Chillin’ in Slo Cal

The Sights and Flavors of California’s Laid-Back Central Coast

Mellow sunny days, sparkling ocean waves, pungent sagebrush perfuming the air — the California coast hums along at the pace of pleasure. Disembarking from a quick two-hour direct flight from Seattle to San Luis Obispo (SLO), we begin to feel the good-time “SLO CAL” vibes roll up at an airport so happy, it feels like Bob Ross painted it. Located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, SLO CAL drips with surf culture, wine grapes, peaceful trails, bountiful farmers markets, and a thriving agricultural scene (meaning good eats).

Big Sky Cafe Eggs swimming in sweet pepper and tomato sauce make the Big Sky Cafés shakshuka an extra-hearty breakfast.

The 8 a.m. flight left us hungry, so we stopped for a late breakfast at Big Sky Café in downtown SLO for a skillet of shakshuka — poached eggs swimming in sweet pepper and tomato sauce with feta and cilantro. Fortified, we strolled the charming streets. I picked up a pair of Rainbow-brand flip flops at a Moondoggies Surf Shop located across the street from the Mission Plaza, hotme of the 18th-century Spanish Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. 

Later that night — and every Thursday night since 1983 — Higuera Street transforms into a pedestrian-only farmers market, and the city comes alive as locals and visitors peruse fresh produce, eating their way from vendor to vendor and at the array of neighborhood restaurants. Novo Restaurant has an amazing outdoor patio along the river out back. We basked under the branches of a palatial oak tree while nibbling on satay skewers and fresh spring roll wraps. Looking to take home Olympic gold in the eating category, we also tried the exceptional tacos and margaritas at Vegetable Butcher, tapas at Luna Red, and finished with beers and BBQ pork Tot-Chos (think nachos, but with tots) at Libertine Brewing Company. On our way back to the car, we locked in our breakfast location for the next day — Nourish SLO, located at the Granada Hotel, turned out to be an excellent choice and lived up to its name, serving nutrient-packed smoothies and a variety of wholesome, flavor-rich, satisfying dishes like baked oatmeal with fruit and coconut milk, a green-eggs-and-grain bowl, and avocado toast (many gluten-free, dairy-free options). 

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa A sculpted fountain in front of the mission at Mission Plaza.

Stepladder Creamery This creamery in Cambria produces cheese from the frolicking goats that roam the hillisde.

The area around SLO is filled with adventure opportunities. Beach time is a must, whether surfing, strolling, or simply enjoying a beverage with the sunset. Pismo and Grover beaches, located about 15 miles south of SLO, offer miles of white sandy delight, while crescent-shaped Avila Beach frames San Luis Obispo Bay facing south. The adorable town of Avila Beach is stacked with brightly painted shops and restaurants. We stopped for a wine tasting at Sinor-La Vallee, where we sampled Pinot Noir grown on the hillsides overlooking Avila — the salinity of the terroir was readily apparent in this cool-climate wine.

Nearby, Avila Valley Barn and Farm is a local favorite for fresh fruit and vegetables, pies, ice cream, snacks from the deli, and frequent bubbling joy as baby farm animals frolic with visitors. Other animal encounters include goats of all sizes at Stepladder Creamery in Cambria (and goat cheese samples) and guided horseback rides at Santa Margarita Ranch with Central Coast Trail Rides. We watched (and listened) from our kayaks as great blue herons soared overhead, alighting from tree to tree at their rookery on the shores of Morro Bay. We also paddled out to the barge known as Grassy Bay Oyster Co., where owner George Trevelyan shucked us a few beauties directly from the bay — it doesn’t get fresher than that. After our paddle, with appetites craving more seafood, we sat dockside at Tognazzini’s, eating fresh-caught fish cooked to order and more oysters, of course, all washed down with a crisp California white wine.

Six miles north of Morro Bay up Highway 1, the beach town of Cayucos has something more than ocean to lure in visitors. Cayucos is the original home of the Brown Butter Cookie Company, started by sisters Traci and Christa Hozie in 2009. It is hard to put into words how perfect these sweet, crumbly, slightly salty nuggets of goodness are, but one cookie will never be enough. Even after sampling as many as possible, I couldn’t decide on a favorite flavor, opting for a variety pack of Original, Coconut Lime, and Cocoa to take home (as if they actually made it home — sorry, kids). One cannot live on cookies alone (or so I’ve heard), so we sat down in the indoor/outdoor covered dining area at the Cass House Grill and feasted on a number of farm-to-table dishes featuring local seafood, meat, and produce. 

Tin City is home to more than 20 food and beverage producers, including Tin City Cider Co., BarrelHouse Brewing, and Levo winery.

The next day, we decided to work the beverage tourism angle, heading north to check out Tin City between Templeton and Paso Robles. A collection of colorful tin-sided production and tasting room facilities, Tin City houses more than 20 producers of wine, beer, cider, and food products. We tasted through a lineup of ciders — many made utilizing local wines in addition to cider fruits — at Tin City Cider Co. The Poly Dolly — a blend of cider and rosé wine — knocked my refreshment socks off with watermelon, lemongrass, and sour cherry notes. Across the courtyard, BarrelHouse Brewing Co. is a great place to grab a pint and unwind with a game of cornhole in the half-acre beer garden. They often host food trucks and live music events. Latin for “rise,” Levo is a boutique winery producing some great Bordeaux- and Rhone-varietal wines. 

“Irish Hills”
Before the heat of summer, California’s rolling coastal hills resemble their Irish counterparts. In fact, the Madonna Inn named one of its themed rooms “Irish Hills” for this very reason.

First and foremost a wine region best known for big California Zinfandels; Paso Robles also has a robust craft beer scene. A leisurely stroll through this revitalized little town from the postcard-perfect central square, sporting a sprawling lawn under shady trees, promises local suds in any direction. Ginger-bearded craft brewing superstar Chuck Silva opened Silva Brewing with his wife, MJ, in 2016. The tasting room and production facility are directly behind The Pour House — a tap house highlighting beers from around the region. Other breweries include Toro Creek and Earth and Fire Brewing.

Graduating from Olympic gold, we invented Olympic platinum-level eating skills in Paso Robles, dining on modern Mexican fare at the upscale cantina Fish Gaucho. The cocktails were fantastic — especially my Clase Azul margarita, served in a blue and white clay vessel reminiscent of this top-shelf tequila bottle. Fish Gaucho has more than 140 tequilas and mezcals behind the bar — consider a flight from the onsite “Tequila Bible” with monthly rotating suggestions. At La Cosecha Bar and Restaurant, Chef Santos MacDonal’s Honduran roots permeate the Latin-influenced cuisine and stone-fired pizzas. We shared a tabletop full of appetizers and entrées at The Hatch Rotisserie and Bar, including a skillet of fire-roasted hen of the woods mushrooms served with soy, aioli, and parmesan; and Brussels sprouts extraordinaire served with pecans, bacon, pomegranate, and blue cheese.

Vegetable Butcher
Exceptional tacos and margaritas at Vegetable Butcher in downtown SLO

That night, we immersed ourselves in acres of illuminated landscape at Sensorio, located seven miles east of Paso’s town square. Installation artist Bruce Munro created a visual garden of lights perfect for wandering, meditating, and frequent exclamations of the word “wow.” The exhibit is open to ticket holders from 7 p.m.-closing, Wednesdays through Sundays (sensoriopaso.com). 

Bellies full and bags laden with Brown Butter Cookie crumbs, we bid SLO CAL a loving hasta la vista and boarded our Alaska Airlines flight back to Seattle, mentally ticking off the time until our return to the laid-back ways of California’s coast.   

Where to stay, from chic boutiques to cult classic inns

Hotel Cheval

Located half a block from the Paso Robles town square, this 16-room boutique property is a conveniently located luxury hotel complete with a spa and private garden. 

Allegretto Vineyard Resort

Immersed in acres of sprawling vineyards and orchards, this Mediterranean-inspired destination property has it all, from spa treatments and fine dining to a private wine label, swimming pool, sculptures, recreation equipment, and pet-friendly options.

SummerWood Inn

Farm country chic nestled in a vineyard with sweeping views, comfortable accommodations, and excellent hospitality.

Inn at Morro Bay, Morro Bay

Featuring views of Morro Rock and the tranquil fishing bay, rooms feature cozy, in-room fireplaces and patio options.

Paso Robles Inn, Paso Robles

Centrally located just off the town square, rooms are comfortably appointed with an onsite pool, restaurant, flower garden, and plenty of swings to enjoy a lazy afternoon.

Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo

This pink, pink, pink place to lay your head is a local cult classic. Themed rooms are decorated with over-the-top colors, patterns, and whimsical names. Feeling sweet? Check out the Sugar & Spice room. Feeling lucky? Irish Hills. Feeling adventurous? China Flower. Don’t forget to get a slice of the world-famous Madonna Inn Pink Champagne cake at the Copper Cafe.

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