By Freda Moon
Occupying a dramatic stretch of coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo County is nothing if not well-positioned. It has the Pacific to the west, the fertile San Joaquin Valley to the east and a delicious Mediterranean climate. It is here, on an isolated hill overlooking the ocean, that William Randolph Hearst built his bizarre, opulent castle (worthy of a visit), and it was here that the construction magnate Alex Madonna erected his own kitschy, faux-Alpine landmark, the Madonna Inn, a decade later. Like California itself, San Luis Obispo (SLO, as it’s called here) is both a place and a lifestyle. Sprawling and rural, it sits at the intersection of surf culture, cowboy culture and California cuisine. And that is a fine place to be.
1. Take a Hike | 3 p.m.
From the town of San Luis Obispo, drive out on Chorro Street, which passes the city’s 1772 mission, through a neighborhood of lushly landscaped Craftsman and Spanish-style casitas. Take Foothill Boulevard west to Los Osos Valley Road, winding out through artichoke fields, cow pastures and rocky peaks toward the small beach community of Los Osos. Stop at Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve to walk through sage scrub and gnarled, centuries-old coastal live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. For pygmy forests, head across town to the Elfin Forest Natural Area, a preserve where a wooden walkway winds through a sand dune landscape of wild hyacinths, succulents and rare horned lizards. A more ambitious hike can be found at the 8,000-acre Montaña de Oro State Park, a rugged playground of remote beaches, wildflower meadows, canyons and the 1,300-foot Valencia Peak.
2. Seafood Snack | 4:30 p.m.
Drive north to Morro Bay’s Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant for oysters from the bay, barbecued with garlic butter or raw on the half shell. Sit on a deck beneath a striped umbrella and watch the sea lions in front of the 576-foot “Gibraltar of the Pacific.” Then, take Highway 41 over the golden coastal mountains and through Los Padres National Forest to Atascadero. Skip the county’s best-known brewery, Firestone Walker, in favor of BarrelHouse Brewing Company, a big, beautiful brewery that turns out everything from unfiltered BarrelHouse IPA to Sunny Daze, a seasonal blond ale infused with clementine oranges and local honey. The backyard has picnic tables and a 1933 Dodge flatbed truck that serves as a stage for live music on weekend evenings. This summer BarrelHouse will open BarrelHouse SLO, a 15-tap speakeasy-style basement taproom in a 100-year-old building in downtown San Luis Obispo.
3. Worth the Drive | 7 p.m.
Conventional wisdom calls for dinner at a Paso Robles restaurant, where organic ingredients reign and the local wine lists are excellent. But a new restaurant, Ember, is worth the drive to Arroyo Grande, an underappreciated town about 45 minutes south. Opened last year by Brian Collins, who trained under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, the restaurant has a Mediterranean-influenced menu that makes excellent use of the area’s bounty. There’s a wood-fired oven, exceptional pizzas and ambitious dishes like abalone from nearby Cayucos with crispy pork belly, pickled ginger, avocado and Meyer lemon hollandaise ($20) and prosciutto-wrapped artichokes with burrata mozzarella and an arugula-farro salad ($12).
4. Rural Night Life | 9 p.m.
For a quintessential West Coast college town experience, find a prime spot at the Sunset Drive-In, a 1950s-era theater that plays blockbusters beneath the stars. Afterward, go for coffee, dessert or cocktails at the Madonna Inn’s retro Silver Bar, where the carpeting is floral pink and the décor is charmingly gaudy. Or head to Vina Robles Amphitheater, a 3,300-person venue set in the vineyards of the Paso hills, where performances are few and far between, but sometimes feature the likes of Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson. For exceptional cocktails in an unexpected setting, try Whiskey & June in Atascadero. This down-home dive bar was recently bought by Daniel Green, who grew up in the area and has returned from New York, where he worked at three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park.
5. To the Sea | 8 a.m.
Grab a pastry and espresso breakfast at downtown SLO’s stylish Scout Coffee. Then drive down to Pismo Beach, where the beachfront promenadGrab a pastry and espresso breakfast at downtown SLO’s stylish Scout Coffee. Then drive down to Pismo Beach, where the beachfront promenade has been renovated and where a guide from Central Coast Kayaks will take you through the surf and out to sea. You’ll paddle along the rocky coast, passing through kelp forests and beneath the stone arches at Dinosaur Caves Park (2.5 to 3 hours, $75).
6. California Classics | 11:30 a.m.
In Arroyo Grande, the tiny, unpretentious yellow-and-green Frutiland La Casa del Sabor offers food that could compete with some high-end Mexico City restaurants. The menu is deceptively simple, with over two dozen varieties of tortas (sandwiches big enough for two, starting at about $10) and six types of tacos, all served on house-made blue corn tortillas (about $8). The standout taco is the Azteca, a dried red chile relleno with salsa, queso fresco, onion and cilantro. The aguas fresca (fruit juices) include cucumber, guava and cantaloupe. For the spice-averse, Splash Café in Pismo Beach is beloved for its clam chowder ($7.50 in a sourdough bread bowl), which can be ordered with extra clams, bacon, seafood, cheese or green onions.
7. Wine Road | 1:30 p.m.
With over 100 wineries in the county, deciding which to visit can be agonizing. If you have time for just one, make it DAOU Vineyards, which sits on a hill and offers wonderful wine, olive oil and views. One of the valley’s oldest winemaking families recently opened its elegant, barnlike J Dusi tasting room; look for a faded blue ’40s pick-up on Route 46. For a different take, drop by Re:Find, a distillery that makes vodka and gin with spent grape skins as a base.
8. Pit Stop | 3 p.m.
Indulge in a free tasting at Pasolivo, a 45-acre olive orchard producing exceptional organic oils from nearly a dozen varietals of olives — all grown and milled in the stunning hills of Paso Robles.
9. On the Square | 4 p.m.
Downtown SLO can at times feel a bit like a mall with palm trees. Smaller Paso Robles has fewer offerings, but more character. Set around the historic town square are a number of shops, like the mother-daughter-run Firefly Gallery, which sells an eclectic assortment of housewares, beautifully embroidered tea towels, coffee table books and local crafts, as well as clothes for women and children. Next door, the General Store is a one-stop shop for picnic-goers and culinary souvenir-seekers (one specialty: Paso-centric gift baskets). Across the park, a former 1940s-era car showroom has been converted into artist studios, Studios on the Park, which are open to the public on the first Saturday of the month.
10. Santa Maria Style | 7 p.m.
The Central Coast’s Santa Maria-style barbecue is a hand-me-down from the region’s original Presidio settlers. Among the premier purveyors of this regional specialty are places like Jocko’s in Nipomo and The Range in Santa Margarita. But there are also new entrants to the scene, like the ultra-casual, student-friendly Old San Luis BBQ Company on SLO’s main drag, opened by a nuclear engineer-turned-pit master who has won praise from even the most traditional old-timers.
11. Bloodies and Benedicts | 10 a.m.
Sidecar opened in 2011 as an offshoot of one of SLO’s most beloved institutions, Kreuzberg Coffee Company, but has since gone independent. It has a bohemian flair well suited to long boozy brunches. Sundays bring bloodies and benedicts, with a few takes on poached eggs-and-hollandaise (including the Sidecar, with crab cakes, $13) and several riffs on the Bloody Mary. Try the Bang! Bang! (jalapeño vodka and chile rim, $12) or the Caveman ($12), with chipotle vodka, spicy bacon and pickled brussels sprouts.
12. Arts & Crafts | 1 p.m.
Though it was founded as a community arts organization in the 1950s, a recent name change and expansion has brought downtown SLO its newest museum: the small, contemporary art-focused San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. After visiting, take a drive up Highway One to tiny Harmony, which is not so much a town as an old creamery turned artist’s colony. Watch the glassblowing at the Harmony Glassworks or pick up handmade ceramics at Harmony Pottery. For a sandwich, espresso or gelato for the road, there’s the closet-size, Italian-owned Harmony Cafe.
Where to Stay
A 17-room boutique hotel in downtown San Luis Obispo, Granada Hotel & Bistro (1126 Morro Street, San Luis Obispo; 805-544-9100, granadahotelandbistro.com) has exposed brick, Persion rugs, Fili d’Oro linens and fireplaces in deluxe rooms. Rooms from $199.
Re-opened in 2013 after a major renovation, Paso Robles’s Summerwood Winery & Inn (2175 Arbor Road, Paso Robles; 805-227-1365; summerwoodwine.com) is a nine-room B&B with custom-made pillow-top mattresses, private balcony or patios and complimentary wine tasting. Room from $300.