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Come hell or Highwater: New SLO restaurant delivers liquid and culinary creations inspired by rock legends

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"Crafting a cocktail menu is like creating the ideal playlist," according to Robin Wolf, a master mixologist, Cicerone-certified beer server, and level-two Court of Masters sommelier.

The menu needs to create "a perfect blend of moods and moments—both adventurous and familiar—that will keep your guests guessing and coming back for more," she said.

Wolf and her husband, Matthew Hanson, are the co-founders and creative force behind Highwater, which recently opened in Sidecar's former location at 1127 Broad St. in downtown San Luis Obispo.

THE CONDUCTORS From left, executive chef Nick DeShon, and co-owners Robin Wolf and Matthew Hanson helm the Highwater ensemble. - COURTESY PHOTO BY KENDRA ARONSON
  • Courtesy Photo By Kendra Aronson
  • THE CONDUCTORS From left, executive chef Nick DeShon, and co-owners Robin Wolf and Matthew Hanson helm the Highwater ensemble.

The couple, who currently reside in the "SoHi district" of SLO (South Higuera at High Street), according to Wolf, are familiar faces on the Central Coast. Their recent stints at Paso Robles establishments Hatch Rotisserie and Fish Gaucho, respectively, cemented their status as local cocktail czars.

'HOT TRAMP, I LOVE YOU SO' The David Bowie-inspired Rebel Rebel cocktail at Highwater features habanero tequila, agave, hot pickled pineapple, and black lava salt. The Island in the Sun nod to Weezer, meanwhile, refreshes with rum, cinnamon, ginger, and coconut cream. - PHOTO BY CHERISH WHYTE
  • Photo By Cherish Whyte
  • 'HOT TRAMP, I LOVE YOU SO' The David Bowie-inspired Rebel Rebel cocktail at Highwater features habanero tequila, agave, hot pickled pineapple, and black lava salt. The Island in the Sun nod to Weezer, meanwhile, refreshes with rum, cinnamon, ginger, and coconut cream.

In fact, that was exactly Wolf's title at Hatch, where she managed the bar, racked up prestigious mixology awards, and even ran her own consulting and bitters-production company. Her SLO Bitter Co. flavors, which she calls "the spice rack of mixology," are used in bars from the West Coast to New York.

Her new role as restaurant proprietor means her licensing for SLO Bitter Co. is up for grabs while she devotes all her artistic energy to her new establishment, which celebrated its grand opening in February. Wolf deftly oversees the front of the house as bar and culture director, while Hanson serves as operations and general manager, and music mogul—cranking out well-known tunes, with live performances in the works.

Walking through the front doors of Highwater is a blast through rock's past, with portraits of legends adorning the walls.

"We love [the murals]," Wolf said. "And we love the conversation they create among guests. I knew from the beginning that our aesthetic would include mural work. I come from a big theater family, and my dad did a lot of set design when I was growing up, so I learned out of necessity.

'I WANT YOU TO WANT ME' Album sleeves, such as Cheap Trick's 1978 live recording At Budokan—which went triple platinum—showcase the menu at Highwater in downtown SLO. - PHOTO BY CHERISH WHYTE
  • Photo By Cherish Whyte
  • 'I WANT YOU TO WANT ME' Album sleeves, such as Cheap Trick's 1978 live recording At Budokan—which went triple platinum—showcase the menu at Highwater in downtown SLO.

"I'm by no means a visual artist, but I'm great at 'making things happen,' and with a tight budget, necessity becomes the mother of invention," she added. "I personally spent many late nights in the space working on the wall murals. Local artist Ian Myers did the three largest murals ... but the ones in the dining room are all me.

"The record-sleeve menus and the vintage glassware and punch bowls are a nod to the belief Matt and I have in repurposing items that still have so much magic in them. It's better for the planet, supports our local economy—so much thrifting!—and at the end of the day, it's pretty cool too."

From menu to music development, art is the driving force behind Highwater, as well as the enduring spark between Wolf and Hanson.

SYMPHONY OF FLAVORS Clockwise from top left, shareable plates at Highwater include duck confit lasagna; assorted radishes jazzed up with butter, curry, banyuls, and sorrel; and classic fondue, accompanied by grilled vegetables, pretzel bites, sourdough bread, and linguiça. - COURTESY PHOTO BY KENDRA ARONSON
  • Courtesy Photo By Kendra Aronson
  • SYMPHONY OF FLAVORS Clockwise from top left, shareable plates at Highwater include duck confit lasagna; assorted radishes jazzed up with butter, curry, banyuls, and sorrel; and classic fondue, accompanied by grilled vegetables, pretzel bites, sourdough bread, and linguiça.

Wolf, a Central Coast native, and Hanson, a transplant from Chicago, worked their way up through the local culinary scene at numerous establishments while also earning arts degrees. Wolf attended Pacific Conservatory Theatre (PCPA) in Santa Maria, and Hanson studied music at Cal Poly.

In 2003, the couple relocated to New York City to pursue acting careers, Wolf at The Public Theater, and Hanson at Atlantic Theater Company. They also simultaneously fine-tuned their culinary skills and began reevaluating their long-term goals.

"Our time in NYC—roughly a decade—was spent working everywhere from the diviest of dive bars, to James Beard restaurants," Wolf said.

Hanson was the opening manager at renowned chef Seamus Mullen's Tertulia, a James Beard Foundation Award finalist for best new restaurant of 2011. Wolf worked as press director for the Tribeca Film Festival and logistics organizer for The Public Theater's international festival, and also designed cocktails for New York Fashion Week.

The couple returned to SLO in 2011 and continued to rack up culinary accolades.

Wolf holds multiple national and international titles in competitive mixology, "the highlight being winning the Tales of the Cocktail 2019 Official International Cocktail Competition," Wolf said.

Tales of the Cocktail is the world's largest drinks convention held annually in New Orleans.

During Hanson's tenure as general manager and bar director at Fish Gaucho, the restaurant garnered numerous awards for its cocktail menu, several of which contain SLO Bitter Co. flavors.

While Wolf says Highwater's rotating cocktail menu is meticulously crafted "utilizing seasonal regional produce and infusions," it is first and foremost a dining establishment.

"We are a restaurant with an amazing bar program, not a bar with food," she clarified. "That's an important distinction, and we want to pay executive chef Nick DeShon's incredible menu the respect it deserves."

DeShon, who attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles, has refined his craft at kitchens in New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas.

"In Vegas I worked for Michael Mina, first at a restaurant called Nobhill in the MGM, and then at his namesake restaurant in The Bellagio, which had one Michelin star," DeShon said. "From there, I was able to work my way into the Joel Robuchon kitchen, which is the highest-rated restaurant in Las Vegas. In three years I worked my way up to sous chef."

ENCORE Highwater's nostalgic push-pops aren't your grandmother's variety. The decadent chocolate cremeux flavor features blackberry, coconut, and macadamia nut, while the lemon tart is swirled with raspberry. Guests can take the frozen treats to go. - PHOTO BY CHERISH WHYTE
  • Photo By Cherish Whyte
  • ENCORE Highwater's nostalgic push-pops aren't your grandmother's variety. The decadent chocolate cremeux flavor features blackberry, coconut, and macadamia nut, while the lemon tart is swirled with raspberry. Guests can take the frozen treats to go.

DeShon, originally from Huntington Beach, moved to Paso Robles in 2016 and now resides in Oceano.

"Locally, I helped open the Hatch, and was the chef there for three years," he said. "I also opened Humdinger Brewing [in Arroyo Grande] and most recently consulted on the food programs at Kilokilo Brewing [in Paso] and Pig Iron [in Templeton]."

In the Highwater kitchen, he said, "I like to take techniques I've learned working in fine dining and apply them to more approachable dishes. I also like to work with as many local farmers and producers as possible and keep my menu as seasonal as possible."

DeShon sources ingredients from Paso's Mighty Cap Mushrooms, Etto Pastificio, and Loo Loo Farms, as well as Rutiz Family Farms in Arroyo Grande and Morro Bay Oyster Company, to name a few.

"I don't really like to be tied down to any one style of cuisine," he added. "There are French, American, Mexican, and even Filipino-inspired dishes on the menu currently. I believe we like to call it 'seasonal California comfort food.'" Δ

Flavor Writer Cherish Whyte wishes Highwater a "Whole Lotta Love." Reach her at cwhyte@newtimesslo.com.

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