Weekender Series: San Luis Obispo, Solvang and Santa Barbara
Hello, beautiful people! It's definitely feeling like summer here in the Bay. If you're looking for your next road trip destination, you'll be hard pressed to find a more scenic drive than taking 101 down the coast (notice how I said 101 and not the 101? I'm from the Bay!) to San Luis Obispo, Solvang and Santa Barbara. The entire drive, end to end, takes less than five hours.
Here are some of the spots to hit up along the way:
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is a dream college town and a great first stop on your coastal road trip. With no traffic (good luck with that), it's less than three hours south of San Jose. It's a great town for a friends' weekend, a couple's getaway or a good old-fashioned family road trip. Plan to spend at least an entire day downtown. There's plenty to eat and do.
No day can be a bad day if it starts with lunch at local favorite, Firestone Grill (do not confuse this with Firestone Walker Brewing Co.). My usual is the Pig Sandwich ($6.69), a heaping of pulled pork and barbecue sauce crammed into a buttery French roll. The tri-tip steak sandwich ($9.25) and cheeseburger ($5.19) are also popular choices. Be warned that the seasoned fries are ADDICTING. Order a basket ($4.29) to share.
One of the best parts about downtown SLO is its walkability. You'll find back-to-back-to-back cool shops. If you're into old-school vinyl, movies and pop culture trinkets, then head down to local legend, Boo Boo Records. Take our word for it when we say that there's something for everyone at Boo Boo. While you're in the neighborhood, get lost in a stack of paperbacks at Phoenix Books. Dollar bin, anyone? Then, wander off the beaten path a bit to Growing Grounds Downtown, a charming alley nursery with the cutest succulents you'll ever see. It's right across the street from the mission. Speaking of, Mission San Luis Obispo should obviously be on your list. Established as the fifth California mission in 1772, Mission San Luis Obispo is a beautiful historic church. Tours are available and there's also a museum you can visit.
For a mid-afternoon caffeine pickup, head to Kreuzberg Coffee Company. The last time I was here, which was apparently many years ago, it looked a lot different. I remembered a quaint counter, charmingly mismatched furniture and walls lined with bookshelves. The remodeled Kreuzberg still has an eclectic vibe, but is noticeably more industrial hip. Great coffee. Instagram-able locale.
For a great meal, look no further than Luna Red, located right in the front yard of the mission. Stop in for happy hour or dinner and grab a table on the patio, where you'll sit under colorful umbrellas and strings of dreamy lights. For appetizers, try the goat cheese balls with avocado-walnut pesto and garlic toast ($12 or $5 happy hour) and the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates ($10 or $5 happy hour). The paella del mar ($39) is enough to share and the spicy ground lamb tacos ($4 for 1, $14 for 4 or $30 for 10) should also not be missed.
Just around the corner from Luna Red is SLO Brew's downtown restaurant and taproom. Decent beer, great location and a cool industrial vibe. By the way, they also recently added loft units that are now available for booking. Another hot spot that's on our list for next time is the creekside Novo Restaurant Lounge.
It doesn't take a PhD to know that Doc Burnsteins is the place for ice cream in SLO (it has a couple of other locations, besides downtown). Peanut Butter Cup Delight is, indeed, delightful. Other fun flavors that we'll try next time: Merlot raspberry truffle, Elvis bananas foster and Mexican chocolate.
Pismo Beach/Arroyo Grande
Fifteen minutes south of SLO, you'll find the Pismo Beach/Arroyo Grande. Here are some of our top picks for the area.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. That place is Lil' Bits in Grover Beach, a hole-in-the-wall breakfast go-to place for locals. Most folks are regulars and are greeted by name. If you can, snag a counter seat and the attentive staff will make sure your coffee cup is never empty. We're big fans of ground corned beef hash and the Lil' Bits version ($11.99) has become one of our favorites. The generous portions came with three eggs, all-you-can-eat home fries and a piece of toast, which we upgraded to the homemade biscuits and gravy. If you can't tell already, we love hearty breakfasts and Lil' Bits delivered just that.
Want to feel like a million bucks? Spend a day at The Spa at Dolphin Bay, overlooking one of the most picturesque views of Pismo Beach. We lucked out and got a Groupon deal for our couple's spa treatment, but would return and pay full price in a heart beat. From the minute you walk through the door, you'll be treated like a VIP, Groupon or not. Our package came with an hour-long massage, a stint in the private sauna and a glass of champagne in the solarium. One of the highlights of our trip.
Even if you don't stay in Arroyo Grande and are just passing through, make sure to hit up Ember. How can a restaurant that's only open five days a week for dinner stay in business? Take one bite of anything on Ember's menu and you'll get your answer. Take note that Ember does not take reservations, but it's well worth the wait. The menu is seasonally-inspired, so it changes every month. We had the corn chowder soup with fingerling potatoes ($8), wood-oven pepperoni pizza ($22) and the cayucos abalone piccata with pain de mie breading on a lemon-caper butter and potato cake ($25). By the way, chef/owner Brian Collins has ties to the Bay: His first gig out of culinary school was a six-year stint at Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Not a bad resume.
The Danish-themed town of Solvang is less than an hour south of Pismo Beach. You'll find windmills, Danish-styled architecture and horse-drawn trolleys. Yes, it's kitschy but fun, especially with a belly full of good food from the following eateries.
No question. If you're in the Solvang, you must have breakfast at Paula's Pancake House, which has been serving up traditional Danish pancakes since 1986. No, they don't take reservations. Yes, the food will be worth the wait. One glance at your neighbors' plates will tell you that you can't go wrong with this menu. Only right choices to make.
Mortensen's Danish Bakery is home to all the Florentines, bear claws and custard puffs you can eat. Enough said.
Santa Barbara is as beautiful as they say.
Lama Dog Tap Room and Bottle Shop in Santa Barbara is one of our new favorites. You'll find 20 craft beers on tap, wine on tap and an impressive selection of cans and bottles from a variety of respectable craft brewers. Our major find was a six-pack of The Golden Monkey by Pennsylvania's Victory Brewing Company. We bought out Lama Dog's supply and sampled some of the excellent local pours. If you're in the mood for a little nosh, take a look at the blue shipping container in the corner. It's home to Nook, a Santa Barbara eatery that I like to think of as the Southern California cousin of The Skillet in Seattle. Both offer scrumptious, gourmet street food that will keep you coming back for more.
If you're in Santa Barbara, chances are you'll find your way to Stearns Wharf or the harbor. At either location, you can catch a round-trip or one-way trip on Celebration Cruises' Lil' Toot water boat. We didn't get to ride this one, but it's only $5 one way for adults and $2 for children. The Lil' Toot ferries up to 19 passengers on a 15-minute ride between the harbor and Stearns. We booked tickets on the Azure Seas happy hour cruise, which only leaves from Stearns. Tickets were $20 per person. The leisurely, one-hour cruise heads up the coast and back. Cash bar. Service to your deck chair. Need I say more?
By the way, be sure not to miss the gorgeous Mission Santa Barbara. The $9 admission ticket for adults will give you access to the old church, cemetery, museum and gardens.
Do not leave town without hitting up McConnell's Fine Ice Cream downtown Santa Barbara location. Go for the double peanut butter chip. If you can't tell already, we're peanut butter fans. By the way, I just found out that McConnell's is sold at Whole Foods in the Bay Area. Sounds like I can bring my sugar fix home.
So there you have it. A great weekend trip down the coast. Have fun!