FOUR different times this week people have messaged me about where to eat in Paso Robles, and TWO times in the past month I have threatened to make a list. It’s just SO explosive up there right now. I fully feel the pendulum has swung back to NoCo after dawdling about SoCo for a decade. This will NOT be a #1, #2, #3, type hierarchy-situation, because there’s just too many variables in style, price-point and theme. It is strictly a Top-5 (I actually don’t know how many there will be at this moment as I haven’t started typing yet) because when you have *lunch* spots and *dinner* spots–BOTH of which you are equally excited about–you can’t really equate top and bottom. Maybe we just call it the EXCITEMENT LIST… or we could just call a spade a spade and make it: The McConnell’s Favorite Resties in Paso List. Yeah, that’s better, because so many people are gonna hate this list.
1. BRASSERIE LAURENT Is that what it’s called now? I’m not sure and don’t care: it will always be “The Bistro” to me and most of the people I hang with. Is it the best restaurant in Paso Robles? Probably not. Do I feel things have shifted slightly downhill since the name change? Definitely. But it will ALWAYS be at the top of any reco-list I give out. It just deserves it and it stays there forever no matter what.
2. IN BLOOM Even though there are some VERY casual places on this list, formality will always win and THE most exciting new spot in the county is now In Bloom, so it heads up what is actually the de facto #1 spot for reasons I explained above. Winelist, service, ambiance, variety, warmth, open-ness, ridiculous black-tie professionalism, presentation, accessibility, everything. Then there’s the food. Do I have a problem with some of the food? Yes. Has everything been absolutely teeth-meltingly perfect? No. But it WORKS. Very well.
3. PIG IRON Yes, it’s down in Templeton–go cry to your mommy, I don’t care. This too-sunny little corner has become my go-to for THREE STRAIGHT WEEKS and I’m not even sick of it yet. Amazing full bar, a curt list of ALL THE WINES I WANT TO DRINK even though some of the brands represented have committed crimes of marketing indulgence I haven’t forgiven, a laid-back staff who truly *get it*, a menu covering ground from breakfast to dinner with international flair and ridiculous creativity, this is the fuckin coolest place in the county.
4. MORNING AFTER CAFE Gonna segue here strictly because of the above. Again: menu covering breakfast-to-dinner (they actually close at 3), in brilliant, creative ways. As I’ve said before: It’s a diner. You know how you go into a trendy cocktail place and they have crazy names for all the drinks and then you start REALLY studying it, and you’re like, that’s just a black Manhattan; that’s literally an old fashioned; OMG that’s basically a corpse reviver…? That’s this place. It’s literally diner-food. Take Vic’s menu next door and put it alongside MAC’s and everything’s there. BUT!!!! with really awesome twists. Hipster Diner? Craft Diner? Still formulating a name for this.
5. MUTINY BURGER Across the park in the old diner spot (the red & white checkered floor is still there) is an interesting menu of sandwiches IS A HAMBURGER A SANDWICH????? Technically, yes. But morally? No. There’s only 6 things on the menu: two burgers, a chicken sandwich, 2 vegetarians and a wedge salad. Oh, and PIE. I’m not gonna tell you what to do, but go in and order a burger EXACTLY THE WAY THEY MAKE IT. Don’t put the shit you like on it to make it some extravagant Instagram beast–and don’t take all the shit off you don’t like because your single mom raised you on Goldfish and apple juice. Let them do it their way first. The vibe here is on-point too, and that’s 50% of your score.
6. FINCA Opposing In Bloom at the Public Market is a unique little farmhouse crankin out what they call “Mexican”, but it goes WAY beyond that. Jussssayin this ain’t Taco Temple, chubs. It’s clean, it’s bright, it’s easy and simple, it’s FAST, everyone is gloriously sunny, the winelist a geeky “natural” who’s-who, the agua fresca fresh–I think you can even buy Tecate in a can. But you start studying the menu and things approach chef-pop-up curation and design, everything twisted and turned and popping with texture and flavor. Check it out.
7. THE ALCHEMIST’S GARDEN For drinks. I haven’t eaten here! So I can’t recommend the food. Ok, so I’ve had a couple small bites at the bar, but that’s it. Not NEAR enough to judge on. I just go here for the cocktails.
8. VIN 13 But it’s not a restaurant!!!–I hear you squeal. Nope, and here’s the clincher: I haven’t even had a glass of wine there yet. I don’t need to. I know the mind behind and have read the list and been watching for several weeks. I’m a licensed professional. I don’t need to go here to tell you it’s great and a must-visit and a jewel in the Paso crown. And it’s my list, remember? I do what I want.
9. ANDREA’S ON PINE I’m headed down now into the old classics which have stood the test of time in Paso and I believe this spot to be probably the best-kept secret in town–possibly the county. NOBODY’S heard of this place and that is CRIMINAL. Quiche. Salads. Sandwiches. EVERYTHING is above-and-beyond the call of duty. GORGEOUS FOOD. When you finally find this cool little corner and your schedule jives with their hours, it will blow your mind.
10. THOMAS HILL ORGANICS Ok, so gettin to the bottom of the list here–WAIT YOU SAID IT WAS ONLY GONNA BE A TOP-5–but definitely not scrapin the bottom of the barrel because here’s the deal with THO: Whatever I think or have heard about the management; whatever rotisserie chef-of-the-week programme they are on; whatever deviations the winelist takes: I. Have. Never. Had. A. Bad. Meal. At. Thomas. Hill. Organics. And that’s the honest truth.
11. IL CORTILE Hankering for Italian? At this particular juncture–and this is a heated topic with PLENTY of blingy players–Il Cortile is the finest restaurant in this class in the county. This place makes Giuseppe’s look like Olive Garden, Rosa’s a K-Mart lunch counter and Buona Tavola (ESPECIALLY the Paso location) like a picnic at the park. Ambiance, winelist, food quality, preparation and presentation: this place wins.
12. SOMM’S KITCHEN NOT as hard to get into as people think–you just have to plan ahead and be patient. And keep your ears peeled. Adding this in here because it is fabulous albeit not classic “restaurant” dining situation. But Ian deserves a spot on any Paso dining list. The food is ridiculous, the wine sacred, the experience priceless. Don’t put it off any longer!
13. JEFFREY’S WINE COUNTRY BBQ NO list is complete without Cheffrey Jeffrey. Always one of the first I throw out when people wanna know where to eat lunch. Cubano, Banh-mi, Pulled pork, Mac & Cheese, Burgers, you basically CAN’T go wrong here. And it’s a fun spot, energetic and bright with a great wine & beer list.
WHO WAS SUPPOSED TO BRING THE ORANGE WEDGES?