By J.C. Thomas
San Luis Obispo is well established as a fantastic destination for foodies. Its Central Coast setting means the city is surrounded by agricultural riches including local wines and a world of fresh, seasonal produce, along with the freshest fish and seafood from nearby Morro Bay. SLO embraces artisanal food culture and has a thriving brewery scene too.
During a recent visit, we found the restaurant scene in SLO to be holding up admirably through the pandemic. The city has started closing off select downtown streets to cars so that restaurants can expand their outdoor seating, and eateries throughout SLO have turned their focus to takeout. With restrictions in place and customers respecting the rules, the foodie scene in San Luis Obispo endures through tough times. Locals and visitors who are comfortable patronizing restaurants can and should continue to enjoy incredible eats in SLO.
Here are just a few suggestions inspired by our trip to San Luis Obispo.
The “Taste of SLO” Food Tour
The “Taste of SLO” Food Tour, after closing for three months, has resumed its walking tours that take groups to five dining destinations in downtown or uptown San Luis Obispo. The tours have adapted to feature outdoor-only dining and adopt new health and safety protocols. Tour guests, of course, have to remove masks to eat and drink, so consider your own comfort level before booking. Private tours can be arranged too.
We participated in the Uptown Tour during our SLO visit and were fortunate to have two delightful, knowlegable ladies, Taste of SLO creator Angee Johnson and tour guide Victoria, leading our small group. While we strolled from restaurant to restaurant, Angee and Victoria told us all about the SLO food scene and related interesting historical tidbits too. Over three hours, we sampled a wide variety of sweet and savory treats and alcoholic and soft drinks, and had some wonderful conversations. This walking tour will leave you full, satisfied and thoroughly entertained.
The locations featured on our tour were:
Monterey St Market: This rustic-chic market and deli has an outdoor patio, stylish indoor space and tempting lineup of house-made pastas, sandwiches and more. We sampled a tender, fist-sized meatball doused in a rich tomato sauce, with a crisp chef’s salad on the side, plus a frosty local craft beer.
SLO Provisions: This is a locals’ favorite hip hangout known for its pastries, particularly the Friday-only pies, and for the succulent organic chicken, porchetta and more that emerges from its huge red rotisserie. The venue also features a gourmet boutique stocked with mostly local, artisanal products. We sampled one such item, Root Elixirs, as a “shrubmosa” by adding sparkling wine to the delicately flavored handcrafted soda. Soon to follow were ceramic soup spoons holding rotisserie porchetta, roasted farmers’ market vegetables and romesco sauce. A big slice of French chocolate silk pie to follow was perfection.
Mama Ganache: For a mid-tour sweetener, the next stop was Mama Ganache to sample their organic, fair trade, ethically sourced chocolates. The store allocates equal space to its vegan and regular lines, and both are delicious. We tried Nirvana Bark, chocolate-toffee pistachios, our choice from the chocolate display case, and a heavenly vegan chocolate milkshake made with coconut vegan ice cream and almond milk. They have espresso drinks to go as well.
1865 Craft House and Kitchen: This trendy, spacious restaurant attracts a lively crowd with multiple patios and regular live music lineup. Its menus are superb too, starting with the cocktail list. I opted for a lovely ombre purpley drink, the Crushed Velvet made with vodka, lime, ginger, fresh lavender and butterfly tea simple syrup. To eat, we shared an amazing elote and guacamole duo with a generous pile of thick, crispy pita chips, and also a fully loaded flatbread.
Papa’s Thai: Our final restaurant stop, Papa’s Thai, is a newcomer to the SLO scene. Chef and owner David takes inspiration (and kitchen assistance) from his other half, Pin and her family from Northern Thailand. Everything is made to order and created around authentic family recipes. We tried the tom kha soup, packed with veggies and rich with coconut milk, as well as a bright orange Thai tea, which Chef David informed us was packed with caffeine. It was an ideal ending to a decadent tour, sending us off with a boost to counter our full tummies.
Big Sky Café
If you have a big appetite, or are more than happy to have leftovers, be sure to dine on the patio or get takeout from Big Sky Café on Broad Street. The celebrated café specializes in fresh market cuisine, and its menu is packed with produce-forward takes on comfort food favorites along with some truly creative original dishes. Numerous vegan and vegetarian items feature on the menu. Best-sellers include “The BLT That Time Forgot,” a vegetarian pozole bowl and the Tuscan kale salad.
We started with the crispy polenta fries dusted with parmesan and fresh thyme and served with an Italian salsa verde. These fries were the size of Jenga bricks, shatteringly crisp on the outside and soft, verging on custardy, in the center – salty, savory perfection! Next up we chose the Reuben sandwich. House-cured beef brisket is piled on Farbs Bakery swirl rye bread, mingled with melted Jarlsberg, house thousand island and crisp sauerkraut. Fries on the side, of course. The sandwich fillings, each with their own texture, melded to give every bite a sensory wallop. I highly recommend this hearty sandwich.
Another must-try: The buttermilk fried chicken salad, available in half or whole sizes. The big strips of flash-fried organic Mary’s chicken could be a meal alone, but here they are piled over mixed greens with a painter’s palette-arrangement of uncommonly good toppings. These include a black eyed pea chow chow, spiralized beets and cabbage, and sweet peppered pecans. Toss it with the toasted pecan-walnut ranch dressing and dig in.
High St Deli
A line all the way up High Street indicates that the vintage cottage housing High St. Deli is offering something special. It’s clear that locals are determined to keep this beloved, century-old neighborhood spot going through the pandemic, even if it means waiting a little longer than usual for a sandwich. Try any of the 16 special sandos on the menu, or alternatively build your own, and you’ll understand why.
Some High St. Deli originals include the Dutch Punch with spicy Havarti, smoked turkey, bacon, avocado and lots of salad-y stuff on a fresh Dutch crunch roll, and its non-spicy cousin the Spring Club with melted cheddar on a toasted French roll. There’s a Nashville Club with turkey, ham, bacon, smoked gouda and BBQ sauce on toasted sourdough, and the Highzenburger, a brioche bun stuffed with house-made meatloaf, bacon, cheddar and chipotle mayo. Do try the potato salad, which is more like the beautiful lovechild of potato and egg salads.