California’s Central Coast, a massive stretch that spans from Ventura to Monterey, contains an abundance of seafood, Santa Maria-style BBQ, and seasonal, wood-fired cooking. This region is also a bastion for bread products. Sadly, the Big Sur landslide and Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge closure have decimated restaurants like Big Sur Bakery, which hopefully will rebound as Pacific Coast Highway access returns. In the meantime, learn about eight of the Central Coast’s best, accessible dining options, listed in alphabetical order.
Bell Street Farm
Jamie Gluck presides over Bell Street Farm, a charming Los Alamos café and market loaded with chicken imagery and a big back patio with picnic tables. The business is popular with wine country tourists and servicemen from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. Customers regularly raid the salad case and pastry pedestals for items like smashed potatoes with pancetta, cannelloni beans folded with Parmesan cubes and onions, and almond croissants. The rotisserie oven produces some of the best chicken and pork in the area.
Their porchetta features crispy belly-wrapped shoulder on a plate or sandwich. Gluck also takes sandwiches seriously, as evidenced by the slab of crusty San Julian grass-fed beef and pork meatloaf with house-made tomato-harissa jam, mayo, and arugula on ciabatta. Since this is wine country, wine and cheese are in long supply. The third Saturday of each month, Bell Street Farm also hosts a four-course, family-style dinner. 406 Bell St., Los Alamos, 805.344.4609, www.bellstreetfarm.com
Ember is by far the biggest draw in the tiny town of Arroyo Grande. Chef-owner Brian Collins, who previously cooked for Full of Life Flatbread, is going full-tilt with wood-fire in this packed restaurant with an open kitchen that houses a hearth and aqua- and white-tiled oven that spit red oak flames. Ember is one of the best places to get a wood-fired steak in California.
Their smoky rib-eye comes with caramelized bracero-roasted potatoes, garlic confit, avocado chimichurri and broccolini. Vegetables also get plenty of attention, and they even bake focaccia and country sourdough in-house. One may even find Cayucos abalone sourced from the coastal town, plated with great seasonal ingredients. Ember also serves local cider and some excellent craft beer. 1200 E. Grand Ave., Arroyo Grande, 805.474.7700, www.emberwoodfire.com
Far Western Tavern
Santa Maria-style BBQ, featuring meats meticulously grilled over red oak, has plenty of restaurants with passionate supporters. Far Western Tavern started in nearby Guadalupe in 1958 and the Minetti family relocated to Orcutt in 2012. Their famous wood bar backed by steer horns, taxidermied deer and ram heads made the move. So did classic cuts like cowboy sirloin and a boneless ribeye that goes by bull’s eye, which all come with grilled garlic bread, pinquito beans, and salsa.
Far Western Tavern is so old school that they count tri-tip as “contemporary.” At lunch, their amazing steak sandwich combines tenderized top round and garlic bread. For brunch, they serve one of the best plates of steak and eggs possible, which comes with a buttermilk biscuit, seasonal muffin, and preserves. No matter the meal, oak-grilled sweetbreads with salsa are a great addition. 300 E. Clark Ave., Orcutt, 805.937.2211, www.farwesterntavern.com
Full of Life Flatbread
Former music exec Clark Staub helped to transform the Los Alamos restaurant scene by opening Full of Life Flatbread in 2004. His beautiful clay and stone oven still feasts on red and white oak and a steady diet of local, organic, and sustainable ingredients. Staub calls pizza flatbreads since he’s not Italian, but these pies rate with California’s best, including dynamic dough that experiences a 36-hour rise.
The menu changes weekly and goes way deeper than pizza. Depending on the meal, find hearth-braised rabbit stew with black pepper dumplings, walnut-crusted abalone with coal-roasted eggplant, or onion-smoked barley, winter vegetable, and chicory salad. Full of Life Flatbread is big on transparency, with nearly every ingredient listed on the menu. 225 Bell St., Los Alamos, 805.344.4400, www.fulloflifefoods.com
Characters on “Silicon Valley” use the See Food app to break the world down into two categories: “Hot Dog” or “Not Hot Dog.” At Industrial Eats, on Buellton’s Industrial Way, Jeff Olsson and wife Janet divide their menu into “Pizza” or “Not Pizza.” A giant cow statue and cartoon food mural greet diners at this airy butcher shop and café. Twin ovens burn red oak, and not just for pizza, though definitely pick up at least one crisp crusted pie. Toppings range from basic Margherita to braised wild boar with picholine olives, goat cheese, lemon, tomato, and rosemary.
Vegetable dishes also get a lot of love, including little gems with briny boquerones, a crispy pancetta pinwheel, soft egg, and vinaigrette. The best meats and seafoods available find their way to the butcher case, possibly including Morro Bay oysters, duck, and aged New York steak. Any protein is available to eat on-site for a $10 fee. Perhaps a grain-fed veal tomahawk chop? 181 Industrial Way, Buellton, 805.688.8807, www.industrialeats.com
Sides Hardware and Shoes – A Brothers Restaurant
Matt Nichols and brother Jeff also run Brothers Restaurant at the Red Barn in Santa Ynez, and while the retooled dance hall serves substantial American comfort food, their sister restaurant is just more fun. Sides Hardware and Shoes occupies a Los Olivos building that housed the namesake combo until 1970. Now the sign sports a logo of a pig holding a hammer in one hoof, cleaver in the other.
That playfulness extends to the plate, including many pork preparations. Bacon “steak” is cured, roasted, applewood smoked, maple glazed, and cut a half-inch thick. Braised pork cheeks are a destination in winter, and if lucky, they may even have house-made porchetta di testa. Fried chicken (in and out of sandwiches) and seasonal soups are also worth seeking. 2375 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos, 805.688.4820, www.sidesrestaurant.com
SLO Donut Company
What could be better for a road weary traveler or Cal Poly student cramming for finals than a quality 24/7 donut and coffee bar? This welcoming strip mall destination has been open since 2010. Their deep roster includes a crumb-lined raised donut, chocolate raised rings, and pillows filled with sweet azuki beans and studded with black sesame seeds. Get craggy old-fashioned classics, French crullers, devil’s food cakes, and twists.
Simultaneously, SloDoCo has become increasingly on-trend, adding a “galaxy” donut with an explosion of colors, and a piña colada donut complete with piña colada frosting, toasted coconut, and a tiki umbrella. Regardless, these are quality donuts. The owners are also apparently good people, donating money from the sale of designated donuts to organizations like Woods Humane Society. 793F Foothill Blvd., San Luis Obispo, 805.782.9766, www.slodoco.com
Dwyne Willis and Steve Bland debuted SLO Provisions in 2015, building their operation around a custom rotisserie oven, prepared food case, and pastry counter. Seating’s limited, so most people grab and go. For breakfast, they serve different egg, meat, and cheese sandwiches, plus “cake for breakfast.” Rotisserie chicken and vegetables are the main attraction, but they also serve a hot sandwich of the day. During one visit, that meant delectable rotisserie leg of lamb with Italian salsa verde, lemon herb aioli, smoked mozzarella and arugula on toasted sourdough. Soup also rotates seasonally. Depending on the day, one might find creamy chicken and fennel in the pot, or possibly carrot ginger. 1255 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, 805.439.4298, www.sloprovisions.com