Home to Cal Poly and the magical roadside hotel that is The Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo (SLO) is the unofficial capital of the Central Coast. Its downtown area is filled with every kind of entertainment you could want, and it’s also located 10 miles from the ocean in one of the largest agricultural regions in the country - meaning its restaurants have access to local food that probably came from the farm or sea that day. In short, there’s no reason you should be eating anything but the best in SLO. Skip all the touristy downtown spots, sticky college bars, and kitschy chains with six other locations along the 101, and head to these places instead. Here is everywhere you need to be eating and drinking in San Luis Obispo.
From the outside, nothing about Ember seems particularly noteworthy. But don’t be fooled. Located on a sleepy street in Arroyo Grande, the suburban town next to Pismo Beach, this bright spot in a glorified stripmall is one of the most exciting places to eat on the Central Coast. Order the kale and sausage pizza, the avocado salad, and the ahi tuna crudo that will ruin all other crudos for you. Their cocktails are also all made with the same fresh ingredients as the food, and you’re going to be drinking a lot of them. Spending a night on Ember’s fantastic side patio is required SLO dining.
There’s a decent chance that Madonna Inn is the sole reason you’re even coming to SLO. But in case it’s not, know that spending an evening inside this iconic roadside hotel is a required human experience. If we could give you some guidance on how to spend a night here, it would be to skip the food entirely and go straight for their famous, all-pink Silver Bar (which has been pink since long before pink became a thing). From there, proceed to drink martinis, get involved in a tango competition with a retired art teacher named Ellen, and stumble back to your room wondering if you’ve slipped into another dimension or if your bed is actually a covered wagon.
Eating at Cass House feels like a vacation from your vacation. Located in the tiny beach community of Cayucos, this 1800s estate has been completely restored to include a bed and breakfast, a wedding venue, and a fantastic restaurant - The Grill. The almost-entirely-outdoor spot has an incredible beachside setting and a menu full of fresh vegetables and meats. If you’re looking for a big fancy vacation dinner or you’re celebrating a Cal Poly graduation, this is an excellent option.
SLO might be known for its wine and farm-fresh everything, but at its core, it’s a BBQ town. Santa Maria-style (tri-tip smoked in native Red Oak wood) is king around here, and when it comes to tracking down the best version, skip the hoards of brochure tourists and drunk college kids at Firestone Grill and head a few blocks down to Old San Luis BBQ instead. This locally-run spot has better tri-tip, better beer, a fraction of the crowds, and a relaxed space you actually want to hang out in.
SLO’s main strip, Higuera Street, is lined with every kind of restaurant. Unfortunately, most of them are pretty mediocre. Foremost Wine Co. is an exception. The big restaurant on the far south side of downtown has very good farm-to-table-ish food (get the scallop tiradito), a long wine list, and a rotating burrata selection you’ll come back for again before you leave town. They also have a daily Happy Hour from 5-6:30pm with tons of food and drink specials.
Chances are you came to San Luis Obispo to drink a lot of wine, but you’re also only 20 minutes from Pismo Beach. While you roam around the kitschy beach town working on your farmer’s tan, stop into Splash Cafe for the best bowl of clam chowder on the coast. This PCH institution is on every travelers’ brochure in the state, but don’t let that deter you. The chowder lives up to the hype - with fresh clams, a not-too-thick broth, and all the butter they could find in California. Get it in their housemade bread bowl.
Just north of Santa Maria, when things start to become cow farms and agriculture, the 101 passes through a tiny town called Nipomo. Aside from filling up your gas tank or re-upping on snacks at Vons, there doesn’t appear to be any reason to even stop here. But there is. About five minutes off the highway sits Jocko’s, a roadside steakhouse/diner/BBQ with history that dates back to the 1830s. All of the steaks are excellent here, but it’s their double cheeseburger that deserves your focus. Two giant patties topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and onion, this burger is as classic as road trip nourishment gets. Jocko’s is an absolute must-stop on your way to SLO.
One martini led to four martinis and before you knew it you were stumbling out of The Madonna Inn at 2:15am with a soy bean engineer’s number in your phone. Now it’s the morning after and you need a good cup of coffee and some bread. Scout Coffee is far and away our favorite coffee shop in San Luis Obispo. Every coffee bean is grown and roasted right in SLO and their house-made pastries are also tremendous (get the almond croissant).
Located in a residential neighborhood about a 10-minute walk from downtown, this historical market and deli has been in operation since 1927, and is where the entire town congregates every afternoon. Expect big, well-made sandwiches (The Dutch Punch and Cal Turkey with hot sauce are our favorites), a great front and side patio, and a well-stocked beer fridge to keep that day-drinking going strong.
With a student body population of over 21,000 at Cal Poly, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of places to drink in SLO. But that also means most bars are primarily filled with screaming 20-year-olds celebrating another successful weekend with a fake ID. So head to Sidecar instead. This low-key spot right off Higuera has our favorite cocktails in town, with a slightly older crowd that’s definitely down to get a little rowdy. The bar food menu here is solid too.
Located in a strip mall on the outskirts of Cal Poly’s campus, SloDoCo opened in 2010, and immediately became one of the most popular breakfast spots in town. The bright donut joint has a line out the door by 10am every day, full of people trying to get their hands on a maple bacon bar, rectangular-shaped “pillows”, or their famous tye-dyed marshmallow galaxy donuts. The space is also pretty big, with a relaxed coffee shop atmosphere and free wifi, and it’s open 24 hours if you’re in need of a late-night sugar binge.
Just 20 minutes up PCH from SLO is Morro Bay, a little beach town famous for a giant rock that juts out of the ocean. It’s also a great place to watch the sunset. And, while the town is lined with plenty of ocean-facing bars, our favorite is The Libertine Pub. The second location of the popular SLO brewery (which specializes in sours), Libertine Pub has a divey feel, a solid bar food menu if you get hungry, live music, and floor-to-ceiling windows facing the water. This is also an ideal pre-drinks spot before heading up to dinner at Cass House.