When I first started scribbling on these pages maybe 10 years ago, I complained constantly about how Paso got all the good restaurants, and SLO seemed to plod along with the usual suspects of pretty safe stuff. OK, maybe not *complained*, but observed loudly. Anchored by the Artisan-Bistro-Villa Creek trilogy, but also Panolivo, THO, Mistura, Il Cortile, and several others I can’t recall off the top of my head. I regularly brought up Fandango, Seven Hands and Park–all long gone–as the last great dining spots San Luis Obispo had. That situation seems to have reversed. I’m not going to disparage any NoCo restaurants by name, but there’s a lot of *yawn* up there right now. Bistro and Il Cortile remain, of course, Laurent with a name-change–and menu watering-down–under its belt and many chefs later at Thomas Hill Organics, plus a few others have come and gone. Somm’s Kitchen and 6-Test have established themselves–the latter with a Michelin star, but those two carry an asterisk for their unique business plan and dining arrangement. HATCH remains one of those places you keep trying to like, but….
But before we move into SLO’s new excitements, I think it bears reflecting on a few other things over the past decade-ish. Let’s romp down Memory Lane, shall we? Luna Red hit the ground running up on Monterey, eventually moving down to the old Mission Grill. The menu has morphed several times from the early fusion beauty through solid Iberian to what I feel is a bit watered-down currently, but it remains an easy go-to for casual dining. Of course: it took the glass-waterfall-spot over from NATIVE–a restaurant I still say was way ahead of its time for San Luis Obispo. Foremost Wine Co came and went, and theories on that failure abound. One classic model it followed–one I have observed many times–open a powerhouse restaurant with a hand-picked creme de la creme staff and then gut them. Works every time! Guiseppe’s moved–and I feel the menu AND winelist suffered. BLUE and CIOPINOT plod on–hats off to them–though probably SLO’s most overlooked restaurants. We got OCEAN GRILL out in Avila, who went through a chef a week for a couple years before Bryan Mathers took over–injecting a ridiculous work-ethic and demo-logic to the menu. Gardens of Avila rose–and waned. We got Moon Over Avila, who can’t seem to keep Jose Dahan on payroll long enough to keep the *inconsistency* bugs out of the system. MISTURA nabbed up the gorgeous Foremost building. Cornerview went away–one of my favorite things in town. GRANADA arrived–as a little short-term panini speakeasy–promised to go away to many tears, and then re-opened as a powerhouse downtown anchor for lodging and dining. We got EUREKA!, Habit, Urbane, Finney’s, Burger Village, 825 and a myriad of other forgettable chains for the SLO-bro and poly-dolly crowd eat-with-your-hands crowd. SLOBREW went away–many MANY tears there–re-opened a block away–went away again–re-invented itself as The Carissa–and basically went away again. Speaking of SLO Brew, they nabbed the afore-mentioned Villa Creek’s Tom Fundaro out at The Rock: cranking out SOLID food, though his Duck Confit Nachos have yet to re-surface. Vegetable Butcher arrived–probably SLO’s MOST NEEDED restaurant–and remains empty to this day. CIDER BAR SLO headed off what was to be the great re-making of Creamery Marketplace–something still foggy. South of town, EMBER, Spoon Trade and Puffer’s of Pismo became conversation-points, coveted reservations, and de rigueur local’s hang-outs, Rosa’s expanded: first across the street to Ada’s Fish House and recently up into the closed Flagship from local restaurant empire Compass Health. Speaking of Compass Health, they added OYSTER LOFT and Wooly’s down at the pier, the Alex Steakhouse debacle got front-page coverage for a spell, and Mestiza downtown–in a fabulous spot we had high Thomas Hill Organic’s hopes for–never materialized. Two new hotels in Pismo introduced SOMERSET GRILL and BLONDE+ ROOFTOP, neither of which particularly wooed this diner. And even further down: Los Alamos graduated from dusty little tumbleweed strip to Wine & Dine CENTRAL. Up along the coast, Blue Heron promised a return-to-greatness us old-timers mourned after Mare Bleu–now recently gone (see ‘Foremost Business Plan 101’ above)–the re-vitalization of Inn at Morro Bay fizzled, WINDOWS closed COMPLETELY for most of covid, STAX went from practically private-club status to powerhouse dinner destination, and one of my favorites: CASS HOUSE GRILL–something those in the back rows will note had a dining-arrangement fitting PERFECTLY into social-distancing specifications–inexplicably pulled the plug. Up in Cambria, ROBIN’S added acres of outdoor patio dining, MADELINE’S expanded hours to a much-welcomed lunch, and BLACK CAT BISTRO became my absolute GO-TO hide-out most of the year.
And now that covid has left a gash down the playing field, LOTS of new excitement in the county seat. SLO got two new hi-rise (for out town) hotels–each with their own restaurants. HOTEL CERRO has BRASSERIE SLO on the ground floor, and if you know me: there can NEVER be enough French. HOTEL SLO has PIADINA and OX & ANCHOR plus a fabulous bar in the middle. Each of these three I have eaten at numerous times, with varying experiences regarding expectation vs. reality. Ox & Anchor gets the nod for consistency, though it’s not cheap. A couple chefs in, Brasserie still anchors the COMPLETE re-invention of Garden Street. MISTURA is a gem to have in town–again MULTIPLE visits–with food and service always top-notch. FARMHOUSE fills a much-needed void out on the South-Broad corridor, and we welcome many more restaurants in this area with the soon-opening of SLO PUBLIC MARKET. Up in NoMo, 1865 came back after a long absence, and across the street Venice Beach came to town with the odd KINNY. I suppose this would be as good a place as any to mention Apple Farm did not survive covid and Stynberg has not found a lasting tenant. Cult-fave BENNY’S moved into the classic Mexican hovel, branding itself not so much as a dining establishment–but as a “social club”. Two new speakeasy’s lurk in the shadows: NITECAP attached to Granada and another in the back of KREUZBERG. Robin (of HATCH fame) is opening HIGHWATER in the old Sidecar spot, and the cocktail game will FOR SURE be strong with that one. South of town, both KROBAR and SLO STILLS have opened full-service tasting salons for their attached distilleries, creating 2 more craft-cocktail destinations. And the newest arrivals: side-by-side boom-boom’s PARK and KULT re-surfacing the facade of downtown dining, and NATE’S re-inventing the revolving door that has been the beautiful old house on Marsh.
PARK 1039 fills a much-needed gap at the high-end snobby sector, probably SLO’s best resty currently, with food morphing nicely from casual lunch-time finger-plates to exquisite suit & tie dinner fare. An absolute dream-scape of a winelist accompanies, easily the town’s best cellar–geeky and expensive–skipping ALL of the local standard-fare basically every restaurant around here features. Pretty much exclusively outdoor dining, it will be interesting how Park survives if the parklets go away. Instantly a wine-industry hit, with gorgeous food and an on-staff somm leading impeccable service, this is definitely SLOco’s leader in where to drop 300 bucks on dinner or be seen at a lazy late-lunch.
Next door: KULT opened recently with a bang, a gorgeous spare-no-expense dining room and a marketing plan viewed as brilliant by some and belligerent by others. A curt, spiral-bound and full-color menu of Asian-inspired dishes–with emphasis on finger-food and complex, spicy sauce accompaniments–presents simple choices inside this vibe-y spot walled in both resilient and warm textures and flooded with European grooves. Steve Lucero got tapped to run the kitchen here, and doing amazing things. The cocktail list is sake, but they are crafted with more detail than most hard-alcohol spots: and the taste follows suit. Despite the oddities of access–social media DM passwords, personal reservation confirmation only, no walk-ins, no menu substitutions, a Daou-exclusive winelist matched with one of the highest corkages in town, and ‘membership’ buy-in availability–getting a seat isn’t all THAT hard, and the place packs in with one of the best-looking (and youngest) crowd in town.
Number 3 on the gossip-chain is of course NATE’S ON MARSH–a spot I sadly have not tried as of this writing. It’s my own fault: I keep (three times now!) calling them last-minute, merely being in town at dinner-time on the weekend and CLEARLY they are popular. Chef Libry–of short-lived THO fame–heads up the kitchen, and despite early rumors of it being ‘Southern’, recent takes prove it solidly Italian. Well-rounded, nicely-priced winelist has been published–nowhere NEAR as interesting as Genarro’s though, I WILL miss that–and recent mumblings show the full bar–one of SLO’s most beautiful and completely over-looked set of stools–is finally getting the recognition it deserves. I WILL eat here soon, I promise.
Bottom line: San Luis Obispo’s restaurant scene is definitely looking up, and 2022 will be fun to watch! My only advice: GET A RESERVATION.