Fave Five Places to Eat in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Making the drive up — or down — the California coast has never been tastier

By: By Vy-Vy Dang-Tran

If you’re looking for a quick bite to gulp down behind the wheel, this article is not for you. Fast food drive-thrus have been banned from San Luis Obispo (SLO), Calif., since the early 1980s. Although the city council originally implemented the prohibition to cut down on littering and air pollution, saying good-bye to this coveted grab-and-go system has opened up amazing (and yummy) opportunities for the city’s renowned cuisine scene.

It’s easy to forget all the small-time pleasures that a drive up or down the California coast has to offer but trust me — taking the time for some culinary adventure along this refreshing piece of Central Coast won’t disappoint. The Central Coast is also home to such famed attractions as Hearst Castle and the exquisite vineyards of Paso Robles. I’ve returned to SLO more times than I can remember now and, since that first summer road trip, the city has grown quite close to my heart — not to mention my stomach.

Firestone Grill
If SLO is the home of the tri-tip, Firestone Grill is its flagship. You can always expect a rambunctious crowd of hungry meat-lovers at this downtown hub. Although popular for its famous tri-tip sandwich, its menu also offers a wide variety of vegetarian options, such as garden burgers and, my personal favorite, the Firestone salad, a refreshing mix of lettuce, tomato, carrots, pine nuts, feta cheese and vinaigrette dressing to complement those thick slices of barbecued beef. Whatever you do, don’t forget to order a huge basket of seasoned fries for the table — it’ll run you about $5 and, trust me, it’s worth it. Note: It can be difficult to find a seat inside, especially during peak dining hours or big televised sporting events, but there’s a large seating area in front, outfitted with tables, umbrellas and an outdoor fireplace — perfect for a relaxing meal.

Big Sky Cafe

A meal at Big Sky Cafe // (c) 2010 Vy Vy Tran

A meal at Big Sky Cafe //
(c) 2010 Vy-Vy Dang-Tran

Big Sky Cafe is, by far, my favorite place to eat in SLO. Its colorful, outdoor-inspired design — which features decorative art by local artists — creates the perfect ambience for any meal. The restaurant specializes in produce from local farms, including everything from organic fruits and vegetables to farmstead cheeses, oils and vinegars. Wine-lovers can enjoy premium Central Coast selections from the restaurant’s hardwood bar. For a quintessential breakfast experience, I suggest ordering the famous Devil’s Mess omelet with French beignets and a cup of fresh fruit.

The Shack Sports Bar & Grill
Clients can kick back at this laid-back establishment for some mouth-watering burgers and a heavy dose of the American sports scene. This small restaurant creates its relaxed atmosphere with tables plastered with vintage baseball cards and walls covered by jerseys signed by both famous and local athletes. For a fun dining activity, the staff encourages competitive fans to throw the complimentary peanuts into beer mugs hung all about the ceiling. A Shack burger comes with some kick-ass curly fries (or garlic fries, for the brave and dateless) and a variety of additions such as my personal favorites, avocado and mushroom. But every burger has one thing in common — they are gigantic (and that’s not even to mention the Monster Burger). So, come hungry and be sure to arrive early if you’re looking for a seat to watch the big game.

San Luis Obispo County Farmers’ Market
Every Thursday night from 6 to 9 p.m., more than 100 vendors come together in downtown SLO for a longstanding event filled with delicious meats and treats, California-grown produce, fresh flowers and live music. Higuera Street is closed off, welcoming a large crowd of eco-friendly college students and local families — it’s the perfect atmosphere of fast-paced and casual outdoor dining. The popular theme among vendors is, predictably, the beloved barbecue, as evidenced by F.McClintock’s Saloon & Dining House’s always-crowded line and the countless other grilling tables that line the sidewalks. Also, don’t forget to grab a couple containers of fresh hummus and pita bread — I’m getting cravings just writing about it.

Babbo’s Pizza

Giant pizza box at Babbo's // (c) 2010 Vy Vy Tran

Giant pizza box at Babbo's //
(c) 2010 Vy-Vy Dang-Tran

Although SLO boasts a number of outstanding pizzerias, nothing compares to Babbo’s’ famous 28-inch Giant Pizza — great for large parties or extremely hungry travelers. Gutsy customers can take on the Giant Pizza Challenge: Finish a whole Giant Pizza in one sitting between you and a friend to win major bragging rights and immortalization with a photo on the Challenge wall. Babbo’s crust is the perfect combination of thick and thin, with plenty of topping options. You can enjoy a more-than-generous slice and wash it down with a refreshing soda for about $5. Note: This mom-and-pop joint is hidden behind a gas station, but don’t let that scare you — it’s absolutely the most underrated pizzeria in town.


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