When I first visited Talley Vineyard's old Adobe tasting room in 1996, while conversing with the friendly staff, I said I'd relocated here from San Francisco, prompting one woman to say, "You must be depressed about leaving San Francisco."
"No," I had to laugh at her assumption I was suffering from withdrawal. "Not yet anyway." After 10 years in the city, studying at the California Culinary Academy, cooking for famed Chef Wolfgang Puck at Postrio Restaurant, and becoming tasting coordinator for Wine Spectator magazine, I left it all behind to move here with my husband Dan Hardesty, an engineer at Diablo Canyon. But San Francisco didn't seem far away, despite the four-hour drive.
Over the past nine years, we've returned frequently, especially in summer, to catch the Giants games. Before every visit, I search the Internet for the latest restaurant openings so I can make early reservations. I continue to be an avid follower of my favorite food city's dining scene. That said, I admit I was disappointed in SLO County's. I would stop at a locally owned coffee shop and find even the "homemade" muffins were nuked to the chewy density of week-old bread, and the coffee strictly industrial grade.
A visit to a highly recommended Italian restaurant in San Luis Obispo subjected us to a "sommelier" who couldn't come close to pronouncing her self-imposed title. When I asked her to recommend a Chianti around $35, she said, "Oh, you don't want Chianti, it's a blend." Sardonically, I thought, so is Opus One, but held my tongue.
"I recommend this Gaja (pronouncing the popular Italian Barbaresco Gaj-ya, correctly pronounced Guy-Ah)." Yeah, she hoped I'd buy her suggestion for the most expensive wine on the list at $250 a bottle. And even local taquerias served refried beans that tasted straight from the can.
Happily we gradually found talent in local kitchens through local experts. One of the first to befriend me was Archie McLaren, who recommended Chef Michael Albright at Gardens of Avila (now at Steamers of Pismo). His food was so good we became regulars, but the day we dined when Albright was off the food was damn near unacceptable. I called to inform him and he straightforwardly told me it was difficult to find skilled cooks.
"We don't have the interns from culinary schools you had in San Francisco," Albright sniffed. "If it's the chef's night off, stay home."
Unfortunately, that statement was true of too many restaurants in the county. Admittedly, I was spoiled. Living in the heart of San Francisco, Polk and Broadway, meant a half-block walk to Real Foods for Acme Bread's signature pain levain baked that morning, and an array of pristine organic fruits and vegetables. Across the street Auntie Pasta's sold a rainbow of fresh pastas made from egg, beet, or spinach. Peet's Coffee was on the same block, selling impeccably fresh roasted beans. We dined in the best restaurants, haute cuisine or sidewalk cafÃ©s, four times or more a week. I could tell you where to find the best Mission Street taqueria or French croissants. Still, believe it or not, I was never depressed about leaving San Francisco.
San Luis Obispo is a beautiful region filled with down-to-earth people who made me feel at home the first day I moved here. I was befriended by many just as passionate about food and wine as I: McLaren, who's devoted his life to promoting the Central Coast wine and food scene. Brian and Johnine Talley, who promote all Central Coast wineries by capturing the attention of national publications like Wine Spectator. Jim Adelman, general manager at Au Bon Climat and QupÃ© winery for 14 years, who introduced me to passionate winemakers like Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist (respectively), Gary Burk of Costa du Oro, and Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini of Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post wines.
In 1998, I was thrilled when Chef Laurent Grangien from Paris, France, opened Bistro Laurent, and many chefs have followed. But the self-effacing Grangien maintains his popularity no matter how much competition opens around him. He says the key to his success is being as consistent as possible; and stick with a menu of quality foods that are good, if not better, every day. Once a sleepy little town, Paso Robles is now a destination for connoisseurs indulging in fine food with Paso's gutsy red wines. The late '90s brought Rex Hale of Pastore's and Frank Mendoza of 7 Hands on Higuera, who impressed local foodies with their gourmet specialties in restaurants south of the Grade. Unfortunately, the latter two failed (for very different reasons), but they proved SLO County is attracting some very talented chefs who want to be as integral to the region as is Tablas Creek and Talley Vineyards.
In fact, the credit for our region's popularity with food and wine connoisseurs goes to the wineries that have proven Central Coast wines stand beside the world's best. Ten years ago, Paso Robles, Edna Valley, and Arroyo Grande Valley had a handful of wineries; now over 100 thrive in Paso Robles alone. In 1998, Cal Poly Professor Keith Patterson, who teaches introduction to viticulture, invited me to address the Vines to Wines Club, consisting of about two-dozen students. Today, the group totals 150 members. This year, Patterson's introduction class immediately filled with future winemakers from Napa and Sonoma, who previously would've attended Fresno State. Cal Poly will soon stand on the pedestal with UC Davis as a training ground for the finest winemakers in the country.
What's happened in San Luis Obispo County over the past decade is amazing, and I'm proud to be part of it. Restaurants run by fervent chefs are no longer rare or hard to find. We have a wealth of locally produced foods like Abalone and sustainably grown foods including cheese, meats, and wine. We're attracting more great chefs and artisanal producers who want to be part of the SLO food scene. Artisanal wineries are opening collaborative tasting rooms in Paso and the SLO Vintners Association's "Taste," featuring all of their members in one tasting room, opens in August. There's no reason the small towns in our community can't offer the finest quality foods and wines in every neighborhood, just like San Francisco. Â³
Send Kathy news of all your tasty discoveries at Kathy@westcoastwineinsider.com.