from Santa Cruz to Ventura, a listing of natural meat and fish producers organized by region, a food advocacy and social justice section, and a high-quality GIS map of all the Central Coast AVA boundaries and associated vineyard terrain, courtesy of @WineAtlas. As we set off on our sixth year of foodie discoveries, we’re thrilled with all the delicious new options to explore and the fresh stories we want to tell.
Insider’s Guide for Foodies, SLO County Edition
The Hatch, Paso Robles
One block north of the square in downtown Paso Robles, find The Hatch Rotisserie & Bar, your new favorite spot for LA-level cuisine with the casual charm of the Central Coast. We’re not sure if the name celebrates the destination for their creative cocktails or suggests the hatching of ideas for ever more creative dishes from their teeny-tiny open kitchen. Everything we’ve tasted at this restaurant was exceptional with a deft balancing of rich flavors as well as an artistic arrangement on the plate.
Their open kitchen allowed us an opportunity to chat with Chef Mateo Rogers, a man with lots of character, humble origins, and a good sense of humor. The colorful beet salad with creamy Gorgonzola cheese sauce was spot on: Chef Mateo wields this aggressive cheese with great balance and delicacy toward those earthy beets. Shrimp & grits: off the hook. Thanks to owners Maggie Cameron and Eric Connolly for the friendly welcome and accommodating service. [opened June 2015]
On the northern reach of Templeton’s charming Main Street, find Kitchenette, your new favorite location for wine country daytime dining whether for casual breakfast, brunch, or lunch. It’s open daily with coffee and pastries at 7am (but just on weekdays) and then breakfast from 8am-12pm and lunch from 12-2pm every day of the wine tasting week. This unique angle on fresh, quick, and portable organic flavorful food comes to us courtesy of Chef Chris Kobayashi. Chef Chris leads the kitchen at Artisan, his other restaurant with brother and partner Michael Kobayashi in Paso Robles. Artisan offers lunch and dinner with table service while Kitchenette takes orders at the counter and then delivers for faster service to feed more folks.
Wanna-be customers were so eager for this highly anticipated venue to open, they compelled Kitchenette from its soft opening to super busy in just a few days. This restaurant clearly filled a need for customers hungry for lighter and more healthful options than they could readily find in North County. Featuring carefully sourced ingredients as well as our favorite local coffee—Dark Nectar Roasters—Kitchenette welcomes guests to eat inside, dine on their sunny patio, or get some tasty bites to go. Foodie snacks, fresh pastries, unique beverages, and other delicious items are just waiting to jump into your picnic basket. [opened September 2015]
Ember, Arroyo Grande
Off Grand Avenue in Arroyo Grande, find Ember, one of the most exciting restaurants to open recently in SLO County and your new favorite place to wait for an open table—they don’t take reservations. This is one place you DO want to stand in line for because Chef Brian Collins and his staff consistently deliver outstanding food in a warm and pleasant atmosphere that’s worth the wait. Certainly, the big wood-fired oven in their open kitchen enhances the comfy casual fine dining experience: those flames do double duty in cooking our dinner and keeping the space cozy.
Ember’s wine list features the hard work of some talented Central Coast winemakers including Mike Sinor of Avila Beach’s Sinor La-Vallee and Bob Lindquist of Santa Maria Valley’s Qupé. Their menu changes every month to reflect the local produce available as the season’s change. Inside foodie baseball: the fields of local biodynamic farmer Ralph Johnson supplied some of the produce the Ember kitchen delivered to our table on their Wood-fired Octopus dish during a recent visit late last summer. The Padrón peppers in the dish tasted extra good because we knew they were produced with natural and organic inputs just a few miles away from Ember’s kitchen. Eating well at this and other Central Coast restaurants that use local produce keeps our economic and agricultural ecosystem in better balance, from farmers to winemakers to chefs. [opened February 2014]
Your Source: A Midwestern Escapee In Love with Fresh Delicious
In keeping with our 85% positive and 15% serious philosophy, we don’t focus energy on delivering harsh foodie critiques. If we don’t like it, we won’t feature it. Please note that, as of January 2016, we still have many destinations to discover and visit for the first time. We hope to visit many new taste destinations in this area during our forthcoming bicycle tours. When you start trying to write about the entire Central Coast, you soon discover the way is long—nearly 300 miles—from the Northern Central Coast of Santa Cruz and Monterey through San Simeon and Cambria to Pismo and Oceano in SLO County and thence to Santa Maria, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, and Ventura in the Southern Central Coast. Especially when you travel by bicycle.
The food and drink in this stretch of California coast continues to improve every year: success! Keep up the good work, foodies. So many good new restaurants opened in San Luis Obispo County in recent years with more set to open in 2016: we’re ready to focus fresh attention on surveying this newly flavorful landscape. When the swanky remodeled SLO Brew opens in Spring 2016 on Higuera Street in downtown Happy Town, it plans to deploy locally-produced ingredients for its new dining and drinking ventures including—you guessed it—a garden to produce some of the ingredients for their kitchen and bar. Vote for sustainable and delicious with your dining dollar!