- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MAGICIANS : Sample the genius of these great chefs, at bargain prices: from left to right, Jose Garcia (Cliffs); Anthony Reeves (Inn at Morro Bay); Stephen Walls (Apple Farm); Gregg Wangard (Cliffs); David McWilliam (Gardens at Avila); Trevor Lynch (SeaVenture).
time of year for foodies and wine connoisseurs. It’s “The 3rd Annual SLO County Restaurant Month,” a special time when our finest restaurants offer three-course meals at value-prices. Created by the SLO County Visitors & Conference Bureau (SLOVCB), it was designed to appeal to tourists and will pay off in great dining experiences for locals.
The first day of the event is Jan. 2, when 30 restaurants will begin offering three-course menus for $30 for 30 days. Moreover, most will offer special deals on fabulous local wines. It’s like “Restaurant Week” in New York and San Francisco without the limited time constraint. The month-long event allows locals to spend more time exploring restaurants in cities beyond their hometown.
“With this event going on county-wide, it gets people who don’t dine out on a regular basis to drive out here for dinner,” said chef Jensen Lorenzen of the upscale Cass House Restaurant in Cayucos. Lorenzen’s French Laundry-style menu draws raves. Last year, when Restaurant Month concluded, he continued offering the three-course meal for $35 but limited it to Monday nights. Because of that, he admitted, he still hadn’t decided which weeknights to offer the three-course menu during this year’s event, but he will participate: “It’s really fun and gives us a chance to prepare a special menu that’s more casual and rustic in style than what we usually do,” Lorenzen explained. “I’m a sucker for house-made pasta and love a big bowl of fettuccini alla carbonara. We may offer that and dishes like chicken confit.”
During the January 2009 event, when the nation’s economic woes had most Americans afraid to buy anything but necessities, some local restaurants saw a substantial increase in business. Six new restaurants joined in; now there are 34 restaurants to choose from in January 2010. Not only that, many of our wineries want in on the fun, so they’re partnering with the restaurants to offer their outstanding wines at bargain prices, too.
Although her restaurant usually struggled during January, Restaurant Month drove business up 20 percent at the Black Cat Bistro in Cambria, said owner/chef Deborah Scarborough. “People are already calling, making their reservations early for Restaurant Month,” she noted, and that’s a good idea when dining at smaller restaurants such as hers. “I’m grateful this started or we’d be really slow. And I love that it’s a month; a week is too brief with this county so spread out.” Pointing out how important this event is, Scarborough said it keeps the restaurants viable through tough economic times. Her entrée special of braised short ribs with potato puree, heirloom carrots, and braise jus won’t be offered on the regular menu during January.
The Central Coast Boutique Hotel Collection includes five SLO County resorts, each with an excellent restaurant. They’ve got a unique take on the three-course dinner this January. Their Restaurant Month menu will change every ten days, but each hotel will offer a menu with dishes created by all five chefs. They also offer a choice in the appetizer, entrée, and dessert selection, which most restaurants don’t provide. “This project was a collaborative effort among us that began in September. We discussed the ideas, started cooking in November, and had a grand tasting for the staff in December,” explained the CC Boutique Hotels Chief Operating Officer, Mike Casola. “Everyone voted for their favorite dishes, and then we refined them further.”
I recently tasted several of the chefs’ dishes and all were impressive: chef Anthony Reeves of Orchid at the Inn at Morro Bay made his mother’s roasted butternut squash bisque (I never liked butternut squash soups until I tasted his version); chef Gregg Wangard of the Cliffs cooked fresh black cod (from Tognazzini’s in Morro Bay); chef David McWilliam of Sycamore Mineral Springs prepared six-hour roasted lamb ribs grilled and served with house-made ketchup; chef Treaver Lynch of Sea Venture pan-roasted flat-iron steak with bourbon-whiskey mushroom gravy; and chef Stephen Walls from Apple Farm presented a delicious classic carrot cake. During Restaurant Month these restaurants will offer a total of 18 different dishes from their expert chefs. “The menus will rotate so the restaurants aren’t all offering the same menu,” Casola concluded.
Visit SLOVCB’s website for phone numbers, directions, and most importantly for advance notice of restrictions at some participating restaurants, which may limit the $30 menu to certain weekdays or times. If you visit a participating restaurant and find you don’t like the choice du jour, you can order from the regular menu. My husband Dan usually orders the prix fixe menu and I choose from the normal menu, then we share everything. It was quite fun reading the individual menus on SLOVCB’s website, and I hungered for the ones I was eager to try.
“It’s only our third year and this event has really made a name for itself,” said Carrie Head, Community Relations Manager for the SLOVCB. “It’s nice that everyone knows about it. It’s great for the community and a serene time for going out after the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. You get to dine out and experience great food and local wines and pay a lot less for it.”
You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at email@example.com.