Welcome to One Far Place, a Road Trip Week special where Eater LA takes a look at one out-of-the-way restaurant that is more than worth the drive. Today’s travel journey ends in Arroyo Grande at Ember, a wood-fired coastal masterpiece.
The name Ember really does say it all. Holding firm along the lowlands that ride the California seaside from Santa Barbara to Big Sur, this smallish, open Central Coast restaurant is a bit of wood-fired majesty, a warm, glowing nugget of an idea from chef/owner Brian Collins. But with time and room to breathe, Ember has roared into its own kind of hidden life in sleepy Arroyo Grande.
Collins is a local kid, the kind who grew up in the sand and trekked into San Luis Obispo proper for anything he couldn’t get in Arroyo Grande. Tourists may know nearby Pismo Beach (the hotels certainly reflect their cashflow) or, further up the coast, the moodiness of Cambria and Morro Bay, but nobody but locals talk about Arroyo Grande. But Collins always had the small, glowing notion to return to his hometown — following a six year stint at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, of all places — and open something for himself, for his community. Now Ember is that fire.
Now more than three years in, the restaurant still doesn’t take reservations, and is still filled to capacity most nights of the week. The corner bar keeps pace with the local drinkers, while families and friends who have stumbled in occupy the surrounding tables to the right and further back, up a step or two. The patio is a summertime hit, though it can get surprisingly chilly when the marine layer rolls in.
As for the kitchen, there almost isn’t any. Sure, one wall of the open space holds a collection of cooks operating the wood-fired oven or finishing station under Collins (though, often, it’s Collins himself doing the yeoman’s work), but there’s no sneeze-guard separation here. This is one big room, one big family; Ember just happens to be cooking dinner.
With almost nowhere to hide, the restaurant’s little details matter. There’s the bread made on site, the avocados from Righetti Ranch down the way in Santa Maria, the lamb chorizo made from animals stocked at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles. The restaurant opens at 4 p.m. for families, but only Wednesday through Sunday so Collins can be at home with his own every once in a while. It all adds up.
The menu skews Mediterranean with dishes like Spanish octopus and baked goat cheese, but isn’t truly beholden to anyone except Collins, anywhere except Arroyo Grande. The abalone dish on this month’s menu comes from nearby Cayucos, while the fried quail is decidedly Southern. All of it is wrapped in that here and now sensibility that Chez Panisse is so famous for, but with a price point that almost never crosses the $30 threshold.
So how does a man with a Chez Panisse resume manage to return home and actually make good on his personal promise to bring a restaurant like Ember to the friends and families and neighbors he’s known since birth? How does Collins manage to still be at the open kitchen line, three years in, night after night, stretching dough for quickfire pizzas or finishing off one of the best steaks anywhere on the Central Coast — all with a smile on his bearded face still? How does a city with a population of 18,000 support a restaurant like this (where they meticulously catalogue every new monthly menu they’ve ever had) night after night, with seemingly no chance of slowing down? It starts with a small fire in heart, and grows from there.
1200 E. Grand Ave.
Arroyo Grande, CA