Every menu on the Central Coast has a burger on it–it’s something I have learned to accept in dining along the coast. Burgers are popular, no doubt: a welcome menu item for no-fuss dining and ubiquitous with American culture. There are probably 300 burgers within 10 miles of where I stand and yes, I could easily list off all the safe mainstream burger options, but in true EATDRINK101 fashion, I want to give you MORE of what’s good: to search for above-average food in interesting locations you may have overlooked. Here are a dozen standouts you HAVE to find. And be fore-warned: my love for classic diner-burgers is well-documented, so blingy, oddly- and over-stuffed hipster monsters gracing the pages of most lists are missing. I want lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pickles. I want mayo and ketchup and mustard. I want a good bun–it can even be brioche, but unlike Anthony Bourdain I will not give you points off for it. I am not a vegetarian, but love trying the multitude of garden-burger options we have, so am including a few of those. There’s even a vegan one. And for the first time: a bun-less one. Heresy, I know! Starting in the south… and headed roughly north up the 101 and out the coastal Route 1.
BLAST 825 BREWERY Orcutt — Newcomer to the list, Blast 825’s first burger on their list is exactly the way I like them–not a single deletion or addition. And what a gorgeous hamburger! Meat extremely good quality: flavorful and perfectly cooked with some crispy blackening like a smash- or backyard-burger your neighbor would grill. It’s kinda shaped like a hand-made patty that falls apart on the BBQ too. Plenty of onions and sauce, good tomatoes and shredded lettuce in classic diner fashion. The fries are a thin shoestring, par-cooked properly and to a rather dark, chewy texture with perfect dusting of salt. This place is REALLY nice. Everything added together, it tops any brewery/restaurant I’ve been in. And a better winelist than you’ve ever seen in one too.
SIDEWALK CAFE Arroyo Grande — Owned and operated by the brother of Brian Collins of Arroyo Grande’s infamous Ember, Sidewalk is a comfy little place on the Village main drag with a couple tables inside and plentiful sunny seating on the front patio. As is obvious, the patty is a generous hand-formed affair on brioche with all the proper accoutrements. There’s at least 5 or 6 burgers available within a couple blocks of this newest establishment, and this HAS to get the nod for the list.
LIL BIT’S CAFE Grover Beach — Easily the tiniest handful on this list–almost down in *slider* size–but stuffed with such goodness as to overflow with greatness. This is my new favorite diner-burger, put together nicely with so many fresh ingredients in such a compact burger–it’s like what the Whopper Jr. wishes it could be–something I LIKE, because often I don’t eat the last two or three bites of a hamburger and this thing’s the perfect size. Crinkle fries done very lightly are the extra nostalgic bonus. You can even sit on a stool at the counter.
BROOKS BURGERS Pismo Beach — This local family of cattle ranchers decided they wanted to serve their food to the community, and we are all better off for this addition, believe me. In that odd triangle spot occupied forever by a forgettable Mexican eatery, they have definitely added a bright spot to the local dining culture. Juicy, perfectly-cooked burgers with a good array of sides, these run-down-your-arms-drip-off-your-elbows offerings reflect a commitment to quality and classic burger goodness. Attentive service and food with nary a complaint. Definitely a list-worthy stop!
MULLIGAN’S at AVILA BEACH GOLF RESORT Avila Beach — Golf course restaurants and airport restaurants always get an asterisk: typically mediocre food in an atmosphere focused on *other* things. Mulligan’s has always been a bit of a secret getaway for me: it IS in Avila, but a quiet refuge far away from the hordes of weekend visitors packing downtown and Harford Pier, always plenty of parking, a full bar, and gorgeous setting overlooking the river mouth. The course is public, but this seems like a private club. And the BURGER!!! These are ridiculous creations, generous and juicy and perfectly done. Next time someone wants to go to Avila, sneak them around the corner to Mulligan’s. You’ll be a star!
HIGH STREET DELI San Luis Obispo — What kind of proper deli makes a hamburger??? Well, High Street Deli does, but this is no ordinary burger: in fact, I could not find it on the menu until she pointed it out. But I had heard about it. It’s a spicy bacon cheeseburger called HIGHZENBURGER and I suppose *technically* is a meatloaf sandwich. On brioche but made with a fat slab of meatloaf instead of a burger patty. An iconic SLO dish and one you HAVE to try before you die. Lettuce, tomato, old-fashioned pickles and slathered with this RATHER spicy chipotle sauce or something. Anyway… hard to describe but So. Ridiculously. Good.
ZIGGY’S San Luis Obispo — My love for all things *garden burger* REQUIRED me to check out the vegan place in San Luis Obispo. Turns out it’s part of the Sylvester’s group which an interesting juxtaposition between the food the two restaurants serve. Place is tiny, but fun and fresh: three or four indoor tables–a couple outside. There are several burgers with a choice of Impossible or their house-made patty with a variety of vegan cheeses available. Their patty which turns out to be a black bean affair with a fairly distinct cumino nuance to it. The finely shredded lettuce is an interesting touch, a classic diner nod. Tomato, pickle, onion, great sauce, and all on a beautiful bun that’s a little heartier than your typical brioche, potato, or Wonder-bread book-ends. Get the house-made ginger lemonade!
BAYSIDE CAFE Morro Bay — Locals-favorite Bayside Cafe is an oft-overlooked spot on the marina in Morro Bay State Park, and, though I was really trying to do only one burger per town, am including it because it feels more like Baywood/Los Osos than classic “Morro Bay” AND–most importantly–because it is my favorite vege-burger in the area. I love alfalfa sprouts, and this one gets them–in addition to all the other good stuffings. Beautiful setting, always impeccable service, a great winelist, and the wait is never as bad as the line outside looks. Avoid the Embarcadero tourist crush and remember to put Bayside on your list.
FLAVOR FACTORY Morro Bay — Across town in a rather forgettable strip-mall, this highly acclaimed spot is operated by the former owners of the iconic TACO TEMPLE, and they do EVERYTHING right. This is a ridiculously good burger, probably one of the most *home-style* burgers you will find. Patty tastes like it just came off a neighbor’s grill. The meat is phenomenal–often ground right in front of you–perfectly seasoned and cooked and served in a way NO burger aficionado could argue with. A near PERFECT burger, and one everyone should experience. Grab some extra napkins.
HALFWAY STATION HWY 41 Atascadero — Who’s been to Apple Pan? Referencing it only because of this burger’s instant similarities and the West LA icon is a place everybody should go to at least once in their life. Apple Pan–and this burger–refuse several things I typically consider de rigueur in a hamburger. Notice the lack of tomato, onion, the un-seeded bun, and the absolute SLAB of iceberg plus generous ‘special’ sauce. (I mean: we all KNOW it’s 1000 Islands, but it does magical things to a burger, somehow.) These oddities border-line on horrifying–nearly un-American omissions to a diner-purist like myself, but holy wow is this a delicious burger. Not sure if the Halfway Station folks are fans of the Apple Pan style or were just thinking outside-the-box, but it is refreshing to see a chef make decisions like this on a staple. Especially when it WORKS. And this works SOOOO well.
LUNADA GARDEN BISTRO Cayucos — Another vege-burger, this time in the lovely old place on the original highway still–almost creepily–painted and decorated like the former–and our cherished–Hoppe’s. This one’s made up of brown rice, cranberries and quinoa with cranberry-orange cream cheese. Served on a whole wheat bun with cucumbers and avocado. If you’re not feeling particularly vegetarian, get the ‘Apple Pie Burger’, with arugula, sharp cheddar, apple relish and an onion ring. Lunada exists as Cayucos’ only fine dining spot, so it’s the easy choice in one of my favorite Central Coast towns. Great winelist too!
THE CAFE ON BRIDGE STREET Cambria — As if all my gardenburger additions weren’t weird enough, I gotta throw this baby onto the list. Have you ever had a cheeseburger salad? Of course you haven’t. Have you ever eaten at The Café on Bridge St in Cambria? Also no, probably. Slightly off the beaten track but an absolute DESTINATION in this town chock-full of great eateries. Every menu item I order–often apprehensively–over-delivers. The service and setting are classic Cambria, and all your bread-free dreams come true in this glorious pile of *stuff* crowned with a crumbly cheeseburger–well, the patty at least. And yes, those are black olives to put on your pinkies and make a puppet show. You have to make your best pirate sound when you open your drink at the counter. It’s the rules!
So what’s stopping you from getting a burger?
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