Although I’ve got my head in the game out here on tour more than Zac Efron (please know what I’m referencing), my mind couldn’t help but wander this week to the place where I met my girlfriend (and some of my other best friends). So, following our two year anniversary I’ve decided to embrace the romance of this matter and write an ode to San Luis Obispo, California. Oprah Winfrey gave SLO its claim to fame by dubbing it the “happiest city in America” in 2011. We can all agree that Oprah is a member of the Illuminati and is all-knowing. So trust her (and me) on this one. If you’re planning a road trip up the west coast, thinking about a weekend getaway, or looking at attending school there, hopefully you’ll find the following list of my SLO favorites to be a helpful guide.
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Fransisco, SLO is an idyllic combination of wide beaches, rolling green pastures, and mountain ranges. Considered to be a classic college town, the culture is quite reflective of the large student body attending California Polytechnic University – aka Cal Poly.
Linnea’s Cafe, Downtown
If you were to only spend 30 minutes in this town, I’d tell you to go to Linnea’s. This coffee shop is, for me, the heart and soul of SLO. During the day, it’s peaceful and quiet. A great spot to read, write, and recharge. The outdoor back patio is covered in green ivy, creating this enchanted secret garden-vibe. There is often live music at night. (If not scheduled, it’s someone giving an impromptu performance on the old weathered piano.) When we were still in school, we’d spend some weekend nights “tea gaming” here with a small group of homies instead of “pre-gaming” before going to the local bars (if we didn’t want to get crazy for a third night in a row…). They also have THE BEST collection of used books and old board games. Grab a cup of their San Francisco Spice tea (and maybe a gluten-free organic pastry if you’re into that?), find a spot at one of the wooden tables, and don’t plan on being anywhere anytime soon.
In a small college town, it’s difficult to get away from that “college-y” feel when you go out to eat. Sidecar manages to break that mold. The atmosphere is a combination of prohibition-era class and progressive California cool, which is reflected in the food too. The menu is concise but by no means limited; everything from vegan “lasagna” to Korean short ribs (ideal if you aren’t sure of your date’s dietary preferences). Classic cocktails made with locally-distilled gins that have a creative flare. The antithesis of all that is Natural Light-drowned frat parties taking place just blocks away…not that cheap beer doesn’t have its place…
The dish to end all dishes here is actually the brussels sprouts found on the appetizer menu. (Think “500 miles” by The Proclaimers.) Since trying these, I have made it one of my personal quests to find the best brussels sprouts out there. After four years of exploration, they are still the reigning champs. I don’t know what kind of sorcery is happening in the kitchen, but when these come out, you will struggle to practice restraint if splitting with someone else. The sprouts are deep fried to crispy perfection yet remain tender inside, piled atop a generous spread of garlic and bleu cheese aioli, drizzled with a balsamic reduction and finished with fresh thyme and more bleu cheese. Dreaming of the day I can order a plate of these off Amazon Prime.
I would be remiss to not mention a SLO tradition: The Tri-Tip Challenge. SLO is very well- known for great hiking and Santa Maria style tri-tip. So they have been artfully combined into one competition. Hike Bishops Peak, the Cal Poly “P”, and Madonna Mountain – three hikes, putting the “tri” in tri-tip. Then, head over to Firestone Grill and treatchoself to their legendary tri-tip sandwich. There really is nothing quite like the victorious, carnivorous experience of chowing down on one of these after hiking all day long. Make sure to get extra barbecue sauce to dredge your sandwich and dip your fries. Mmm mm lip-smackin’ Americana meaty goodness.
If you’re looking for a less intense outdoor activity & food combo, I’d advise you opt for a beach day and make a pitstop at Kravabowl, located steps away from the Avila Beach boardwalk. Acai bowls have yet to start trending on the east coast, but on the west coast they’ve gained popularity as fast as Trump has lost it. Even if you aren’t a believer in the unique healing powers of ingredients like bee pollen, gogi berries, and acai berries, Kravabowl will convert you solely based off taste. I’d recommend the “Islanders Delight” – a blend of acai, mango, pineapple, banana, and orange juice, topped with sliced bananas, strawberries, kiwi, pineapple, granola & honey.
Central coast beaches are unlike anywhere else. The water is f*cking cold, but man are they beautiful. While Avila Beach is busier with a boardwalk and little shops, Shell Beach is just down the road and a much more unkept, secluded spot. A 15-minute drive north of downtown and you’ll hit my other favorite – Montana De Oro. If you make it up there, combine it with a meal at Noi’s (check the weird hours beforehand and call ahead to make sure they haven’t sold out of the green curry that day!), OR if you’re celebrating a birthday, stop by Sylvester’s for a free burger the size of your head. Not kidding. (Btw, get the Kona or the Mushroom burger with grass-fed beef. You won’t be disappointed.)
Trust me, I am all for the $15 and under section of Trader Joe’s wines. But when you go to school in one of the most renowned wine regions in the U.S., it’s difficult to not gain a higher level of appreciation. I am by no means a sommelier, but can I tell the difference between oak-aged and steel-aged chardonnay? Yes. Am I an elitist wine snob? No. I can also tell the difference between an Ab major and and G# minor. Same concept. Hate on me haters.
Wine tasting is an all around great concept because 1. You get to try 4 to 5 different wines for around $12 per tasting, 2. You’re exposed to fancier wines that are more expensive than you’d likely buy at Trader Joes, 3. It’s one of the few classy reasons to drink during the day, and 4. You can take as long as you want basking in the beautiful weather and taking in the postcard views while thinking to yourself “Ahhh…this is the life.”
My favorite winery in SLO is Talley Vineyards in what is technically termed Edna Valley, a few minutes drive from downtown. They are more likely to make you feel like family here, and share with you tastes of wine you might like even if not on the tasting menu. Pick up their Bishop’s Peak Pinot Noir. At $22 a bottle, this is an absolute steal. Continue down the road and visit the countless other wineries all right next to each other. Or head north about 40 minutes to Paso Robles where the wineries are more known for zinfandels and red blends. Either way, stop by Lincoln Market beforehand and pick up sandwiches (the best in town…their breakfast burrito is spectacular just FYI) so you can picnic at the wineries. Try the “Tassajara Delite” – turkey, bacon, pepper jack, avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion, and honey-jala sauce on sliced sourdough. It hits the spot paired with great wine on a sunshiny day and is the perfect food to help soak up some of those pours.
After a massive storm foiled our plans to go horseback riding on a weekend trip to Big Sur, Michelle and I discovered that there was horseback riding right there in SLO. Along with the drive-in movie theatre, Madonna Inn is one of the iconic features of the town that’s frozen in time. Most people come here to check out the eccentric themed rooms and try a slice of their famous pink champagne cake. We were there to fulfill our old western dreams on horseback.
DT for dancing
Finally, what wholesome college town would be complete without a nightlife that could best be summed up by the lyrics of Trey Songz’s “2 Reasons (feat. T.I.)“? Tuesday is “Pint Night” when college kids hop from bar to bar carrying their own pint glasses and retrieving $2-3 pours of beer. (Leave your Tevas at home and watch your step for broken glass, as drunk students often drop theirs on the sidewalk.) Wednesday is “Tot Night” where groups of two compete to see who can toss/catch the most tater tots in each others mouths. The prize? Bar perks like bottle service, the title of tot champion, and of course, more free tots. Thursday it’s “2 for 1’s” – definitely the most crowded and drunkest night of the week. All mixed drinks are buy one get one free before midnight. And if you’ve still got some party left in you, guess what, it’s Friday! TGIF ya’ll it’s been a long week. So should we go DT?
So my post got a little college-centric towards the end, but that’s only because I am speaking from experience. SLO has a special place in my heart for numerous reasons, many of which I explained above. Natural beauty, a sustainable and locally-focused food scene, happy people, great weather. Whether you’re just passing through or spending the weekend, you shouldn’t have a problem taking at least one of my recommendations. Go visit. Send me Sidecar’s brussels sprouts please.
I want to finish with a poem about our experience in SLO, written by my good friend Chris.
“The Spirit of SLO” by Chris Rini
Eyes to the skies
and three sheets to the wind,
we thirsted for the needles and pins—
those existential moments
We yearned to be those articulate academics—
them who had actual experiences to speak of.
all heels and flatfoots,
we began to dance,
misplaced motifs crammed together into
this new, unknown plot,
in someone else’s sky…
But the skewness brought with it
that made it feel almost like real-life
and for a long blink—
like the last one before you finally
doze off on the trainride home—
we were the embodiment of those words—
“Learn by Doing”
—words made alive in our floundering feet
and furiously industrious hands
that obscured our clunkily fluttering hearts.
So many new gleaming eyes
met our tentative gazes in all these new places.
The eyes are not
the windows to the soul.
They are a symptom.
It’s just a coincidence that you can see through them.
The eyes are the breeze
that comes about as a result
of the windows being thrown unshut.
They are just the part that everyone notices.
The words and experiences
are the windows—the doors.
And we went to class
and club meetings
and wild places—
hidden creeks and secret beaches,
we reached the crest of things:
The P, Bishop’s, Madonna,
And we let these words and experiences
bleed into us.
We drank them in,
and the things we did and felt in them,
flowing into us like liquid lifeblood,
all the sounds and visions
of this shining environment
filling us with new things,
invigorating our minds and bodies
in a bracing stream
that will forever flow within us.
Everybody has a happy-place,
and for many of Us,
it is somewhere in this city.
Those places that will forever be
inextricably tied in our minds
to those perfect moments;
not all of their whole storylines were perfect
but held in their frames from everyday life…
the never withering rose under the bell jar.
And when we’re there again we can get a glimpse
at feeling that again,
clutch again that feeling
that sparks the flames in our chests.
We lived those archetypal moments:
The SLO serene of sunrise on Bishop’s peak,
watching the long dawning of our real lives.
Running and dancing in the pouring parking lot rain,
swirling this roiling night
into the bloodstream of our memories.
Being the sage savages of youth,
in the fiery, swashbuckling night of Pirate’s Cove.
We pondered long at the top of the world,
the drive up filled with low talks backdropped on
the perfect song of the moment,
Perfumo Canyon meteor showers after midnight—
we were the stars hurling blazing
through the wild night.
When you’re on the swings at Avilla,
watching the sun march out of sight
around the curve of the world,
these places stay with you.
And though you’re not sitting on solid ground,
it’s the uncertain shakiness that makes it great—
in the learning and the doing we are transformed, catapulted
into the being that we so sought.
It is here
we developed our dreams and assembled our tools.
Here we’ve washed away
the parts of ourselves that weighed us down,
solidified the parts that make us strong,
gained new parts, enriching our lives.
These tools we use to assemble these dreams,
ever Learning by Doing,
this lifelong theme.
Ever learning that life is a gift—
a living art
Thank you Cal Poly.
you are forever in my heart.
We carry it with us, it helps make us whole,
We carry it with us,
The Spirit of SLO.