Spring has SPRUNG, and whether you are local or out-of-town, it is prime-time to take a drive up the Central Coast of California. Living where people vacation has its plusses, but the best part is knowing where to eat a bit off the path of the visiting hordes. As someone who travels throughout California frequently, I know driving through strange towns at lunch-time can be a stressful situation amongst the wine-tasting and shopping. Where to eat?!?
There’s always the usual suspects: well-established edifices to tourism on the main drag packing them in around dining-times on the weekends, flashy cards hanging out in hotel lobbies and full-page glossy ads in (paid) *tourism guides*.
As you make your way up the beautiful Central Coast, here are some suggestions from a local. This is where WE eat–some a little out-of-the-way, some hiding quietly on the main drag–to avoid the tourist bustle and have relaxed, fabulous lunches in places not written up in LATimes (yet).
Arroyo Grande: COMFORT MARKET Constantly evolving menu with shocking interpretations of classic sandwiches and side-dishes transformed into main-masterpieces in a bustling open-ish bistro setting on the main street in the Village of Arroyo Grande. House-made pickles–hell, house made EVERYTHING–and a market for purchasing most of the ingredients and accouterments. Amazing winelist by-the-glass, by-the-bottle and a wine-shop for take-home. Comfort Market is the ANCHOR of a new generation of world-class restaurants opening in the area and is an absolute MUST-VISIT.
San Luis Obispo: TASTE This is what happens when a wildly successful catering company opens a brick-and-mortar, and this cozy establishment a few blocks off the main drag is just that–brick & mortar. A fabulous winelist of labels not found anywhere else in the area accompany the mainstays of their business: Mac & Cheese and Sliders. The macaroni and cheese comes at least a dozen ways and the 15-odd slider choices range from Banh-mi and Cubano through lamb and vegetarian and off into many variations of a classic burger. Do yourself a huge flavor and search this one out.
Paso Robles: NEXT DOOR BISTRO Ahhhh Paso Robles. Dining choices GALORE and all of them packed with smiling, happy wine-visitors. Sneak around the corner, through a side door and experience old-world personal service in a place that will give you flashbacks to France. Hot and cold lunch dishes aside, the finger-plates of meats, cheeses and olives are in fierce competition with the short, succinct wine-list for originality. Very limited seating, but hardly ever a serious wait. Watch the tourists go by, oh my. You are now a Paso insider.
Morro Bay: STAX WINE BAR The fried-fish, 10,000 calorie, breaded-and-brown-food capitol of the Central Coast!!! Not so fast. If you have ever been to Morro Bay, you know getting away from the strollers and Ed Hardy t-shirts can be as difficult as finding food not boiled in grease. Walking in to Stax on a weekend is like entering an air-conditioned tent in the desert. Suddenly the bustle outside has vanished and you are definitely IN an oasis of amazing food and wine. This is THE most amazing wine-bar food between Santa Barbara and Carmel. Paninis and oysters, loaded meat-and-cheese plates, toy-sized salads and heaped crostinis–all surrounded by WALLS of wine. You will never want to leave.
Cambria: HARMONY CAFE at the Pewter Plough And, in your last stop before hitting Hearst Castle or Big Sur–or perhaps the Northern-most of your journey on the Central Coast, not-so-sleepy antiquing-mecca Cambria is divided into two halves: East Village and West Village–each with numerous dining options. Finding Harmony Cafe is practically like discovering someone’s kitchen. A B&B atmosphere presides over doting personal attention, a chalk-board menu of one-at-a-time, personally-prepared dishes–usually delivered by the chef. Food so simple and beautiful you will forget you’re in a town with sketchy cel-service. Breath-taking coffee and desserts and a tiny list of wines you have never heard of but will never forget.
Please don’t tell your friends about any of these restaurants.