Our county was opening up. We had a good, solid month there. As Mary Poppins would say, things were on their way to becoming "practically perfect in every way."
Chefs were increasing their orders for food. Waiters and bartenders and tasting room staff were hired back after months of unemployment. Musicians dusted off their strings and brass and made debuts at local eateries. Some children and their parents were let out of their time-outs. And as long as diners followed the rules laid out on the signage, people were able to sit at tables in places other than their own kitchens.
And then, effective July 13, our food and wine establishments were ordered closed. Sigh.
- Photos By Beth Giuffre
- PICNICS RESERVED Paso's Downtown City Park dining is free from Thursday to Sunday evenings, but you have to make reservations to nab a table.
Look at other places in the state, and you'll find little to no life, and yet, the good people of Paso have made a to-go dining area in their central park: the Downtown Park Safe Dining Area. Located across from the playground on the Spring Street side, it's manned by a concierge, who will guide you to your own sanitized table where you can bring your takeout, wine, beer, and/or cocktails from one of Paso's many open restaurants.
Recently I popped into a downtown Paso spot that I've been wanting to try for two years—Jeffry's Wine Country BBQ—and took my to-go to the park. People are loving the pretty lights and the European vibe.
But others are grateful that many Paso restaurants are designed around an outdoor space already. At Jeffry's, you will probably see chef Jeff Wiesinger himself, and he will most likely be involved in making your food. The entrance to Jeffry's is in Norma's Way Alley—kind of a speakeasy vibe, entering through the side street.
Once you're in, you're still out. What I mean is, Jeffry's has always been an open-air establishment. It was almost perfectly designed for the time of COVID-19 with an open, covered patio, a fresh breeze, the scent of smoked meat wafting through the air around widespread tables, and a walk-up counter. Both young and old were there the weekday I came by for my to-go adventure, and the place was hopping with people coming and staying in a constant flow.
Like so many of the downtown food joints, Jeffry's makes it less about the pandemic and more about getting back to living. They follow the rules, but you don't feel like you're going to do something wrong, if you know what I mean.
I ordered Jeffry's upscaled classic pulled pork sandwich with the Mac & Cheese Festival-winning four-cheese noodle side, and a "low and slow" smoked tri-tip sandwich in a house rub with a sesame ginger slaw. After talking with Wiesinger about how much my car full of young teenagers was going to love the flavor coming out of his smokers, I ended up with another couple of boxes of sandwiches, including the chicken sandwich on a fresh toasted brioche bun with delicious sides.
- Photos By Beth Giuffre
- BARBECUE MAN Chef, sommelier, and Jeffry's Wine Country BBQ owner Jeff Wiesinger stands by his smokers on the patio at Jeffry's in Paso Robles.
Lately, Jeffry's BBQ sampler plates have been the talk of the town, but his paella is also an award-winning local legend. He even makes a paella burrito, which I have never heard of in my life until now. The house-made barbecue sauce is nothing short of dynamite, and the fries and potato chips are deliciously made from scratch and seasoned to perfection.
"Dining outside is the only option these days," said Wiesinger, owner and executive chef (and sommelier), "and I'll tell you what? I say a lot of prayers ... keeping the energy positive."
Wiesinger's sides make me stay positive.
"This is the house that mac and cheese built," he told me.
For the first three weeks of COVID-19, he said he sheltered at home like the rest of us.
"We bob and weave through what life throws at you," he said.
He kept in touch with his customers and loved ones through making videos and social media.
"That was huge for us," he said, adding that the community gave him a lot of support as he transitioned to to-go service only. "Like everybody, we were struggling, but we were struggling a lot less than some other places, I would imagine."
Wiesinger lives in Templeton and is a stepdad to two grown daughters, one who just graduated from Cuesta College and another who attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. Both occasionally work at Jeffry's. He said the silver lining of COVID-19 was deciding to spend more time with his family by closing the restaurant two days a week.
Originally from Thousand Oaks, Wiesinger began his culinary and food service education at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. A snowboarder at the time, he worked as a chef in fabulous restaurants in ski resort towns and then went on to Restaurant Lulu in San Francisco.
- Photos By Beth Giuffre
- ON CUE I ordered my Jeffry's Wine Country BBQ sandwiches to-go to eat, picnic style, in the Downtown City Park. The tri-tip and chicken sandwiches were served on fresh, toasted brioche, served with mac and cheese and sesame ginger slaw sides.
In 2011, he moved to Paso, taking a general manager position at Vinoteca Wine Bar. He started his own personal chef and catering services in 2007, and people might know him from having a kitchen at Grey Wolf Cellars & Barton Family Wines. His catering/food window, Barton's Kitchen Window, pumped out some really fine food and signature items that got so popular, he still serves them now.
He opened Jeffry's Wine Country BBQ about two years ago, when a space (a former parking lot, actually) became available, which he simply couldn't pass up.
"I was a chef before I was a restaurateur, so for me it's always been about the food," he said, adding he always wanted a casual, chef-driven place.
He likes that his place has been popular with tourists and locals, families and couples, and he likes to get involved in local charity events. Recently he helped with a fundraiser for SLO County Sheriff's Deputy Nicholas Dreyfus, injured in the recent Paso shooting.
Wiesinger was on the call for a special City Council meeting on July 15 to weigh in on opening up the street for dine-in. Paso Mayor Steve Martin had been checking in with business owners like Wiesinger to brainstorm ideas on how to keep the restaurants open. Wiesinger said he was glad to be included.
City Council directed staff to continue working with downtown stakeholders and other local businesses to immediately implement a downtown street closure pilot program, directing staff to pursue half-street or one-way street closures with safety barriers, and to defer permit fees. This will remain in effect until 30 days after the state closure is lifted. The sidewalk dining permits should be available as soon as possible. Δ
Flavor writer Beth Giuffre is ready for another picnic in the park. Send food ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.