2016 was an exciting year of dining around the Central Coast, presenting itself with many new spots opening, some well publicized and eagerly anticipated, some barely noticeable and some just discovered by me for the first time. 2017 also is shaping up to be a banner year of eating out–the economy is providing many with plenty of disposable income and the hospitality industry is eagerly responding. A healthy restaurant climate affects everyone, from real estate and construction through tourism and employment, and finally with tax revenue and the myriad of service industries. I know of at least a half dozen restaurants opening in the first quarter of 2017 and another handful in the second. But let’s go over my standouts for 2016: Places you REALLY should be enjoying, places perhaps in a neighboring town, maybe in an area you consider touristy and never visit. Or maybe right under your nose and just never gave it a shot. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite 2016 discoveries.
PUFFERS OF PISMO Downtown Pismo Beach Puffer’s is turning out to be the number one local hangout on the Central Coast. This place is like a private club and it gets
better and better as Charlie–a Chicago-transplant–gets his neighborhood sea-legs. He started off selling a range of local wines and a few plates and now has added almost-nightly live local music, interesting and inexpensive wines by-the-glass from all over the world, and whatever his tiny kitchen has come up with that day from the market. He has added occasional local chef pop-ups and everything is starting to click nicely. He serves food during the week long after other restaurants in town have closed, and–at least for me–this is part of the draw. Some week nights have over-flow crowds. Easy to miss, wonderful to find, Puffer’s is here to stay.
THE GRILL AT CASS HOUSE Cass House Cayucos The Cass House restaurant has re-opened. I think there’s probably three kinds of people on the Central Coast: Those who have never been to Cass house because it’s not their style; People who have been to Cass House and consider it a once-a-year event at best, and people who still think it’s closed. Well I’m here to tell you–whatever your fond memories are of Cass House, this is a completely different bird. I don’t want to take anything away from your amazing past experiences of it being this crazy-expensive, ridiculously world-class, crazy frou-frou resty hard to get in to, I am here to tell you it is brand new and COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. The new Grill at Cass House is an entirely different species of restaurant. It’s not snobby, it’s not hard to get into, it’s not expensive, it’s wide open to the public most of the week and it’s open for lunch. Yes there can be times where there is a bit of a wait but the bar is inviting and the BEST part of sitting at the bar is that it surrounds the tiny kitchen. Oh, and the FOOD. The young new chef is cranking out food you will not believe. Standards are almost impossible to spot on the menu and while presentation of all plates leans heavily towards tweezer-food, this is NOT fussy eating. Simple wood-fired fare accompanied by house-made concoctions and preserves, alongside the freshest fruits and vegetables. And the simple wine list is top notch. Drive up the coast one of these days and experience the new Cass House. Everything is new.
BAYWOOD ALE HOUSE Baywood in Los Osos Easily the best kept secret on the Central Coast, and I intend to change that. Hiding right here under everyone’s nose down a side street in Los Osos is a little joint I suggest practically every weekend. Don’t let the name fool you, I mean yeah if you’re into beer that’s great–I’m not, but I understand they have great beer, and honestly–because I am not into beer–the NAME of this place is what kept me away originally. I just don’t eat at brew-pubs. Oh boy was I missing out. And so are you. There’s one dog-eared menu that drifts around the bar and when you start reading it, you look around and wonder who possibly came up with these amazing dishes quite out of place in this crowded bar the size of my kitchen. And then you food arrives, and the interpretations of classic pub food has been stepped up to such gastro-standards, you have a hard time believing they were not trucked in from LA but seemingly emminated from that tiny cold-kitchen behind the curtain. What voodoo is this?!?! The wine list is excellent and well-rounded and the atmosphere couldn’t be better. This place renews my spirit and my faith in a humanity capable of providing humble excellence. All the locals are going to hate me, but Baywood Ale House does not deserve to remain secret.
SLO BREW Downtown San Luis Obispo The number one story in San Luis Obispo right now is SLO Brew. Yes, you heard that right and I know what you’re saying: It’s a BAR! It’s bro & dolly hangout! a loud music venue, a dump! That’s fine go ahead and think what you want but if you haven’t been to the new SLO Brew on Higuera you are seriously missing out. Yes I avoided the old place for 20 years. Yes it moved, yes it got a new chef from a top-notch resty in Paso Robles and yes the new menu may slightly resemble that restaurant but it is most of the reason this place is swinging for the fences, connecting most of the time and doing it all in bargain fashion. Gone is that dank upstairs grease-pit smelling of bar underneath and pool tables. Gone is the greasy pub food, and in its place is a big, bright, breezy, clean, modern dining room and beautiful bar with a menu headed straight down Bistro Drive. Beautiful salads, interesting pizzas and sandwiches, a giant pretzel & charcuterie plate, duck nachos and bacon ground INTO the burger. And what proper bistro would be complete without STEAK FRITES. And it’s done right. So hard to find in America and hardly ever outside a serious French resty. This is my favorite dish here, my favorite version on the Central Coast (I’m looking at YOU Casanova, and RIP Mimosa) and it is SIXTEEN BUCKS. Wine list is short but hits in all directions. Yes, there are restaurants moving and re-opening around downtown SLO with higher profiles, but my enthusiasm is firmly at SLO Brew.
OYSTER LOFT On the beach in Pismo Beach Another star in the Compass Health Restaurant Division’s crown, Oyster Loft presents a relaxing get-away from the crowds of tourists below. On your own private terrace, this reservation-only seafood resty and full bar offers easily some of the best seafood in the area in a white-tablecloth atmosphere. I’ve had everything on the menu at least once and this kitchen churns out absolute winners. Wine list adequate for most, but it leans terribly toward local safe offerings. If you are anything approaching aficionado-status, I would recommend looking at the list before attending. Everyone I know brings their own wine, and I don’t expect that to change until Compass decides to step their wine-director game up to match the cusine. Get the sous vide Octopus, get the Artic Char, Get the Beet Salad, heck, get it ALL.
What am I looking forward to in to in 2017?
CENTRALLY GROWN in Cambria has new owners and a new design and direction. Need to revisit. Everything’s changed.
ALEX and STEAMERS in Pismo Beach. Compass Health continues to grow their restaurant empire here and hopefully in 2017 we will see doors opening on these two landmarks.
BURTON HOUSE GRILL in Nipomo.
60 PARK at The Inn at Morro Bay has re-opened and while I have been there a couple times–and it was wonderful–they struggle with growing pains and I just really love this spot and want to see them succeed at this time-honored restaurant that I have 20 years of fond memories at.
The WILLOW Nipomo people (and rumored to be connected to my favorite Santa Maria resty of all time: CENTRAL MARKET/MARKET SM) have allegedly leased the Marie Callender’s location in Pismo Beach.
A plethora of new places in Santa Ynez and Solvang I haven’t been to yet: SUCCULENT (re-vamped), ACTOR’S CORNER, FIRST & OAK, THE BAKER’S TABLE, BACON & BRINE, MAD & VIN.
MASON KITCHEN & BAR has opened in their expanded space in the Village of Arroyo Grande. New menu and dining room.
The original GIUSEPPE’S in Pismo Beach will no doubt re-open, and while promising no changes, I see them as inevitable.
The GRANADA HOTEL & BISTRO buying SKYVIEW MOTEL in Los Alamos. That should be interesting.