I’ve written *Best-Of’s* and *TOP-5’s* and honestly those are kinda boring lists–both to read AND to write. Parade out the usual suspects, bang a stamp on it, drop it in the mail and BOOM people click and cheer. Loyal readers will know my handful of upper eschelonic white-table-cloth eateries by heart and will also know my main focus is on the openings and closings, the gossip, the constant chef-musical-chairs, the unsung nooks and crannies. So here’s a different type of list: to spotlight a strange mix of interesting, overlooked places. Some right in plain sight… some tucked away… Some positively dive-y. I’ve picked 10 restaurants, many in the shadow of–and naturally never getting the ink of–huge well-known spots: the well-publicized “BEST OF THE WORST” of alleged quality local dining, winning these titles year after year after year after year by spending good money with visitor’s groups and local newspapers but serving dolled-up pedestrian fare with elementary service to tasteless drones.
Inside THIS list, locals and visitors looking for something extra are the demographic. Some will be new to you; some are quite well-known now–rising from obscurity 1 or 2 years ago. All of these are small–some a mere postage-stamp of a place–and at most of them you will be greeted and served by either the owner or first-hand management. Several do not have a web-site–merely operating off a Facebook page and word-of-mouth. Most don’t have listed menus and one doesn’t even have a phone! ALL of them reflect a dedication to hands-on food quality, personalized, idealized guest experience, and a quest for stress-free, casual dining fun. This is not to say any of this is *coarse* food. FAR FROM IT. Presentation and quality is KEY. Sorry, there are no ‘Burgers & Beer’ on this list. No hot-wings or BBQ. None of them have televisions or Happy Hours. None have a full bar. None employ Poly-Dollie servers. Maybe one has a soda-machine and a kid’s menu. Two don’t allow children. Needless to say, these are some of my favorite restaurants on the Central Coast.
BELL’S Los Alamos Easily the fastest-rising star of not only this group, but the culinary DESTINATION Los Alamos has become and the entire Central Coast. Included on this list because I still constantly run into people who haven’t tried it. Transferred from the shuttering of a beloved sandwich shop, it opened quietly, without flashy personnel, not even a sign. This is 100% French, the menu ticking off all the classics and each done magnificently: Duck Rillettes, Sardines & Crackers, Escargot, Pâté, Steak- and Moules-Frites, Oysters mignonette, Beef Tartare and Rotisserie Chicken–THE GANG’S ALL HERE, and for those of us who just CAN’T get enough good French favorites, this is a godsend. Superb wine-list and two unsung specialities of the house you do NOT want to skip: Dessert and café. The former in layers and layers of chocolate or savory stacks of crêpes, the latter will make you re-think restaurant espresso. The bar seats are the best in the house, with a kitchen-show of chef like no other. You will most likely be waited on by chef-husband and his father, among others in this top-notch bustling little place. It gets harder and harder to get a reservation here and everyone knows why.
PALO MESA WOOD-FIRED PIZZA Arroyo Grande There are 4 locations of this Arroyo Grande local stalwart, but I am only recommending ONE on this particular list. All make fine, national award-winning pizza, but the Village location is the only one with a wood-fired oven, the menu is COMPLETELY different from the other more *urban* three locations. I make this distinction because most locals are like, “Yeah, I’ve been to Palo Mesa–we LOVE it,” and either assume the tiny downtown location is the same or never bothered to investigate. It is NOT the same. The pies themselves are different–there’s only maybe 6 on the menu, all classics–the crust is of course quite different, and the ambiance in this little place (containing a shocking amount of seating, considering the size of the building), is all cozy warmth and friendly individual hospitality. It’s basically a one-man pizza shop–there wouldn’t be ROOM in the kitchen for other people. There are a couple half-bottles of mediocre but serviceable Italian wine available, in addition to several beers INCLUDING Italian birra–something you RARELY see. I would suggest bringing your own wine.
PUFFER’S OF PISMO Pismo Beach I don’t have to tell you about this place–EVERYBODY knows now: I am only including it because not only does it fit perfectly on this list, it is a favorite of mine and people from out-of-town constantly seek recommendations–and many read this page. Growing from literally a dark closet to a double-space with cheffed kitchen, dedicated bar and standing-room-only most nights, Charlie has pulled off the Cinderella story of wine-bars. Nightly menus as food-sources and seasons change, lots of interesting–and unpretentious–wine, THE hottest local live-music venue, and always Pismo Beach Citizen-Of-The-Decade Charlie Puffer making sure your evening is perfect. Don’t be daunted by the line congested around the door. He will sit you down somewhere! It’s also basically impossible to visit this place without seeing several people you know, so this is NOT the place you think you can slink into in sweats and without makeup. Two years ago you could–but not any more.
MEE HENG LOW NOODLE HOUSE San Luis Obispo A seasoned veteran of the local resty scene, Paul Kwong has seen it all and keeps most of it inside his genial behind-the-counter slouch. As any true gourmet understands, noodle soup is one of the necessities of human civilization, whether it is pho or ramen–who get all the trendy publicity–or harder-to-find miso soba, guay teow or janchi guksu bowls, here we have the stuff that pre-dates spaghetti: Chinese Noodle soup–and of course all of the fried & sauced chop suey, chow mein, and low mein variations you can shake a stick at. Everything served in a warm, family atmosphere in arguably the ANCHOR of San Luis Obispo’s historic–and tiny–Chinatown. There’s a suitable amount of camp going on inside and out–deep maroons, glowing greens, some velvet & mahogany carvings under the historic neon–and while you are welcome downstairs all day, the locals know the best vibe is behind the velvet rope upstairs Thursday-Friday-Saturday, where live jazz–and often very limited seating–keeps everyone comfy. As the owner likes to say, this is only food for good people. If you’re a jerk, stay away.
Here we’re gonna have to split off in a couple of directions: 2 must-visits up North on the 101, a few out HWY 1 up the coast, and one in the middle. No, I’m not going to map it for you. You can figure it out–besides: I don’t want too many people finding these places.
ROSALINA Santa Margarita Just over the grade–seemingly regions apart but a surprisingly short distance from SLO–is the newest culinary enterprise from the family who brought us The Range. Converting the old Saloon to a full-on food establishment was something they did slowly and methodically–and without much fanfare–over 2 years. I was even asked not to publish anything serious about them for a long stretch, as they didn’t want any hype before they felt comfortable with what was in place. The kitchen is now complete, menu expressive of their format, the beer & winelist solidified, and the interior organized and decorated in a fresh and devious fashion combining–just like the menu–Mission California with Mexican Modern. *Barrio Soul Food* they call it and oh boy does it work. This place was always a locals bar, and word has spread among visitors as not only a great destination, but also the de rigueur spot to wait for your RANGE table across the street. A full array of fresh, forward-thinking beer and wine, of course constantly evolving sangria and michelada, but the FOOD. You’ve not had Mexican quite like this: brilliant interpretations of the classics, prepared not in sloppy Mexican-dinner-plate style OR luxe-taqueria fashion, but bright lively takes presented elegantly and confidently by the one-man manager/bartender/server wryly-genial whirlwind. Word’s starting to get out about this place, and–like a couple others on this list–an accommodating full house has been my experience last two visits. The rear patio is the latest development, and it will be in full-swing this summer–offering not only a slightly different vibe, but also providing considerably more seating.
ANDREA’S ON PINE Paso Robles COMPLETELY out-of-the-way down around a corner off the park and in a back entrance sits this little gem. Apparently they have been here for several years, but they only recently came up on my radar. Talk about a serious stumbled-upon! There are frequent conversations among those of us who have *these conversations* about the disappointments in the Paso dining scene right now. This place will absolutely restore your faith–not only in Paso but all of humanity. They’re doing everything right: Awesome calm, informed, considerate, professional service; gorgeous food; a chalkboard at your table for the extra point; a beautiful curt wine list. They have a real spinach salad covered in boiled eggs and bacon, they have a Caesar wedge which has me both curious and baffled. They have quiches and desserts and fusion tacos and something called a “French Toast Bake”. They have THE BEST Cubano currently in two counties, and piles of pasta and potato salads. Oh, and desserts of course. They’re not encroaching on any of our perennial dinner spots in Paso here: it’s only 8-2 Thursday thru Sunday, and although I’m not really a breakfast person, THAT menu is gorgeous too.
BAYSIDE CAFE Morro Bay Easily the oldest on this list, Bayside has forever been my go-to spot for lunch: groups, by myself, my kids, family, out-of-town-guests–you name it–Bayside has been THE spot for for DECADES. Every local I know worships this place, as it delivers comfortable standards with supreme quality and always a delicious twist, just a little off the beaten path. Great wine list, incredible desserts, and a staff you know by name. This is NOT an unknown spot, and the line out the door on weekends can be daunting, but manageable. No reservations are accepted and VERY popular at peak times, but plan accordingly and the slight wait along the marina is barely noticeable. Go in the rain. It is one of my favorite places to eat when it is raining outside. Get the BLT. Get the fish & chips. Get everything. My favorite garden burger in the area, and I’m not even a vegetarian. Perfect lunch-time winelist.
STAX WINE BAR & BISTRO Morro Bay The fried-fish, 10,000 calorie, breaded-and-brown-food capitol of the Central Coast which is Morro Bay calls few locals to visit but: not so fast. Locals know getting away from the strollers and Ed Hardy t-shirts and wide-walkers can be as difficult as finding food not boiled in grease, but hope is just around the corner. 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. I know a lot of locals avoid Morro Bay like the plague, but THIS is a reason to visit. You don’t even have to go downtown. It’s on the edge on the north side, just pop down, park in the lot and slink in incognito. You’ll never look at Morro Bay the same way again.
CASS HOUSE GRILL Cayucos No one restaurant causes more confusion than Cass House Grill. Most old-timers register it with stuffy old prix fixe meals of astounding quality and high prices. But this is NOT the Cass House you all remember. Jensen is gone, there are new owners, and the entire property has been re-worked into three distinct situations: The Inn, The Grill, and The Bakery. The new grill is completely re-built in an out-door curtain-wall style with bar surrounding an open wood-fired kitchen. The bar seats are the BEST, allowing a full-on dinner-show of the well-oiled kitchen machine. The food served is fresh and alive and exquisite in presentation and quality. Salads to die for and entrees putting everything else to shame. EVERYTHING is open wood-fired, and despite its rusticity in theory, this is serious tweezer-food. An attention to detail is something they build into their chefs and I have never had a dish anywhere even approaching sub-average at this restaurant. Winelist curated by full-time somm and reflects the best of the region. I run into SOOO many people who have not experienced Cass House lately because they think it is the old Cass House and nothing could be further from the truth. Not to detract from the Cass House of old, THIS is the new hot spot in North County. I can’t think of anything Paso–or otherwise–which comes close the the perfection this place serves. Every plate is a piece of art, and the staff FAR above average.
HALFWAY STATION Atascadero On 41 midway between Morro Bay and Atascadero, this tiny restaurant has re-tooled the former BBQ embarrassment into a careful extension of a family’s quest for comfortable hospitality. The menu is rife with vegetarian offerings, and everything is presented with casual down-home goodness and inspired interpretations. Several burgers stretch your perfect-burger imagination–from old-fashioned to extraordinary–and every other item on the menu begs to be ordered. The Korean cauliflower ‘wings’ trump those of another local popular vegetarian spot, and the fries are positive frites goodness. Winelist is made up of local small-time offerings you probably have never heard of but represent decent quality. The dining room is a bit stark, but the service family and clearly, most of the guests are well-known. Everything clicks here, and although this is far-and-away the newest-opening of anything on this list, the cohesiveness is palpable and I hope and pray the community responds in a way which will keep this FAR out-of-the-way spot open. Visiting on a blustery, rainy day put the ‘wine country’ in wine country for me and I can’t wait to see what they proffer for summer. Live music will be a major part.
There’s your list. If you are visiting the area, make a note of these to experience the individual personality of Central Coast wine country dining. And if you are a local, well, MOST of these will need no explanation but if you see something new on the list, it means you NEED to experience it soon. These are my favorite restaurants in the area, places that come up on short-lists of “Hey, let’s go to _________” over and over and over. I’m hardcore picky about restaurants, and THESE made the list.
Play with your food.