San Luis Obispo is a California Central Coast Treat
By Brian E. Clark
In more than two decades of living in California during my peripatetic newspaper career, I traveled the state from north to south. (East to West, too.)
I called San Francisco, Nevada City, Davis, Modesto, and San Diego home and wrote about places from Mount Shasta in the north to Yosemite (more or less in the middle) to San Ysidro on the Mexican border.
But I’d never made it to San Luis Obispo (SLO) on the Golden State’s often overlooked Central Coast, though I’ve recently been to nearby Paso Robles – known for its burgeoning wine scene.
So when a friend and I visited SLO this summer, we were pleasantly surprised to find a lively small city (population 50,000) with a vibrant city center, a rich history, a marine climate, and a tasty food scene. It’s also a college town – home to California Polytechnic State University – so it has a youthful but also a hip vibe. Moreover, it’s surrounded by open space of the Santa Lucia Mountains and is but 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
We pulled into town late at night after a 220-mile drive south from the Bay Area and nestled into our digs at the SLO Brew Lofts, 738 Higuera St. (slobrewlofts.com) a collection of five cozy short-term apartments – some with three bedrooms – at the center of the downtown’s entertainment district. If we’d driven north from Los Angeles, it would have been almost the same distance.
We had breakfast the next morning at Kreuzberg California, 685 Higher St., (kreuzbergcalifornia.com) a cafe with a German accent and tasty food. I had a mocha coffee, a smoothie, and a granola bowl.
The restaurant’s founder had lived in Berlin and was taken by the cafe/lounge culture in the Kreuzberg neighborhood where he could grab a cappuccino in the morning, some food at lunch, then at night time close the laptop and get drinks – all in the same place.
Then we were off to SLO City Farms, 1221 Calle Joaquin, (cityfarmsslo.org)an expansive organic gardening effort that raises some of the produce that ends up on the plates of the city’s best restaurants. Director Kayla Rutland gave us a tour of the property, which has a mission of empowering the next generation to live healthier, more prosperous lives through sustainable agriculture and small farm-based education.
Other goals include promoting health, success, and environmental stewardship through farm-based education, especially for at-risk and under-served youth.
We tasted a few delicious tomatoes and headed off for lunch and a tour of the SLO Brew Rock brew pub, 855 Aerovista Place, (slobrew.com/the-rock) which opened in 1988 and has produced many gold medal-winning beers. In 2019, it branched out into spirits with its craft distillery.
Owned by Hamish Marshall, a beer-loving Australian, and Rodney Cegelski – a surfer who grew in SLO – the brewpub hosts a 30-barrel brewhouse and a music venue that brings in both local and national acts. For my meal, I had a delicious farmer’s market salad with chicken and a Tio Rodrigo mango Cerveza for my adult libation.
That afternoon, we returned to SLO’s downtown and its former library, 696 Monterey St. (historycenterslo.org) which now serves as the city’s history center. There we met John Ashbaugh, a history buff who told us about the bandits who pestered the area in the 1880s and earned it the moniker “Barrio del Tigre” (Tiger Neighborhood) because of the large number of robberies and murders that occurred in and around the town.
No visit to SLO would be complete without a stop at the beautifully restored Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 751 Palm St. (missionsanluisoispo.org). Established in 1172 by Spaniards, the building remains a working parish church. San Luis Creek, the original water source for the mission and later the city, winds through Mission Plaza which remains a central meeting place and host of festivals, fairs, and other celebrations throughout the year. Tours of the mission are offered Monday through Saturday at 1:15 p.m.
Before dinner that night at Mistura, a Peruvian restaurant, we strolled through SLO’s downtown arts district and saw some of the 100 pieces of public art that have gone up in the past 30 years, ranging from utility boxes to sculptures, mosaics, and even a skate park. The city also boasts an art museum at 1010 Broad Street, (sloma.org).
At Mistura, 570 Higuera St. (misturarestaurants.com), we learned that modern Peruvian cuisine mixes the country’s native Pre-Columbian and Incan gastronomic heritage with Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese influences.
For my dinner, I chose a tasty dish from the Andes – Ají de Gallina – free-range shredded chicken cooked with ají amarillo milk crème, Parmesan cheese, and Peruvian white rice. And for dessert, we split a “Machu Picchu” made of chocolate, coffee, vanilla bean, pisco, English custard, and Alfajor Biscotini.
The next morning, we drove out to the Cerro Luis trailhead near the quirky pink Madonna Inn (madonnainn.com). We hiked for about 90 minutes (out and back) on the relatively easy Lemon Grove Loop. Had we been more ambitious, we could have hiked four miles up the mountain and gotten views of the entire city.
For brunch, we stopped in at the Big Ski Cafe (1121 Broad St.), which was one of the first farm-to-table restaurants when it opened 20 years ago. The restaurant has a nice local vibe and I enjoyed a Mediterranean Scramble made of eggs from Cal Poly hens with garlic, local spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, green onions, and parmesan cheese.
Because I’ve owned and ridden motorcycles in my past, the next part of our visit – riding in a sidecar – was a hoot. A little after noon, we made our way to Wolff Vineyards (wolffvineyards.com) in the Edna Valley about seven miles south of town and just 4.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
We met our Sidecar driver (sidecartoursinc.com) and sipped wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Teroldego, Syrah, Petite Syrah, and Riesling at the Wolff Winery, which was founded by Andy MacGregor in 1976.
Then we hopped into the two-seater (front and back) sidecar attached to a Russian-made Ural motorcycle, which takes its name from a mountain range in western Russia. The Ural bike bears a striking resemblance to BMWs from the 1940s and their horizontally opposed double-cylinder engines because the Russians pinched the design during World War II.
Our driver took us on a slow-rolling spin through the Wolff vineyards, where he gave us a brief viticulture, flora, and fauna lecture on the Edna Valley. We next motored to the Claiborne & Churchill Winery, where we sampled more wines and dined on a charcuterie board of fruit and cheese.
That evening downtown SLO rocked with the weekly Thursday Night Farmers Market when it seemed like half the town turned out to look and buy locally produced fruits and vegetables. There were also food stands galore and I sated my hunger with a big chicken burrito. We even got to hear some wild, electronic tunes by kilt-wearing the self-styled “Lord of the Cello.”
The final morning, before we departed SLO, we stopped by Bubblegum Alley, 733 Higuera St., which is one of the weirdest and tackiest (pun intended) tourist attractions I’ve ever seen in my travels.
Legend has it that it started in the late 1950s as a rivalry between SLO high school and Cal Poly students. Disgusted merchants had the sticky wads removed several times before they gave in.
Literally, millions of pieces of chewed gum have been stuck on the walls lining the alley since then by some very tall people. Or else they used ladders. Regardless, it is now, apparently, one of the must-see spots in SLO. So, of course, I went there and made my own agglutinative deposit. And when I go back, I’ll do it again.
For more information on things to do in and around San Luis Obispo, see visitslo.com
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.