Located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this “happiest place in America” is an excellent stopping point for road-weary road-warriors driving the 656-mile Pacific Coast Highway. But don’t expect too much downtime in San Luis Obispo. After spending the morning at Hearst Castle (roughly 40 minutes north in San Simeon) or marveling at California’s rocky coast, you’ll still have plenty of daylight left to explore one of the state’s oldest communities.
Having worked up quite a hunger after Hearst we made our next stop a place renowned (they say “world famous” although that seems unlikely) for its barbeque tri-tip sandwiches. The line snaking out the door told us that The Firestone Grill was indeed popular with locals; or, at least on that particular Saturday, popular with Cal Polly students hungry for hangover food.
The long line moved rapidly and soon led us inside to a menu that contained more grill than barbeque. We nonetheless doubled down on the “world famous” tri-tips and took a number. We didn’t wait long. Our sandwiches were up before I could finish snapping a few photos and, well, we agree with the Cal Polly crowd. The tri-tips are the perfect remedy for a hangover or, in our case, an antidote to help fend one off later. The plates overflowed with crispy fries and the Texas toast with tender, smoky meat. A molassesy ‘Q sauce complemented everything beautifully.
Stuffed and happy we made our way down Higuera Street, past quaint shops and stately ficus trees, toward one of the city’s most unlikely attractions – Bubble Gum Alley. Allegedly begun as a college prank in the 1960s, this 70-foot-long alley is still adorned on both sides, and up to 15 feet in height, with thick layers of chewed bubble gum.
Alternating between brightly colored and moldering grey, the bubble gum blobs are a five-decade archaeology of second-hand food, which is – you might be surprised to learn – every bit as charming as it sounds. We toyed with the idea of traversing the passage but didn’t have the slightest idea what we’d find on the other side. Fearing Bubble Gum Alley would lead us to a Used Condom Courtyard, we decided not to risk it.
We set off instead for more hallowed ground and discovered Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa just a few blocks away. Founded in 1772, this was the fifth in a chain of California Spanish Missions established by Father Serra. Unlike the others, though, this building’s unusual combination of belfry and vestibule make it the only “L”-shaped mission anywhere in California.
But Father Serra and the Franciscan Friars brought more heavenly pursuits to the central coast than just religion. They also brought viniculture. In those early years the wine produced at Mission San Luis Obispo was among the most prized throughout “Altra California,” an area encompassing all of present-day California and stretching as far west as Colorado.
Over the succeeding centuries the area’s reputation diminished as wine making moved northward to Sonoma and its surrounds. In recent years, though, the quieter San Luis Obispo wine region experienced a resurgence producing award-winning Pinots and Chardonnays that excel in its cool climate close to the sea.
During our time here, we found none of the crowds and congestion that plague California’s more popular Napa Valley. We did, however, discover consistently excellent wines and also a huge variety of winery experiences.
From Tolosa’s posh private tasting room, where we sat in comfortable chairs overlooking rolling vineyards as we sampled a selection of wines specifically paired with locally handmade truffles (pinot noir with a dark chocolate lavender truffle is a special treat). . .
. . . to the more understated tasting room of artisanal wine creator Autry Cellars, where simply having an opportunity to taste the limited production wines is a treat in and of itself.
We also found something else in San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley wine region that is now nearly, if not completely, extinct in trendy Napa: reasonably priced tastings (typically between $5 and $10). And that is something to be happy about.